Fans of the Houston Rockets went into the weekend jubilant. After a successful draft night, Houston has begun the countdown to the Las Vegas Summer League next month. While the roster is still to be determined it will presumably feature all three rookies from the draft as well as a handful of second-year players who spent time on the Rockets and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The hope is that the energy of the young Rockets will start in July and carry through the end of next April (and perhaps beyond). But, as a pessimist will quickly remind you, there are a few not-so-young Houston Rockets on the roster taking up spots and development time.
Sunday, Marc Stein’s substack outlined several interesting nuggets of free agency news. But for the Houston Rockets? The biggest piece of news for Houston, as well as any other franchise in need of a veteran scoring point guard. A John Wall buyout feel imminent, and Stein confirmed it was the first week “in some time” he heard of the sides together and talking.
Why a Buy Out?
John Wall opted into the final year of his max-contract extension, originally signed with the Washington Wizards. Thus, the Houston Rockets owe John Wall $47.4 Million… making him nearly untradeable. Only NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry is slotted to make more than Wall next season. Only that pair, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will make more than $42 Million next season. Unlike the other players in his company, John Wall was both healthy enough to play last season and he played in zero games.
The Houston Rockets and John Wall agreed in September of 2021 that he would not play for the Rockets in an effort to give more minutes to the young rookies. While the year had moments of turbulence, Wall took the year off. Wall is, in essence, not a Houston Rocket but unable to get onto another roster because he is a Houston Rocket.
The John Wall contract is so big it’s virtually untradeable. But the Houston Rockets are paying $47.4 Million to a player that won’t play for them… so they need to do something.
There is no “standard” contract buyout. What the player is willing to forgo, if anything, is entirely up to them. Wall could adamantly demand that the Houston Rockets pay him his $47.4 Million before releasing him. They knew when they traded for him that this year was going to be slotted as such. Houston could hold firm and argue they paid him $44.3 Million for the 2021-22 season, in which he played no games, and that that ought to be enough.
Truthfully, Houston can play as much hardball as they want. Because of how many young players they have on the roster Houston isn’t into the Luxury Tax, and thus they can play out the year without any of the money they owe Wall. However, if they wanted to sign a player, or take on excess salary (presumably with a draft asset attached) between now and the trade deadline, they will wish they hadn’t paid Wall all of that money.
Houston would likely pull the “well then we just will keep on keepin’ on” card in that case. As an asset, if the Rockets pay Wall the whole paycheck they might as well hold onto him for trade bait or in a disaster scenario.
It’s in Wall’s best interest, then, to take some sort of a pay cut in the buy out. If he drops his price down to some combination of money and whatever Mid-Level Exception (MLE) he presumably signs for elsewhere. Hard to imagine he gives Houston much more of a discount than the MLE, but he could pair whatever Houston pays him and said MLE to make up most of his money this year.
That said, The Athletic’s Kelly Iko hinted at draft night trade suggestions that went south because all parties assume Wall will be bought out. And it looks like it could come as early as June 30th.
Can Wall Still Play?
In John Wall’s last season, he appeared in 40 contests for the Rockets and averaged over 32 minutes a night. He tallied 20.6 points, 6.9 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game before ending the season with a hamstring injury. In hindsight, that hamstring tightness may have been the beginning of the Rockets’ tank.
Wall was not the 2010-2018 version of himself in Houston, but he was clearly the best Rocket on the floor whenever he was out there. John Wall suffered a left heel injury, an infection from that surgery, and then hurt his Achilles tendon in his home while recovering. Wall missed more than half of the 2018-19 season and all of the 2019-20 season.
If you’re keeping up with the math, John Wall has played just 40 games since the start of the 2019 calendar year. But all indications are he is healthy as he reasonably could be. To his credit, had we never seen the 2011-2018 Wall, the 2021 version wouldn’t have been so bad. Comparison is the thief of joy, even if it’s inevitable. John Wall may be far from the $47 Million player that he projected to be when he signed his contract, but he is very clearly at least a rotational player, if not a starter, on a high-end NBA roster. Wall is still crafty, and 60% of his speed is still faster than many NBA players.
Wall developed into a much stronger player in his upper body in his time off. John Wall used to have a “double burst” that was as comparable to Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. That is to say Wall used to burst bye a defender and immediately burst a second time up. Post-injury Wall still has the first burst, and he now is able to use his shoulders to separate the ball in his opposite hand from a help-side defender, absorb contact, and kiss the ball off the glass. It’s not as efficient or exciting as younger Wall was… but it’s certainly enough to start on a competitive team.
In Houston, Wall was still looking for his lift on his jumper. He shot over six three per game, but only made 31-percent of them. That’s a far cry from his 37-percent on four attempts in 2017-18, and below league average for a guard. Theoretically, a team seeking to sign him would hope he improved in his time away from the NBA.
One thing that Wall has maintained is his vision. Wall sees creases that are too small for other guards to see. He can see passes to back-cutters before the defense realizes they’re there. Wall will be able to orchestrate an offense, and he was able to muster more than six assists with one of the worst shooting rosters in the NBA.
Stein’s reporting indicates that Miami and the LA Clippers both have an interest in Wall. The fit with each makes sense: a scoring point guard that can offer optionality in an offense flush with wing scoring. As I wrote in March of 2021, the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George duo would be much stronger with a point guard who can score consistently.
Further, after a similar season off, Al Horford returned and was an immediate impact player for the Boston Celtics en route to an NBA Finals birth. Horford didn’t miss time hurt, but is much older than Wall. Much like Wall in Houston, Horford was benched in Oklahoma City to develop younger players. Much like Wall hopes, Hordford arrived fresh and able to make meaningful contributions to a contender.
Let the countdown begin! Wall could be on the move before the weekend, and it feels certain he’s on a new roster by the end of the upcoming holiday.
Rockets fans should thank Wall for his efforts in Houston, but this is the best result for all parties involved. Houston gets to continue to develop their youth, a move they wouldn’t have known they’d need to do when trading for Wall in November of 2020. Wall gets to push and finish his career with the franchise of his choosing, hopefully making meaningful contributions towards a title.