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John Wall's absence only benefits the Houston Rockets' ability to lose games. Unless you consider being paid $44.3 million to not play at some cost to his own legacy a benefit for the 31-year-old five-time All-Star.
The Rockets and Wall met on Sunday to discuss his future, and they left with little more clarity beyond the veteran's desire to resume playing to his capability. Public discourse on the issue — largely framed as a refusal from Wall to accept less than a starting job — has provided Houston with another excuse against a fine for benching a healthy one-time All-NBA point guard. Nobody wants to pay a steeper price for tanking.
The two sides had previously agreed Wall would sit until Rockets general manager Rafael Stone could grant his trade request. Stone has predictably hit a roadblock in his attempts to move the $91 million Wall is owed through the end of next season, effectively turning Wall into another highly paid front-row spectator.
Wall wants back on the court, even posting #FreeMe to his Instagram feed, but Stone remains committed to the on-court development of his presumptive backcourt of the future, Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr.
We are left to wonder what role that leaves for Wall, who remains unclear on Houston's commitment to playing him real minutes, a source familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports. A role in the range of 25 minutes per game — akin to Derrick Rose's usage off the New York Knicks' bench — is more appealing than a token 15 nightly minutes for a team that is prioritizing development over winning, the source said.
Rockets coach Stephen Silas told reporters on Monday not to expect an update on Wall's status for two more weeks, as discussions about playing time continue and Wall ramps up to game-ready conditioning.
So, status quo for the Rockets, whose goal this season is to develop a young roster and add another high-end lottery pick to it, however you want to describe their execution. Stone said in March, "I don't think that we need to do like a wholesale tank strategy," but his approach since has communicated that very strategy, only in gentler terms: "This organization hasn’t been in a position to invest in the future like we are now."
Wall would help Houston win games. Stone knows this.
"I know how much he has left in the tank," the general manager said of the veteran point guard on media day, navigating questions about why the Rockets would bench their most established talent. "John Wall is a basketball player who would make every single team in the NBA better, and there's not a doubt in my mind about that, nor in other GM's. There's a whole lot of stuff that goes into constructing rosters and making everything work that has nothing to do with how good you are. No one questions how good John is."
It does not take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Stone knows full well Houston is worse without Wall.
Wall may not have played to the level we grew accustomed to prior to his Achilles injury almost three years ago, but he did average 20.6 points (albeit on 40/32/75 shooting splits), 6.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 32.2 minutes over 40 appearances before sitting out the final 12 games of last season. Houston finished 12-28 with Wall in the lineup and 5-27 without him — just bad enough to secure the league's worst record.
The Rockets started 1-16 this season — on pace for the worst record in NBA history — before their current three-game win streak pushed them a game behind the Orlando Magic in the chase for top lottery odds. Wall's best shot at getting his starting job back might be the troops rallying against the tank in his absence.
The pluses of playing Wall go beyond his production. Silas has lauded Wall's positive impact both on the bench and in the film room, so it stands to reason Wall's contributions as an extension of the coaching staff can also help the Rockets in games. When healthy, he has been among the league's best at creating open looks for his teammates, a lesson that can benefit Houston's young guards as creators and off-ball scorers.
"It's good to have a big brother like that who's been in the league for so long and just has a lot of knowledge on the court and off the court," Green said of Wall early in the season, "so it helps out a lot."
Likewise, the best way to improve Wall's trade value is to convince potential suitors, by the trade deadline or in the offseason, that he can reliably contribute as a positive force, either as a starter or a reserve. If any team in the playoff hunt struggling to generate shot creation from its backcourt — a list that includes the Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, L.A. Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers — were ever to take a flier on Wall, they would need more evidence to outweigh the risk of shedding enough salary to get him.
Pressure was mounting for Houston to provide clarity on Wall's status prior to Sunday's meeting. After Wall's agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, told The Athletic's Shams Charania, "John is able to play, but Houston is OK using the [Collective Bargaining Agreement] to pay him not to play," prominent NBA writers Marc Stein and Chris Mannix respectively wondered aloud last week "why league officials haven't intervened this season to compel the Rockets to play Wall," "effectively rubber-stamping" their tanking.
Both Stein and Mannix cited the Oklahoma City Thunder's benching of a healthy Al Horford 44 games into last season (a mutual agreement) as precedent for Wall's absence in Houston. The NBA did not intervene.
The New Orleans Pelicans sat Anthony Davis for nine games following his January 2019 trade request. When the February 2019 trade deadline passed without a deal, the NBA denied a report that it threatened a $100,000 fine for each additional game Davis sat. Instead, league spokesman Mike Bass clarified to Stein, "The Pelicans were advised that the team had not identified a proper basis for making that determination at this time and league rules governing competitive integrity therefore require that he be permitted to play,"
Davis played sparingly in 15 of the Pelicans' 26 post-deadline games, averaging 22 minutes and none in fourth quarters, before they ruled him out with "lower back spasms" for the final seven games of the 2018-19 season. That was enough to satisfy the league. The question now is whether a similar role would satisfy Wall, because the NBA will have a hard time dictating the minutes he should play beyond the base level.
Unless the Rockets relent in the coming weeks and play Wall — once on a Hall of Fame trajectory — the minutes he has once again asked to earn, the real winner over the weekend was Houston's loss column.
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