Are there a number of teams around the NBA who would love to have five-time All-Star and current Houston Rockets point guard John Wall? Certainly. Are the Clippers one of those teams? You bet they are. But the biggest question is: Should they do what it’ll take to get him?
On Tuesday, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Wall and the Rockets have agreed to keep him off the floor indefinitely as they work out a trade for the 11-year veteran.
The justifications for such an agreement are valid: The Rockets had the worst record in the league in 2020-21 (17-55) but are suddenly frothing with young talent following a first-round draft-night bonanza, nabbing guard Jalen Green at No. 2 overall, along with diamonds in the rough Alperen Şengün, Josh Christopher and Usman Garuba. Add those guys to a roster already sporting Kevin Porter Jr., Christian Wood and KJ Martin, and it’s not hard to see why the 31-year-old Wall has suddenly become expendable. Wall, for his part, wants a ring soon and he surely understands that the Rockets, given their incredible youth, are still probably a few years from making a legitimate run and would rather put their efforts into giving the young guys valuable experience.
The Clippers, meanwhile, despite facing the prospect of a season without Kawhi Leonard, continue to harbor championship aspirations, and numerous sources have mentioned L.A. as a possible landing spot for Wall.
Shortly after Charania’s report, longtime NBA columnist Mitch Lawrence confirmed that the Clippers, Heat and Pistons were indeed discussing trades for Wall with the Rockets. Lawrence quoted an unnamed Houston executive as saying that, in the wake of the PR debacle surrounding last season’s James Harden trade to Brooklyn, the Rockets “have to win” a Wall trade.
But a deal, let alone a win, could be tough to come by given one crucial factor: Wall is owed a ton of moolah this season and next. That means that the Clippers would need to part with several players just to match Wall’s salary — $44.3 million this season (tied with Harden for second-most in the league) — and will need to do so knowing that he gets a $3 million raise next season (player option) and is far from a sure bet to remain healthy, something he hasn’t done for a full season since 2016-17.
Slip and Fall Leads to a ‘Steep Decline’
It’s no mystery why L.A. or any team might have eyes for Wall, as he was among the league’s best players in nine seasons with Washington. He finished fourth or better in total assists five straight seasons (2013-2017) and, in 2017, averaged 27.2 points and 10.3 assists in 13 playoff games while leading the chronically mediocre and undermanned Wizards to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. An elite finisher with both hands and arguably the fastest man in the league with the ball upon his arrival as the No. 1 pick out of Kentucky in 2010, Wall was nearly unstoppable in the open court for Washington.
However, his playing days in the Nation’s Capital ended unceremoniously after just 32 games of the 2018-19 season, when Wall underwent a procedure to remove bone spurs in his heel and then subsequently suffered an Achilles rupture during a slip and fall inside his Washington home. The timing of the fall was particularly bad given that Wall’s 4-year, $171 million max extension, which he signed back in July of 2017, was set to kick in for the 2019-20 season — a season he missed in full while rehabbing.
Hamstrung by Wall’s contract and his uncertain return, and desperate to keep impending free agent Bradley Beal happy, the Wizards orchestrated a trade before last season that sent Wall and a first-rounder to Houston for another of the league’s highest-paid players, Russell Westbrook. But that was a unique situation between two point guards making more or less the same amount and with two teams whose motivations were different but aligned.
According to The Athletic’s David Aldridge, who this week discussed the Wall situation with colleague Sam Amick, there is no such path available to Wall this time around, nor is there necessarily the demand:
Look, no one’s touching Wall with $91 million combined left on his deal this coming season and next. If he were elite, pre-injury Wall, sure, but if that were the case, he’d still be in Washington. It hurts Wall that he’s in the golden age of NBA point guards; the way the game has evolved, everyone has put significant resources, through either the draft, trades or free agency, into acquiring elite ballhandlers. And Wall is no longer the absolute fastest guy with the ball in the game. He’s still up there, but it’s not a given anymore. Who doesn’t have a lead guard going into next season?
Some might say the Clippers haven’t had a lead guard since Chris Paul left in 2017, but they did acquire Eric Bledsoe this summer, and though he might not even start to begin the season, Wall’s former teammate at Kentucky will no doubt play a big role this season.
Sure, Bledsoe struggled in his only season with New Orleans last year — scoring just 12.2 points on 42.1% from the field and posting his lowest assist average (3.8) since he was last with the Clippers in 2012-13 — but he was in a new system and asked to play a new position (shooting guard) on a team that is still trying to figure out how best to surround Zion Williamson. And even in a down year, Bledsoe’s shooting percentages from the floor and three were better than Wall’s, who, despite averaging 20.6 points and 6.9 assists, shot a career-low 40.6% overall and 31.7% from three. (Bledsoe shot 34.1% from behind the arc.)
Perhaps most crucially, Bledsoe, at 31, has proven highly durable over the last four years, averaging 71 games a season. By contrast, even setting aside the year he spent rehabbing, Wall has not played more than 41 games in a season in that same time frame. Not a great sign for a player north of 30 who is most effective when he’s going hard to the basket and drawing contact. Aldridge categorized Wall’s 40-game season last year with the Rockets as “a steep decline for a player who was getting MVP consideration just a few years ago.”
A Big Gamble No Matter How You Slice It
As it stands now, for the Clippers to match Wall’s salary this season, they could offer something like Bledsoe, Marcus Morris and Luke Kennard, but it’s unlikely the Rockets, in their current situation, would see this trade as a win. Bledsoe would be in more or less the same situation as Wall is now (relegated behind the younger players) and Houston would be on the hook through 2023-24 for Kennard’s annual average salary of $13.7 million, which is already viewed as overpriced and for too long.
Alternatively, the Clippers could mix in some of their younger, more promising players, like Terance Mann, Ivica Zubac and first-round pick Keon Johnson to make a deal more appealing to Houston. But doing so, like every other scenario, would be a sizable gamble given Wall’s injury history. Not to mention, it would mean that next season the Clippers would have three guys — Leonard, Paul George and Wall — eating up around $131 million in salary (which would be the case following any trade not directly involving George or Leonard).
The fact is, no trade for Wall seems like a good idea for the Clippers (or any other team) unless, as Aldridge suggests, Wall was willing to forego many millions of dollars next season.
The only way I see Houston conceivably finding a trade partner for Wall this season is if he were to commit verbally to decline his player option for 2022-23 and become an unrestricted free agent. But why on earth would he walk away from $47 million guaranteed? The answer, of course, is that he wouldn’t. So, he’s stuck. Under current circumstances, he’s going to have to take a buyout on some of that remaining $91 million and prove himself or find a team like the Clippers and a teammate like Paul George that believes in him, the way Reggie Jackson did. Chances are much higher that a GM could sell an owner on Wall on a post-buyout, midlevel exception deal going into 2022-23.
A buyout signing would be one way the Clippers could get Wall without sacrificing a bunch of other guys, but that looks to be off the table at this point, according to Charania’s sources. Of course, that could change as time goes on.
The bottom line is this: Wall is too overpriced and too much of an injury question mark for the Clippers to roll the dice with now, especially given the high likelihood that they won’t contend for a title this season. The wiser move, it would seem, is to stand pat now and see if the Rockets and Wall have changed their minds on a buyout come the new year.