The NBA is built on a foundation of complicated financial rules, which intends to level the playing field for all 30 franchises to the best of their ability.
While the league’s system of parity is mostly fair, it isn’t perfect. Teams in major markets are for example more inclined to pay the luxury tax, which smaller market teams aren’t. This leads to frequent debate on how to optimize the aforementioned financial rules.
But during those major macro discussions, sometimes the micro gets left out. Case in point, Houston Rockets point guard John Wall.
The trade problem
In 2017, Wall accepted a contract extension worth over $171 million with the Washington Wizards, which runs until the conclusion of the 2022-2023 season. At the time, Wall was coming off a year in which he averaged 23.1 points, 10.7 assists and easily featured as a Top 5 point guard in most rankings. If there was a player worthy of such a contract, it was Wall.
Fast forward to today, and Wall is one of the most overpriced active contracts in the NBA. He’s played in just 113 games since signing that extension, picking up both small and major injuries along the way, which has lessened him as a player.
Now a member of the Houston Rockets, Wall doesn’t feature in their lineup. The organization is undergoing a rebuild, meaning they simply aren’t prioritizing heavy minutes going to a 31-year-old veteran. While Wall has been offered a limited role, he’s declined it in hope of seeking greener pastures. After averaging 20.6 points and 6.9 assists over 40 games for Houston last season, Wall believes he has something left in the tank, and is seeking a new home where he can continue from where he left off last season.
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This is where things get extremely complicated, and frankly unfortunate, for all parties involved.
While the above situation on the surface seems obvious for a trade solution, there is virtually no movement in Houston finding one for the former All-Star. Despite Wall proving last season he can still play at a fairly decent level, and despite the fact that several teams out there could use his services, his contract is directly preventing him from joining a contender.
This season, Wall is earning $44.3 million. Outside of the Oklahoma City Thunder, every team in the league is over the salary cap, meaning salaries will have to get matched.
Put simply, good teams are good for a reason. It means they’ve spent their money well, and don’t have many unattractive contracts on their roster, which they can freely move about.
While Wall might be attractive as a player to a substantial amount of teams, his contract is not, to the point where teams are instead moving on to other targets where trades can be facilitated in easier fashion.
Adding to the level of difficulty in locating a trade is the fact that Houston isn’t seeking immediate help or veterans. They’re bad for a reason, as they hope to keep building through the draft. Currently, the Rockets are projected to finish last in their division, and that’s good news for them these days, as that help their lottery odds.
The Thunder could facilitate a deal where they take Wall, and save Houston a ton of money, but they’d likely only accept such a deal if numerous draft picks were attached to Wall’s contract, since they too have no use for Wall as they’re also rebuilding.
The buyout problem
Players who don’t have much of a trade market can be bought out, assuming of course player and team find common ground in negotiations. Blake Griffin relinquished $13.3 million on his deal in order to get a buyout from the Detroit Pistons last season, allowing him to sign with the Brooklyn Nets.
That option is there for Wall too, but it isn’t exactly cut-and-dry.
Wall signed a contract that will compensate him the $44.3 million this year, and another $47.3 million next season, pending he picks up his player option, which seems like a foregone conclusion that he will. Why should Wall give up money on a deal that he was offered, and on a deal the Rockets willingly traded for?
Players aren’t responsible for teams offering lucrative contracts, nor are they responsible for those deals going sour, if injuries derail their careers. As the logic goes, why then should they be responsible for sacrificing money from their end?
Of course, the counter argument will rest on players, such as Wall, having to accept the status quo until something changes, which is also an entirely valid point. Teams are under no obligation to play, or trade, a player regardless of how much money they earn. In theory, the Bucks could decide to sit Giannis Antetokounmpo for the remainder of his contract, and that would be their right.
This all leads to a mess of a situation where both the player and team will have to accept certain parameters they don’t wish to accept, in order to part ways.
If no buyout, the Rockets would have to give up assets to get off of Wall’s contract.
If no trade, Wall will have to give up a significant chunk of his future salary, to facilitate a buyout.
(Whether Wall will one day accept a buyout remains to be seen, but so far nothing has materialized.)
So where do these two parties go from there? Is there even a path forward that makes sense for both?
It doesn’t appear that way, and that’s where league rules become more of a hindrance than a help, albeit unintentionally.
The situation also underlines how attractive the seldom offered amnesty clause can be. The amnesty clause allows a team to waive a player, which removes his cap hit from their salary cap, while the player gets paid in-full for the remainder of his contract.
It’s only ever included as a one-time clause during new CBA agreements, and even then, it isn’t guaranteed to return.
It would be interesting to give teams an annual amnesty clause for these exact situations. Teams who needn’t use it won’t have to, and teams in dire need of one, gets a lifeline.
Is it the perfect solution? Maybe not. As with all rules, teams will find ways to manipulate the status quo to work in their favor, and surely this won’t be any exception.
That said, it is one idea to help out teams and players who find themselves in these types of tricky situations. It might be worth a shot.