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Inside the Strange John Wall Situation in Houston

The Rockets and Wall have mutually agreed to keep him out of the lineup until the team works out a trade.

BOSTON — Free John Wall.

Fine, don’t. But how about this: Play John Wall.

The Rockets dropped its 15th straight to the Celtics on Monday. A competitive game after two quarters devolved into a laugher after three, with a seasoned Boston team tattooing the young Houston 34–16 in the third quarter en route to an 18-point victory. Wall was there, on the bench, healthy, sharp … and unavailable.

Wall has not played a minute for the Rockets this season, with the two sides mutually agreeing (publicly, anyway) to keep him out of the lineup while Houston worked on a trade. A trade, predictably, has not happened: Wall is scheduled to make $91.7 million over the next two seasons, a contract that makes the ex-All-Star virtually immovable. With Wall out, the Rockets’ season has become an embarrassment. Houston has the league’s worst record (1–16), its worst point differential (-11.2) and are on pace to finish 5–77, which would be the worst mark in NBA history.

Why not play Wall? Houston doesn’t have a better option. Kevin Porter Jr. isn’t really a point guard. Jalen Green for sure isn’t. D.J. Augustin is a career backup. Houston is averaging 20.2 assists per game this season, tied for a league low. Wall averaged nearly seven per game with the Rockets last season. Houston plays at the fastest pace in the league. Wall, even after his litany of leg issues, is built to play at high speeds.

Why not play Wall? It’s simple, really: Houston has no interest in winning. The Rockets are in the early stages of a full rebuild. James Harden is gone, and with him went any hope of contending. Instead, Houston has gone full Process, committing heavy minutes to Porter, Green and Christian Wood while holding Wall out. Wall wouldn’t make the Rockets a good team—he was part of Houston’s 20-game losing streak last season—but a 20-point per game scorer would certainly make them better. The idea that Wall would somehow stunt the progress of Porter and Green is ludicrous.

Where is the NBA on this? For all its bluster about eliminating tanking—and in flattening the lottery odds the league has addressed it—in staying silent on Wall the NBA is effectively rubber-stamping it. Last season the league said nothing when Oklahoma City shut down Al Horford in an unabashed effort to sink in the standings. Houston is simply following the Thunder model, only the Rockets are engaged in a season-long effort.

John Wall on the Rockets bench

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Where is Wall on this? Wall signaled he was fine with the Rockets’ plan before the season. “We all came together and decided it was the best decision for both parties,” Wall said in September. He said he planned to be a mentor to Houston’s younger players and, according to Stephen Silas, he has. “He’s been good for our group,” Silas said Monday. “He’s been good as far as watching film with guys and pulling them aside when they come off the court … he is definitely a helpful presence.”

But why would Wall want this? He has to know: A trade isn’t coming. Teams are interested in Wall but only if he declines his $47 million player option for next season (he won’t) or wriggles free via buyout in this one (he isn’t). Rockets could also waive him. Wall looked remarkably good in returning from a two-year layoff last season. His All-Star days are over, but there’s no reason why Wall, at 31, can’t regain a place among the upper half of NBA playmakers.

The idea that he could sit out another season, as ESPN reported, is bonkers.

So why not play? Wall can force the issue. And there are signs he may be getting a little restless. On Monday, I tweeted how bizarre it was to see Wall on the bench in uniform but not available to play. Wall tweeted back that he wasn’t dressed (the red sweatsuit he wore on the bench closely resembled the warmup suits Rockets players wear). Later, Wall replied to a fan tweeting that Wall was being punished for something he couldn’t control with “Facts!”

Wall wants to play for a contender. I get that. But he has played 113 games since the 2017–18 season. The clock is ticking on the prime years of his career. The best way, perhaps the only way to catch the attention of a contender is to get back on the floor and show that the player who emerged as one of the NBA’s top point guards in Washington is still in him. And maybe make the Rockets respectable along the way.

Wall won’t play when the Rockets begin a three-game home stand against the Bulls on Wednesday.

But he should.

Free John Wall.

Or let him play.

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