In a blockbuster trade -- at least from a name-value standpoint -- that has been circulating the rumor mill for a while now, the Washington Wizards sent John Wall and a protected future first-round pick to the Rockets in exchange for Russell Westbrook on Wednesday, as first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Again, it sounds like a big deal for the names involved. But this trade actually isn't about Westbrook or Wall, who are both on the downslope of their career and are remarkably similar, if not identical, players with roughly the exact same contracts. No, this trade is about Bradley Beal, who the Wizards are clearly hellbent on keeping and hopefully building around long term.
It's no secret Beal and Wall were ready to move on from each other. Given how badly the Wizards want to woo Beal, there is no way they didn't consult him on this deal. He chose Westbrook. So did the Wizards, who are looking at this deal from two points of view.
In the short term, they believe Westbrook is better than Wall at this stage, and thus gives them a better chance to jump back into the thick of what feels like a relatively open Eastern Conference race. In the long term, they believe this renewed viability will be the lure they need to convince Beal, a free agent in 2022, to stick around.
To the latter point, anyone who believes Russell Westbrook, at this stage of his career, is the type of player, or teammate, that is going to entice a second star in the prime of his career to remain with a given team is fooling themselves. That isn't to say Beal will have no interest in playing with Westbrook in 2022; it just means the Wizards will need a lot more on the table than that for a guy who is going to have virtually unlimited options.
The elephant in the room is whether the Wizards should've already traded Beal, or if they should still be looking to do so in the coming year. That would appear to be out the window now. Giving up a first-round pick, albeit a protected one, isn't something a team would do if it was planning on initiating a rebuild.
The Wizards clearly think Beal is worth building around, and they are foregoing his massive trade value to do so. That could very well be a mistake. But Washington is all-in now, at least for the next two seasons. If Beal walks on his own in 2022, the Wizards have at least put a lottery protection on their 2023 first-round pick, meaning if they stink in their first year without Beal they'll at least still keep their pick if it falls in the top 14.
But that's a small consolation for a team that could have a whole slew of first-round picks plus young players if it were willing to cash in Beal right now. Beal is not a No. 1 option on a championship team. You could submit he's not even a No. 2 unless it's an ensemble roster build more around depth than top-end talent.
Do the Wizards have other moves in their bag? With Westbrook, Beal and the recently signed Davis Bertans on board, would they consider packaging last year's lottery pick, Rui Hachimura, and this year's lottery pick, Deni Avdija, for a shot at a Big 3? My colleague Sam Quinn threw out Rudy Gobert. Interesting.
From a fit standpoint, Westbrook goes with Beal far better than he did with James Harden. He wants to be at the head of his own offense, and Beal is a natural partner as a traditional shooting guard and secondary playmaker, though it must be noted that in Wall's absence Beal has morphed into a far more self-creation player. Still, add Bertans, one of the best shooters in the world, to the Beal-Westbrook equation, and the spacing makes sense to maximize Westbrook's downhill creation.
To me, that's what this is about. Putting as good a team as possible around Beal. The Wizards don't want to take a step back. They want to keep Beal, and they believe, rightly so, that the only way to do that is to put a winning team on the floor. They've achieved that. Westbrook is far more trustworthy spearheading a wild-card team with a puncher's chance than he is trying to mold his stubborn game into an established team and system. That's why he never made sense in Houston.
In Washington, he makes a bit more sense, and the Wizards are now in position to be a stone-cold playoff team. Westbrook and Wall are similar players, but again, Beal clearly didn't want to play with Wall and there's also the uncertainty of what Wall will even look like coming off a ruptured Achilles. The guy hasn't played in an NBA game in almost two years. It's a safe bet that Westbrook is a better player than Wall is at this moment.
So the Wizards are moving all-in on the next two seasons, after which they could very well lose Beal for nothing. They have, in essence, decided that the only viable path to retaining Beal is to court losing him, because trading him does not appear to be an option. Westbrook's name is on the trade, but this is all about Beal. Is he worth this type of investment? We're about to find out.