With load management no longer a topic worthy of excessive griping, here comes a new method to inspire outrage. Label this one unload management. When a prominent player and team can’t determine a way forward, when a good trade is hard to find, everybody just pauses and either prays for a miracle or hopes the discomfort of inaction will provide motivation to break up. Because, you know, staring matches are so professional and productive.
This NBA era of star transience has been full of awkward exit strategies. But this latest tactic is notably strange and one that both franchises and players are willing to use. It’s not just Ben Simmons refusing to play for Philadelphia or, before him, James Harden reporting late and doing everything possible to force his way out of Houston. Now there are these “mutual agreements” not to play. Blake Griffin and Detroit made the pact last season before negotiating a buyout. Oklahoma City shut down Al Horford in the second half last season before trading him to Boston over the summer. Now Wall has been chillin’ in Houston, and his case is especially concerning for several reasons.
The Rockets didn’t try to make it work to start this season, which is a different twist. Before the games began, they told Wall they wanted to go young, didn’t have a role worthy of his talent and made it simple for him to figure not playing was in his best interest. He’s a star trying to salvage his reputation after knee and Achilles’ surgeries cost him the bulk of three prime seasons. If he’s allowed to serve only as a bit player for one of the league’s worst teams, he can’t really make a compelling case that he deserves a prominent role on a contender.
It leads us to the undying problem of tanking in the NBA. While a team should have the right to go young and build for the future, the Rockets are going to extreme and pricey lengths to avoid a rudimentary level of competitiveness. They do not take care of the basketball. They have a five-time all-star point guard on the roster, and they’re paying him the second-highest salary in the league (tied with Harden). But they claim that playing Wall too much will hinder the development of fledgling guards Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., both of whom would benefit from sharing court time with a true facilitator.
Without Wall in the rotation, D.J. Augustin is the team’s only established point guard. He plays just 12.3 minutes per game. So the Rockets spend three-fourths of the game toying with Porter learning how to run a team and having Coach Stephen Silas piece together whatever else he can find. Wall, who was coming off a two-year absence, was inefficient but productive in 40 games last season. He averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 assists while adjusting to a chaotic new team after the Washington Wizards traded him for Russell Westbrook. Harden was dealt to Brooklyn, and the Rockets fell from perennial playoff team to 17-55 train wreck. But for Wall, it seemed like a decent start to the post-injury phase of his career.
It turned out to be a precursor to a different kind of madness. There’s a chance the situation could get messier. Wall is lobbying to play now. The Rockets say they will work the next two weeks to get him in game shape, but Wall and the franchise have yet to agree on his role. Their relationship will receive greater scrutiny, and if he doesn’t return to the court soon, there will be further damage to Wall’s reputation and the Rockets’ competence as an organization.
The need is clear and layered. Wall needs to play; he’s lost too much time. The Rockets are improving — if winning five straight to get to 6-16 qualifies as improving — but they need a playmaker. And if they refuse to use a $44.3 million former all-star, then you know they have no interest in doing anything other than jockeying for position to draft Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren. This team isn’t built to win, but it needs to stop manufacturing losses and start developing its young players with more competitive integrity. It matters more than increasing lottery odds.
The NBA needs a fresh example, too. In sports, it’s antithetical to try to solve problems with a no-play mind-set. And it’s not just a basketball issue. The strategy is seeping into other sports as an option to protect trade assets from injury or ignore a roster dilemma. It’s weak. It’s passive-aggressive. And it opens the door for all kinds of volatile, unintended consequences.
All these years later, it turns out that John Wooden, Bob Knight and every other coach who talked about the bench as a motivator got it wrong. Currently, the bench is a sad negotiating table. Sit down and wait for one side to blink or hope a potential trade partner gets desperate.
For Wall, the remainder of his career is wasting away. Since 2017, he has played in 113 of a possible 330 regular season games, barely a third. This time, he’s healthy, and his career still has been on hold for seven months. If there’s a television in basketball purgatory, surely it must show Wall’s last NBA game from time to time.
Find a record book, dust it off, and you will find that he finished with 27 points and 13 assists on that night, April 23, 2021. It was the Rockets’ 34th defeat in 38 games, further proof that they don’t need to try so hard to lose. Wall, however, was irrepressibly Wall in a near upset of the playoff-bound Los Angeles Clippers: full of nerve, a little too impatient, streaky with the jumper. And competitive. Still so competitive.
“No matter what our record says, it’s still the game of basketball,” Wall said after the game. “We’ve got some veterans and some young guys, and no matter what’s going on, you never want to have any quit in you. There’s always something to play for.”
During the prime of his breakneck career, Wall wouldn’t pause. No way. He couldn’t. For more than a decade of fame and frustration, all perceptions of him have intersected at his intense desire to play, a fire that made him a thrilling, snarling, puzzling standout. He’s wired to persist, sometimes to his detriment. That kind of passion transcends like or dislike. It’s easy to respect how much he cares.
It seems he has played long enough for the game to turn that mentality into a relic. What an awful way to measure longevity.