Five big questions from the Russell Westbrook for John Wall trade

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Welcome to the NBA, where no contract is untradable.

Washington’s John Wall and Houston’s Russell Westbrook had two of the top five worst contracts in the NBA (maybe two of the top three), and Wednesday the Rockets and Wizards decided to swap problems. Because Westbrook is the better player at this point, the Wizards had to throw in a future first-round pick.

It’s a trade of big-name players — each of whom reportedly asked for a trade — and massive contracts, but it doesn’t move the needle much for either Houston or Washington on the court. If anything, this trade raises more questions than it provides answers.

Here are the five biggest questions from the Westbrook for Wall trade.

1) How much does John Wall have left in the tank?

That is the single biggest unknown in this entire trade. Wall hasn’t been on an NBA court since December of 2018 — almost two years — and has had a couple of major surgeries since then. Is Wall still an All-Star level player? Is he more like a good starter now? Has he slid to being backup-level? Nobody really knows, but the answer ties into the other big question for the Rockets:

Will Wall fit well next to James Harden?

The risk with Wall is his lengthy injury history. Wall has some craft to his game, he’s a decent spot-up shooter (37% on catch-and-shoot threes the last season he played regularly), and he can get to the rim and create. You have to cover Wall at the arc (unlike Westbrook the past season or two). Wall also is a better defender than Westbrook.

However, Wall was last an All-Star in the 2017-18 season, since then he had major knee surgery and ruptured his Achilles. But even before the injuries, in the last two seasons he played, Wall’s efficiency was starting to fall off. Was that due to injuries — he played through bone spurs in his heel before his knee and Achilles injuries — or was his game just starting to show age?

The past couple of seasons in Houston, Mike D’Antoni directed the James Harden show — Harden was given an all-he-could-eat buffet of isolation touches. Houston traded Clint Capela, so there wasn’t even a guy to set picks, it was just The Beard doing what he wanted. Westbrook had the ball in his hands plenty last season, but Harden still had a ridiculous usage rate (third highest in the league).

Will the addition of a point guard like Wall, bringing in some more traditional players such as centers Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins, and a change of coaches to Stephen Silas, mean a shift back toward a more traditional offensive system in Houston? Maybe. The last couple of seasons maxed out the Harden-against-the-world offense and showed its limitations. Silas will likely shake things up by making the Rockets more traditional in some ways (and getting Houston to play faster).

Will Wall and Harden fit together? Maybe the better question is, will they get a chance?

2) Does this mean a fire sale in Houston?

Not a fire sale, but the day the Rockets traded Robert Covington to Portland for draft picks was the day it became obvious the Rockets front office was thinking about the long term and a potential rebuild. Trading Westbrook — even for Wall — is just another step down that road (as they added another pick).

Houston is dealing, and there is strong interest around the league in PJ Tucker, plus guys like Eric Gordon and Danuel House also could be trade targets. Just about anyone wearing a Rockets’ jersey will be available at the deadline, including Harden.

Don’t sleep on the fact the Rockets picked up a first-round pick in this trade (protected, but it likely conveys as a first-rounder in 2024 or 2025). Houston sent out a lot of picks to trade for Westbrook, getting one back in this deal is a good pick up for the rebuild that is eventually coming.

3) What does this trade mean for Bradley Beal? The Wizards’ offense?

Owner Ted Leonsis wants his Washington squad to make the playoffs, and the Wizards just got better because Westbrook will actually be on the court putting up numbers. Wall is back this season, but the injury risk is high and, as previously noted (question No. 1), nobody is sure where his game stands.

At age 32, Westbrook may be in decline, but he was an All-NBA player last season who averaged 27 points a night and had a very efficient stretch through the middle of the season. Westbrook’s contract may have scared teams, but he can still play — he was Third Team All-NBA last season — and him at the point next to Beal makes the Wizards better. (How much better? Skip ahead to question four.)

How well Westbrook and Beal mesh is an open question, with a lot falling on Scott Brooks and staff (remember Brooks coached Westbrook in Oklahoma City). Beal had the rock in his hands any time he wanted the past couple of seasons, now Westbrook will take some of those touches but he is not as efficient as Beal. Will Beal get frustrated, or will Washington win enough that issues are smoothed over?

This trade was a clear sign to other front offices (and fans) — Washington is not trading Beal. At least not this season. The Wizards were never planning to, and they kept saying that publicly, but now it’s even more clear the goal is to make the playoffs, then try to convince Beal to stay long term.

Beal has three years on his contract, but the last one of those is a player option at $37.2 million. Beal likely will choose not to pick that final year up so he can get the security of a longer deal. If Beal tells the Washington front office he wants out, the Wizards need to make a move next offseason.

Whether he wants out or not will possibly hinge on how this season goes.

4) Can the Wizards make the playoffs?

Probably. If you consider making the play-in games in the East making the playoffs.

These Wizards are a win-now team. Washington has its stars in Beal and Westbrook and a potentially strong group of role players around them: Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Robin Lopez at center, and the just drafted Deni Avdija. It’s a pretty good roster.

However, the East is improving. Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami are the likely top five in the conference (in whatever order you want to place them), followed by Toronto and Indiana in my mind. That’s seven. I have Atlanta eighth. Is Washington better than the retooled Hawks?

In a play-in world where the Wizards just need to make the top 10, they should be fine (Orlando is in that mix, too). But advancing beyond the play-in games may be a big ask, and even then the Wizards will draw a series against the Bucks or Nets or Celtics in the first round, and that will be too much to overcome.

5) Can the Rockets repair their relationship with Harden and keep him?

Only Harden can answer this question.

The Rockets continue to say they are committed to repairing the relationship with Harden, keeping him, and retooling a contender around him. He’s not being traded before the season starts, according to reports. All that despite Harden’s attempt to force his way to Brooklyn. Let’s just say there is plenty of skepticism around the league that Houston can fix things; but the Rockets need to say they will keep him for the trade leverage.

Houston wants the motherload in return for Harden — if Jrue Holiday drew three first-round picks, two pick swaps, and two rotation players in his trade, what is Harden worth? — but currently there are no takers. For now, the Rockets and Harden will continue an uneasy marriage… unless the Rockets are going to spring another unexpected trade in the coming days.

Three things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

Before the ball was even tossed up at center circle Sunday, this looked to be a long night for the Pelicans: No Zion Williamson (strained right hamstring), no Brandon Ingram (toe injury) and no CJ McCollum (sprained right thumb).

Then Giannis Antetokounmpo went to work early, scored 18 points in the first quarter, 29 in the first half, and went on to have an efficient 50 on 20-of-26 shooting on the night, including hitting 3-of-4 from 3.

The All-Star Game captain is having a “down” season by his insane standards, but he is still averaging 31.3 points and 12 rebounds a game, shooting 64.5% in a season where he has had to take on more offense load because of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time. He’s still one of the best in the game, and if healthy the Bucks are still a postseason threat (even if they could use some depth at the four).

This was eight straight losses for the Pelicans, who are 3-11 in January and have fallen all the way to the No. 8 seed in the West. New Orleans has looked like a dangerous team on the rise when healthy this season, but the injuries have caught up with them and now they are scrapping to stay in the play-in in a crowded middle of the West.

2) Hornets get 31 from Rozier, upset sleepy Heat team

It will be hard for Miami to hold onto the No. 6 seed in the East (and avoid the play-in) if they don’t win the games they are supposed to win.

Miami looked sleepy for the 1 p.m. start in Charlotte, didn’t play good defense down the stretch, and fell to the Hornets. Charlotte got 31 from Terry Rozier, 27 from P.J. Washington, LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Gordon Hayward was 7-of-7 shooting for 20 points. Charlotte snapped Miami’s three-game win streak with the 122-117 victory.

To be fair to the Heat, sometimes it’s about when you catch teams and the Hornets are playing their best basketball of the season having won 4-of-6. Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Heat, Tyler Herro added 24.

This was the start of a four-game road trip for the Heat and things are about to get tougher with games at the Cavaliers, at the Knicks (a key game in the chase for the No. 6 seed) and at the Bucks.

3) LeBron James, Anthony Davis out in Brooklyn Monday night

The epidemic — and league-wide PR problem — of stars sitting out will continue Monday night as LeBron James and Anthony Davis will rest as the Lakers face the Nets (officially, LeBron has a sore left ankle and they are watching the foot injury that sidelined Davis for 20 games). This is the team’s one trip to Brooklyn this season. It comes a day after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out in Cleveland (the Cavs blew the Clippers out as a result), and the list goes on and on all season long with Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and other stars seemingly resting more than ever before.

There is no easy answer here. Coaches and team medical staffs tasked with ensuring their players peak for the playoffs are resting guys during the season (and on back-to-backs) to avoid injuries and fatigue. Top players have their personal trainers monitoring them and weighing in on these decisions. The NBA schedule is still too long — but reducing that number is a financial mess — and there is nothing in the upcoming CBA that will change this trend.

But fans are noticing. Keep showing them the regular season doesn’t matter and they will respond in kind.

In LeBron’s case — and he hasn’t missed much time this season — this pushes back the timeline for him to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record to Feb. 7 against the Thunder or Feb. 9 against the Bucks, both games in Los Angeles at the crypto.com Arena. If you want to think that’s a coincidence, go ahead, but I’m a little more cynical than that.

Rozier, Washington, Ball help Hornets rally past Heat 122-117

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Terry Rozier scored 31 points, P.J. Washington had 27 and the Charlotte Hornets stopped Miami’s three-game win streak with a 122-117 victory over the Heat on Sunday.

LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter as Charlotte improved to 7-16 at home. Gordon Hayward was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field for 20 points.

Rozier also had seven assists and six rebounds. He was 11 for 19 from the field, including a 5-for-11 performance from 3-point range. He made two buzzer-beater 3s at the end of quarters.

Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Miami, and Tyler Herro had 24.

The Hornets, who have been hampered by injuries all season, have won four of six for the team’s best stretch of the season. Washington believes it’s a reflection of the team getting healthier.

Charlotte’s projected starting five to begin the season is finally back on the floor and appears to be starting to mesh.

“Everybody is back and everybody is healthy – and that is a major difference,” Washington said. “At the end of the day we have to keep going the way we are right now.”

Hayward has struggled with shoulder and hamstring issues, limiting the team’s highest-paid player to just 24 games.

Sunday marked his best game in months.

“He’s playing confident and getting easy baskets and just bullying guys down low,” Washington said. “He’s playing great basketball and I expect that of him every night.”

Whether a now healthy Hornets team can make a playoff push remains to be seen, but coach Steve Clifford remains optimistic.

“Getting ‘Melo and Gordon back, obviously you’re a different team,” Clifford said. “If we can get into playing set groups then we’ll have a good chance to hopefully put some good stretches together. (It helps) when they know who they’re playing with and they know where the shots are coming from.”

The Heat led 62-58 after Rozier banked in a 3 from the midcourt logo to close out the first half.

Miami went on a 10-1 run to start the third quarter. Herro knocked down two 3-pointers to help the Heat open a 13-point lead.

But Charlotte came storming back behind Washington and Rozier, who began knocking down shots from deep.

Charlotte pushed the lead to 12 with 5:54 left on a turnaround jumper by Rozier.

Miami rallied with a 10-0 run. Kyle Lowry found Bam Adebayo inside for a layup to cut the lead to 108-106.

But Charlotte had another burst as Mason Plumlee got the ball after Rozier won a jump ball and drove to the basket for a score. Ball canned an open 3-pointer to put Charlotte back up 114-106 with 1:50 left.

Washington’s rebound and score off his own miss kept Charlotte up by seven and Plumlee dunked off a pass from Washington to put the game away in the final minute.

Charlotte shot 54.2% from the field and scored 25 points in transition. The Hornets also outrebounded Miami 47-36.

“They have had a lot of injuries but when they have been fully healthy, this team can score much different than their numbers may suggest for the season,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We did not step up defensively, they got a lot of easy run-ups that quickly changed the momentum of the game.”

Bulls’ Lonzo Ball “nowhere near playing,” could miss entire season

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
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“I’m trying to stay positive, keep my hopes up. I would love to play. I would never count that out.”

Lonzo Ball tried to put an optimistic face on his recovery from a second knee surgery, but he was realistic and put no timetable on a return.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan was more realistic, speaking Saturday before the Bulls took on the Magic. Via Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune.

“He’s made some progress, but I’d be the first one to tell you he’s nowhere near playing,” Donovan said. “He’s just not. Because he’s not running on a consistent basis. When he can get to that place where he can do that consistently and be able to come back the next day and do it again, do it again and do it again — I think you’ll feel a little bit more optimistic.”

Could Ball be out for the entire season? Donovan again, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My guess would be – there’s not been a specifically set date – my guess would be I think we get through the All-Star Break, I think there would probably be everybody sitting down to talk about length and time of the season, how realistic is it for him to get back, if he could get back what would the minutes look like, is it not worth having him back just because it’s too much?’’ Donovan said. “I think everything, at least in my conversations with medical about him, have always been geared towards helping him get back to playing. Certainly once you get out of the All-Star Break, with the amount of time that’s left, basically you’re at the end of February. You have all of March and not even two weeks in April, so you start to get to that point where I think there will be some conversations of, ‘OK, if he’s still not close to playing, what’s the plan moving forward?’”

Ball has undergone multiple knee surgeries. The first was in January 2022 and the expectation at the time was he would return for the playoffs, but his knee didn’t respond well during rehab. That led to a second knee surgery, and recovery from that is going slowly as well. It leaves the Bulls in a tough spot, they miss his defense and his being a floor general on offense as they have struggled to a 23-26 record this season that sees them sitting as the No. 11 seed in the East.

Pelicans Trey Murphy III reportedly invited to participate in Dunk Contest

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We knew three participants invited to the All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest: G-League fan favorite Mac McClung, the Portland Trail Blazers Shaedon Sharpe and the Houston Rockets’ KJ Martin.

The fourth slot in that event will go to the Pelicans’ Trey Murphy, reports Andrew Lopez of ESPN.

No doubt Murphy can throw it down with the best of them.

The Dunk Contest will headline All-Star Saturday night, Feb. 18, from the Vivint Arena (soon to be the Delta Center again). The event will be broadcast on TNT.

The Dunk Contest is the Saturday night headline event, but it has fallen flat in recent years. Adding a G-League dunker and young, bouncy athletes such as Murphy, Martin and Sharpe could make this one entertaining. However, what fans really want to see — what made the Dunk Contest must-watch back in the day when Jordan, Kobe, and Vince Carter were doing it — is the stars. There will be no Ja Morant, no Zion Williamson, and no Anthony Edwards in this contest.