Report: Rockets Viewed Russell Westbrook Trade Request as 'Blessing in Disguise'

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2020

Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook is held back by a referee as he argues during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets traded Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday for point guard John Wall and a conditional 2023 first-round pick.

And according to Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer, the Rockets were more than happy to grant Westbrook his trade request once it became clear the veteran star wanted out: 

"League sources say Westbrook demanded a trade primarily because James Harden also wanted out of Houston, but also because the duo didn't fit that well together. Unlike Houston's rightful reluctance to trade Harden, the Rockets' new front office searched far and wide for Westbrook destinations as soon as he expressed that he didn't want to be there anymore, according to multiple league sources. Houston viewed Westbrook's desire to leave as a blessing in disguise. Trading him provides another opportunity to make Harden happy again. Many members of the Rockets' organization believe Harden doesn't actually want to leave, he just wants to win a title."

Parting ways with Westbrook made sense. He and Harden weren't the most natural pairing—he should pair more seamlessly with Bradley Beal, who isn't as tethered to being on-ball in the half-court offense as Harden—and while he can still get to the rim and create for teammates, his poor perimeter shooting (25.8 percent from three last year) has become a major liability. 

Michael Lee @MrMichaelLee

Someone close to Russell Westbrook told me DC was his preferred destination. Russ was intrigued about playing with Bradley Beal & excited to reunite with Scott Brooks. I can't remember a guy coming off an All-NBA season who preferred to play for the Wizards, so there's that...

John Schuhmann @johnschuhmann

There'll be an adjustment period w/ Westbrook & Beal, but they surely fit better together than Wall & Harden. Westbrook addition also makes Bryant (can play outside) feel like the more appropriate starting C than Lopez.

But it's pretty hard to envision how Houston can actually build a title contender around Harden. The current roster, while good enough to make the playoffs, doesn't appear to be good enough to compete with the top teams in the West. And the 30-year-old Wall, coming off a missed season due to a ruptured Achilles, is owed $41.2 million this season, $44.3 million next season and has a $47.3 million player option for the 2022-23 season that he'll absolutely exercise. 

That contract clearly isn't untradeable, considering the Rockets literally just traded for it. But it's about as close to an untradeable contract you'll find, especially if your hope is getting back star players in return. And that's presuming Wall gets back to something resembling his pre-injury form, when he was a five-time All-Star. 

If Wall is never the same player again—a real possibility for a player whose game was predicated on his unique explosiveness and who is in his 30s coming off an Achilles injury—he's a negative asset from a rebuilding perspective. 

This is a long way of saying that Houston just doesn't have many avenues for acquiring more star power. They won't head into next summer with enough cap space to bring another star into the fold, with $124 million for five players already on the books, barring some truly earth-shattering trades.

So the Rockets may have been happy to offload Westbrook, but they don't appear to be any closer to building a title-contending roster around Harden. It's possible that ship has sailed, and while Houston fans don't want to hear it, it's also possible that Harden's days in Houston are still numbered for that reason.