Why John Wall and the Rockets want to part ways, and what comes next

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Coming off a year with the NBA’s worst record and a draft class featuring four first-round rookies, many wondered how five-time All-Star John Wall would fit with the suddenly rebuilding Houston Rockets.

It now appears that we have our answer. As first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by many reporters elsewhere, the Rockets and Wall have agreed to part ways while working on a future trade. As part of this plan, Wall will attend training camp with the Rockets when it begins in late September but isn’t expected to play in games.

“The Rockets explained that the team does not want to jeopardize Wall’s fitness, and the sides agreed on the route that won’t complicate his ability to continue playing at a high level,” Charania writes.

Per Mark Berman of Fox 26 Houston, the 31-year-old did not ask to be traded. “According to sources, the five-time All-Star simply isn’t part of the Rockets’ long-term plans,” Berman tweeted of Wall, who averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists with Houston last season.

With Wall not playing, the Rockets are likely to give more in-game minutes and touches to younger players who are seen as having more growth potential and being a better fit with the team’s rebuilding timeline.

Berman notes that the Rockets and Wall are “mutually working together” to find him a better fit, and the fact that Wall is willing to attend camp and help guide Houston’s youthful roster under these circumstances would seem to suggest that Wall is understanding of the decision.

From the perspective of Wall, now in his second decade in the NBA, the hope is that he eventually finds a suitor that allows him to contribute to a title push sooner than the current timeline in Houston. By the time that the Rockets are ready to contend again, it’s quite possible that Wall’s peak NBA years could be behind him, which made it an awkward fit.

According to Charania, there are no buyout plans on the two years and $91.7 million remaining on Wall’s contract with the Rockets — including a $47.4-million player option for the 2022-23 season. As a result, it appears that the formal parting of ways is likely to come via trade. There are several reasons that this path makes more sense.

While a buyout would immediately cut ties between Wall and the Rockets and make him immediately eligible to find a new team, it would still keep most of his lofty salary cap figure on Houston’s books, since he isn’t likely to receive nearly as much on a new contract. By contrast, should the Rockets trade Wall, the team acquiring him would take on the remainder of his current contract. A buyout would also take away any chance of a positive trade return for the Rockets down the line.

As a result, it appears that the Rockets are waiting for a better time to execute a trade, and they don’t want to take the risk of an injury derailing that. Wall missed most of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons due to a torn Achilles, and he did not play in 32 of Houston’s 72 games in 2020-21.

By waiting until closer to the 2021-22 trade deadline in February 2022, the Rockets will have paid off a sizable portion of Wall’s salary for the upcoming season, which could make it more palatable to any interested team. In effect, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta will pay Wall to not play, in hopes that the stall tactic could boost his future trade value.

Moreover, in addition to reducing the cash payments owed to Wall by the ownership of his new team, the delay could make any general manager acquiring Wall more willing to accept the risk factors. If a team traded for Wall prior to this season, the size of his contract and the two seasons left on it could make it difficult to re-route him at the trade deadline, should the experiment fail. Other general managers might also be reluctant to take the gamble on Wall staying healthy for a full regular season and playoff run, given his recent health issues.

On the other hand, if Wall is acquired during the season as part of a playoff push, the next time he would be eligible to be traded would be during the 2022 offseason — and at that time, he would be in the final year of his contract. Generally speaking, “expiring” players are much easier to move due to the lack of a long-term commitment. As for the upcoming 2021-22 season, Wall’s health concerns could be reduced if the acquiring team isn’t asking him to play a full season.

From Houston’s perspective, Wall was never viewed as a long-term fit. Essentially, the December 2020 trade that brought Wall to the Rockets in exchange for Russell Westbrook was executed because the players had nearly identical contracts, but the Wizards were willing to attach a first-round pick to Wall for a perceived upgrade. At that time, Houston general manager Rafael Stone knew that a rebuild was inevitable due to the trade demand by James Harden, so the fact that Westbrook appeared to be a better player was not weighted as heavily in the team’s thinking. Moreover, due to Westbrook’s contract also being viewed by NBA teams as an overpay, it wasn’t as if Stone had many alternative trade options.

In effect, Houston chose Wall’s contract over that of Westbrook because accepting Wall meant receiving an extra first-round draft pick. In July 2021, that draft pick from Washington became a key part of the trade that brought promising rookie center Alperen Sengun to the Rockets.

Going forward, parting ways with Wall allows promising third-year guard Kevin Porter Jr. to become the team’s full-time point guard, which he has made clear that he wants to be. With that configuration, Wall’s exit from the lineup clears the way for Houston to start Porter Jr. alongside prized rookie Jalen Green, who was recently drafted at No. 2 overall.

Ever since that July 2021 draft, Porter Jr. and Green have widely been viewed as Houston’s backcourt of the future. Thanks to Tuesday’s bombshell news, they’re suddenly the backcourt of the present, as well.

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Player salaries for the Houston Rockets in 2021-22, future seasons