Russell Westbrook and John Wall are changing jerseys and moving addresses but instead of it being a blockbuster deal in a league that never sleeps, it’s indicative of a standing neither no longer possesses.
It’s not quite a crossroads or a fall from grace, but the NBA moves fast and franchises have to move faster.
The writing was on the wall for Wall when it looked like destiny was in the hands of Bradley Beal and he’d have to be more Michelle than Beyonce, so to Houston he goes. His injuries and questionable public decision-making made him easier to move. Even if it didn’t mean he was some villain in need of flogging, it was another signal his time was over from a place that didn’t get to see his true potential and probably never would.
For Westbrook, the fall could be more dramatic because, seemingly, we’ve seen him max out, and the back nine for players with his profile are never pretty. At least in Oklahoma City, where he won an MVP and put up historic numbers, he was the king of the castle.
Now, he’s a superstar nomad, a journeyman who’ll suit up for his third team in as many seasons, none of which had realistic championship aspirations with him as a headliner.
When trades like this happen, the stars tend to be looked at from a glossy lens rather than the sober one, the highlights and raw numbers instead of the fine print.
At their best, both could be game-changers, whirling dervishes and dynamic playmakers who seemed to buck the trend. Instead, they now seem caught against the tide and by time.
Maybe Westbrook in an open-floor setup with Beal and Davis Bertans on the wings clears up the lane for him to use his remaining gifts, but will it translate into anything substantial?
Lest we not forget, Westbrook caught the deadly coronavirus and didn’t look much like his old self in the Orlando bubble, and for all we know about a vaccine being on the way, the long-term side effects are yet to be fully fleshed out.
Reuniting with Scott Brooks pairs him with the coach who allowed him to blossom in Oklahoma City but for him to be his best self, Westbrook needs to play a more mature game that isn’t based so much on flash but on control.
In Houston, he played on James Harden’s team. Of course, matters were pillowed by their friendship but it’s clear Westbrook feels he thrives best where he’s driving and dictating the culture.
It could very well be optimal for him, but what about the Wizards, where the franchise is built around Beal?
Beal has the sweat equity there, albeit for a franchise known more for its inability to walk and chew gum at the same time than championship contention. But he’s the guy, and will Westbrook feel like it’s his team because he’s the more accomplished player, the one who gave Brooks his greatest success as a coach?
Learning that playing with Harden is no picnic was the most predictable thing of all, but the only positive that can come is Westbrook has now felt what so many of his former teammates experienced — it ain’t so fun when the other rabbit got the gun.
The fact both were traded for each other signified they could only be traded for each other. The flares were sent out weeks ago, when the idea was floated to the public, perhaps to feel out other suitors.
And even amid a pandemic, so many franchises are feeling the pressure to win now yet didn’t look to either point guard as a possible solution. The Milwaukee Bucks are desperate to hold onto Giannis Antetokounmpo, but didn’t seem interested in the All-Star guards. The Los Angeles Clippers need a point guard, a galvanizing leader in the worst way to pull their wayward-feeling roster together and said “no thanks” to both.
Of course, Wall being owed $131 million over the next three seasons and Westbrook being owed $132 million has a huge say in it. But in a league that prioritizes stars and stars at that position — along with being community-minded citizens who have more civic work under their belts than most — there was no market.
Teams usually take the talent and worry about the fit later, hence Westbrook being moved to Houston from Oklahoma City in the first place. It was out of desperation to trade Chris Paul since his pairing with Harden reached the expiration date.
Seventeen months later, whether Westbrook was desperate to flee Houston or the Rockets had to start deconstructing this roster somewhere, such is life.
Try as Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard did — and boy, was it valiant — nobody bought his statement that Wall didn’t ask for a trade and that things soured between the parties. But in what feels like the biggest indictment to both, they weren’t traded as a solution to the teams they’re traveling to, but only as arranging the deck chairs for franchises in need of something different.
If Wall can look like the player he did before these last two injury-riddled campaigns, good for him. If Westbrook can stave off what feels like an Iverson-like decline on the way, even better.
But the teams that matter aren’t the least bit concerned by this move, as it seems unlikely to affect the big picture when the 72-game ambitious sprint is over and we head to the postseason.
The good news is both care deeply about their names, their games and surrounding communities, and the public hit should be a motivating factor.
The bad news is both care about being in charge, a huge factor in their departures, but both are going to places where they won’t be in charge.
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