(Editor’s note: We are continuing our individual reviews of all players from the Houston Rockets who finished the 2021-22 season with the team. To access other reviews as part of this ongoing series, click here.)
Rockets Player: John Wall, 6-foot-4 guard, 31 years old
2020-21 statistics: 20.6 points (40.4% FG, 31.7% on 3-pointers), 6.9 assists, 3.2 rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game
Professional Experience: 11 NBA seasons
Contract Status: Under contract for 2022-23 at $47.4 million; free agent in 2023 offseason
Wall’s latest statistics are from the 2020-21 season, since he did not play at all in 2021-22 due to a mutual agreement between the player and club. Given Houston’s rebuilding state and a clear emphasis on developing young prospects, the Rockets chose to give Kevin Porter Jr. the starting role at point guard. Wall was offered a backup role, but the five-time All-Star was reportedly uninterested in such an arrangement.
The Rockets and Wall tried to work together on a trade, but given the size of his bloated contract and with two seasons still left at that time, nothing got to the finish line. Perhaps that changes in the 2022 offseason, now that Wall has become an expiring salary. If it does not, a contract buyout appears likely. Neither the team nor player was interested in buyout talks in 2021-22, but the financial figures will become much more manageable now that Wall’s contract only has one season left on it.
The Rockets acquired Wall in December 2020, which was when James Harden was still there and Houston had yet to make its rebuild pivot.
Highlights (from 2020-21)
After missing nearly two full years due to various foot ailments, including a torn Achilles, Wall returned to the court with the Rockets in 2020-21 and showed he had largely recaptured the lightning-quick burst that helped make him a five-time All-Star in previous seasons.
His court vision and passing abilities remain elite, and Wall was also well regarded in Houston for his leadership qualities around a young team. In 2021-22, even though he did not play, Wall made an effort to be around the team at many practices and on the bench at games while attempting to guide and mentor young players like Porter and Jalen Green.
Defensively, Wall’s unique combination of athleticism, length, and instincts makes him one of the NBA’s better defenders among point guards, and a surprisingly strong shot-blocker for his position.
Though Wall will be 32 years old next season, it’s worth noting that he has played in only 40 NBA games combined over the calendar years of 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. As a result, he has less “tread on the tires” than many players of that age and could be a candidate to age gracefully.
We’re going to focus solely on trade possibilities, because there are no indications that Wall or the rebuilding Rockets are interested in revisiting their positions from this past season on playing in Houston.
As far as trades, one complicating factor is Houston’s apparent priority on salary cap room in the 2023 offseason. Based on that flexibility, the Rockets would likely prefer a buyout to taking back undesirable salaries that extend beyond 2022-23 and would potentially eat into that room.
Another tricky aspect is the calendar, since Wall is said to desire a trade by the June 2023 draft. If one does not occur, he reportedly wants to pivot to buyout negotiations. This makes perfect sense, because by waiting until free agency or later, potential suitors for Wall (Clippers, Heat?) might sign or trade for an alternative and lose their interest.
Ultimately, there are a lot of dominoes that all need to line up perfectly, and the Rockets and Wall were already unsuccessful in finding a trade after attempting throughout the 2021 offseason and up until the 2021-22 trade deadline in February. So, why would this time be different?
There are no guarantees, but here are some plausible theories:
Less money owed. Given Wall’s extensive injury history, taking on his enormous contract for two seasons would be risky. Perhaps more teams will be willing to accept that risk once the downside scenario is mitigated by having an exit route after the first season.
Rockets relent on their asking price. Houston reportedly wanted a future first-round draft asset from the Lakers to swap Wall for an ill-fitting Russell Westbrook (who would then be bought out by the Rockets), but Los Angeles didn’t bite. For the Rockets, there wasn’t much in the way of true deadline pressure, since Houston knew it could revisit talks during the 2022 offseason and potentially have more suitors due to Wall being owed less money. This time, if the Rockets are days away from potentially buying out Wall and letting him walk for no compensation, perhaps that makes Houston more amenable to trading Wall for, say, two second-round picks.
Matching salary. It’s unlikely, given the current rebuilding state… but what if a high-salaried star player was able to force a trade this offseason and wanted to come to Houston? If so, Wall’s large, expiring contract is ideal for salary matching purposes.
Combining assets. The Lakers wouldn’t give up a future first-round asset for Wall alone, but what if it was part of a larger deal that also included a player like Christian Wood or Eric Gordon?
2029 draft picks. Once the 2022 NBA draft starts on June 23, teams can trade draft assets in 2029. For now, many contenders are low on tradable picks due to prior trades and the league’s Stepien rule, which prohibits teams from being without a first-round pick in consecutive future seasons. Perhaps having 2029 picks available to trade leads to options that weren’t there in February.
2022 playoff results and free agency. What if a contender suddenly has a higher sense of urgency, or less faith in its current options at point guard, based on a disappointing finish to this season? What if they are aware of an impending departure in free agency?
Risk of waiting for a buyout. Some might ask: If the Rockets are potentially open to buying out Wall, why would teams trade any value for a player they could eventually acquire without giving up anything? The answer is the presence of more desirable suitors (i.e. Clippers, Heat) on the potential buyout market. For example, if a team like Indiana — which reportedly had interest in Wall before trading for Tyrese Haliburton — they would probably need to execute a trade, since Wall would likely choose another destination after a buyout.
If none of those scenarios take place, the likely outcome is a contract buyout, and Wall would simply leave the franchise for no compensation — similar to a veteran free agent. For now, general manager Rafael Stone and the Rockets are hopeful that it won’t come to that.