Last September, Houston Rockets fans released a deep sigh of relief. Per The Athletic, the Rockets and veteran guard John Wall had agreed that the franchise would work to move him in a trade while also not playing him. For the Rockets, the move prioritized the development of their young roster. Houston has one of the youngest rosters in the history of the NBA. They had four 19-year-old kids on the team on opening day, and another three guys also under 21-years-old. Four more rostered Rockets had played less than three full seasons in the NBA. Wall, who suffered a number of lower-body injuries since 2017, gets to rest his body and, hopefully, head to a contender where he can contribute.
Then, over last weekend, John Wall published a “#FreeWall” post on Instagram and has requested to play. After sitting for a fourth of the season, and watching Houston win in Chicago after losing 15 in a row, Wall was ready to get back in the roster. A number of NBA players flooded the comments, including former Rockets PJ Tucker and Boogie Cousins, in support of Wall. Clearly, former players want him to play… even if the Rockets do not.
Houston is in a predicament that makes them the most cared about 5-16 team in the history of the NBA. In the past, the NBA has punished New Orleans for not playing Anthony Davis and publicly sought options to prevent tanking. Houston’s situation is a little different; the Houston Rockets announced before the season, and thus before a lot of tickets were sold, that John Wall would not be playing. The Rockets aren’t necessarily trying to lose, either. They want to play and develop their young talent and if that’s what happens it appears the franchise is ok with it.
But Houston is spending a roster spot and a $44 Million max contract for a mentor and assistant coach. That’s abnormal… but the Rockets are sticking to their metaphorical guns. This is the plan, both sides agreed to it, and there hasn’t been a mutually beneficial trade offered yet.
If He Plays, He Plays
The issue with playing John Wall is it will become very apparent very quickly that he can’t just play the 12 minutes per-game veteran backup guard DJ Augustin is playing. If John Wall comes in as a backup to Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green, and thus plays second units, he will undoubtedly punish defenses in a way that makes it statistically nonsensical to sit him. Wall averaged 20 and 7 in 32 minutes against starters last season; thinking he wouldn’t dominate a second unit is selling him well short.
Further, if winning games is tied to Stephen Silas’s job, he will be forced to play Wall more than those 12 minutes. And if it’s not impactful to Silas’s job, it will be painfully obvious. Neither of those options is a good one.
Just playing Wall a few minutes a night isn’t a realistic option. As painful as it is for a Houston Rockets fan to hear, that’s more detrimental. The backlash would be akin to the Rockets throwing games, and that heavy press storm wouldn’t be good for the young generation of Rockets. The messaging would be “we’re losing because we’re playing you.”
But playing him for his 32 minutes a night also isn’t a real option. The Rockets have invested their entire rebuild in number two overall pick Jalen Green. He needs to get on the floor for all the minutes he can, and needs to play a number of roles in as many game situations as possible to have a chance to grow into the superstar he can be.
In the other guard spot, Houston has to play Kevin Porter Jr. to see if he can grow into a point guard of the future. While KPJ is switching positions, he is also up for a contract extension this summer. His rookie deal expires in the 2023 off-season, and Houston needs to see him grow and develop much like Green to see if he’s worth investing more in or not. The Rockets can’t figure that out without giving “Scoot” Porter Jr. a chance, and that chance hinges on playing a lot of minutes… much like Green. KPJ has shown splashes; he had his first triple-double this week, he’s averaging 13 points and 6 assists per game thus far, and exploded for a 50-point 10-assist night last year against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. His future ceiling is unknown, but Houston has to play him to get some idea.
Wall’s play would necessitate and demand more minutes than Houston can realistically allocate, and thus it further damages the future of the Rockets. Yes, Wall was brought in to co-star with Christian Wood and James Harden in an extension of the old ‘Kets. And yes, there is an alternate universe where that works. He could have been a great “yin” to Harden’s “yang.” But that’s no longer what the Rockets are.
All of that said, the frustration on both sides of the equation are completely understandable. On the side of the franchise, the Houston Rockets are paying $91 Million dollars over the next 18 months to a guy that doesn’t play. Houston has a ton of Rookie Contracts on the books, but even if they can afford it that doesn’t mean they want to. Houston is building to have a contender in the near future and they severely lack shooting. Eric Gordon is a reputation shooter, but can be inconsistent game to game. Garrison Matthews is emerging, but the sample size is so small it’s hard to know how reliable he’ll be. Armoni Brooks is a lethal pro shooter, but can he grow into a professional defender? The only other shooters over 30-percent from three on more than 3 attempts per game? Christian Wood. That’s the list.
Being able to use Wall’s contract to find some younger shooters, and provide options and competition, would be valuable in the development of the Rockets backcourt. It would open up the lanes in the five-out Silas offense and thus give Porter Jr. and Green room to operate. It would keep helpside defenders occupied and allow for Christian Wood to take other bigs off of the dribble. Instead? Houston is paying a mentor assistant coach.
But Houston’s affliction is by their own choice. John Wall? While he was clearly in agreement with management, how much say he had is worth questioning. What would the Houston Rockets have done if John Wall had said “no” when they asked if he was ok with not playing? Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Wall obviously smiled and said he’d help mentor the youth. He’s a great mentor for Porter Jr. and Green, but he also has more playing left to do.
We don’t know what the agreements were behind closed doors, nor do we really know how much the two sides fought over it. Anyone paying attention could have guessed that Wall would not be traded before December 15th, and it realistically could have taken until the February 10th trade deadline. Unless Ben Simmons or Kyrie Irving were really viable targets Stone wanted, as they’re also All-Star caliber players currently healthy and not playing, Wall was going to be sitting until Christmas before playing. And now, after publicly agreeing to not play, Wall feels like he’s waiting too long.
We have no indication in the 12 calendar months of Rafael Stone being in charge if he will be strong in the face of scrutiny or not… but the outside of Houston public appears to side with Wall. And to their credit, Wall is a lovable guy. He’s played hard, been great in locker rooms, revitalized Washington, and has battled back from some of the worst injury luck imaginable. Public scrutiny, the longer this lasts, will come.
New Orleans was scolded and punished for not playing Anthony Davis after his desire to leave was leaked. Philadelphia is getting the same for the Ben Simmons situation currently and was ridiculed for losing intentionally in the mid-2010s. The league has publicly denounced teams like San Antonio for resting healthy players. The rumbles of that began for Houston before Wall’s Instagram post, and they’re turning into roars as players on other teams are advocating to #FreeWall.
Stone should stick to his guns if for nothing else than to prove that, as a leader of the organization early in his tenure, he will. When Houston made the decision to go towards development, as opposed to fighting to be a middling team in the present tense, that became the plan. Houston has begun down that path and while there are times to make adjustments, turning around only looks indecisive.
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