Wall excelled at channeling slights — like a USA Basketball snub — and maintaining a firm belief in his own abilities regardless of the circumstances. He was fast, stubborn and straight-talking, more relatable than the typical superstar. He played on some terrible teams early in his career, never got enough help, battled through injuries and kept chugging along until Washington was a perennial playoff team throughout his mid-20s. Although he only made one all-NBA team, Wall qualified as a franchise player: His skills and personality defined the Wizards for years.
But as soon as Wall tore his Achilles’ tendon two years ago, it was clear that it would be a career-altering injury. He was headed for an arduous rehabilitation, and the Wizards, including Beal, would need to move forward without him. It can take years to become a franchise player and a split-second to lose that label, and that’s exactly what happened to Wall. The Achilles’ wasn’t his first lower-body injury, and his game was predicated entirely upon his speed and agility. He would be losing two years of his prime, and his contract would be inhibiting the Wizards from building around Beal.
Simply put, the injury was an untenable situation. As Beal emerged as a franchise player himself, the Wizards’ dependence on Wall decreased and their need for players to complement Beal increased. Asking Beal to remain patient for Wall’s return was a tough sell for both parties, not to mention a fan base watching its team tread water. Beal, as Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard has recently pointed out, deserved to feel like the Wizards were now his team. Meanwhile, Wall, like any top-flight athlete, would want to pick up where he left off before the injury.
That natural tension was unavoidable, and trying to work it out on the court wasn’t in anyone’s best interests. Sheppard did the right thing when he refused to deny that Wall’s name had recently been in trade rumors. Wall can’t really be blamed for floating his desire to leave the Wizards in response. That created a messy standoff of denials from Sheppard and “no comments” from Wall, but there was real value in the slivers of transparency from both sides.
Washington’s top priority had become appeasing Beal, who can become a free agent in 2022, and building a winner around him. Wall’s priority was regaining what he had lost. Getting those cards on the table helped all parties realize there was no way to turn back the clock and magically fix the underlying fissures.
Sheppard reached the correct conclusion. If a sensible trade involving Wall emerged, pulling the trigger would be in the best interests of both Beal and the Wizards. “Sensible” was a low bar in this situation. Given Wall’s three-year, $130 million contract and his extensive injury history, virtually any trade that didn’t require taking on additional long-term salary or parting with significant draft assets would qualify as sensible. Such a deal came to be Wednesday with the Rockets.
To be clear, Westbrook brings his own baggage and his own massive contract to Washington. At 32, he’s not nearly the same player he was when he was named MVP in 2017. He’s a liability on defense, a poor outside shooter, and a point guard whose high-octane style often strays into recklessness. In the past few playoffs, Westbrook has struggled with turnovers and been unable to beat opponents who dare him to shoot.
Perhaps the biggest risk is Westbrook’s impact on his teammates. He was unable to sustain long-term star partnerships with Paul George and James Harden, and his ball-dominant style often comes at the expense of his supporting cast. Sheppard has accumulated some young talent in the past two drafts, and players like Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija will find themselves as spectators at the Russell Westbrook Show at times.
Still, Westbrook poses less injury risk than Wall, he’s a more productive overall player and he should benefit from a move to the weaker Eastern Conference. He’s earned six straight all-star selections and he’s a good bet to add a seventh this season. While there will surely be times that observers plead for Westbrook to do less so that Beal can do more, together they should be able to lift Washington back into the playoffs after a two-year drought.
Whether Beal and Westbrook hit it off remains to be seen, but trying to forge a new partnership is a better idea than chasing an old one that was lost for good.