John Wall Forces Lakers To Wonder What Might Have Been After Stellar Clippers Debut vs. Crosstown Rivals

The Clippers have this annoying habit of getting players who have been linked to the rival Lakers at some point. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, two stars, both turned down the Lakers when they were free agents. When Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum got buyouts and became free agents, the Lakers went after both of them. Both teams picked the Clippers. And, of course, there’s Ivica Zubac, who used to play for the Lakers but now plays for the Clippers because Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka ran the team badly.

But John Wall’s comeback is especially frustrating for Lakers fans because he could have easily been playing for them on Thursday. After talking about Russell Westbrook trades involving two first-round picks for the whole offseason, it’s important to remember that the Lakers could have traded Westbrook last February for nothing more than a pick swap. Wall, who had already been traded in 2020 for Westbrook, would have been the return. Depending on how the trade was set up, the Lakers could have kept both of their first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to use in future trades.

It’s clear that’s not how things turned out. Wall stayed in Houston even after the deadline in 2022. In June, the Rockets paid him nothing to let him go. Even though Rich Paul and Klutch Sports represent seven players on the Lakers team, Wall chose to play for the Clippers. And on Thursday, he looked like the All-Star he used to be. Wall scored 15 points in 25 minutes off the bench. He made 7 of 15 shots from the field. Westbrook missed all 11 shots.

John Wall Forces Lakers
John Wall Forces Lakers

More importantly, Wall gave the Clippers the kind of floor general who drives the pace that they haven’t had in three years. Last season, the Clippers were 18th in fast-break points, and in 2020-21, when Leonard was healthy, they were 26th. Before the season started, the 16 points he helped them get on Thursday would have put them third. When you add in his timely shooting from mid-range, it seems like the Clippers have found their perfect backup point guard: a lightning-quick playmaker who won’t actively mess up their spacing.

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It’s an interesting contrast to the Lakers, who could use a player like that but don’t have as much money as the Clippers to spend on extras. If they had bought Wall at the end of the season last year, they would have had to pay him $47 million. As a mid-level free agent signing, the Clippers are giving him $6 million. Money is important. The cap is more important. With James, Davis, and Wall taking up almost $130 million in payroll, they would have the same trouble building a supporting cast as they did with Westbrook. It’s also important to note that Westbrook’s salary is the only one that really matches up. If the Lakers wanted to make another big trade with those two first-round picks while keeping Wall and adding Patrick Beverley in the offseason, they would have only been able to trade Lonnie Walker IV (who can’t be traded until December 15) and Kendrick Nunn, who make more than the minimum salary.

It’s fair to wonder how well Wall could have played off James and Davis without the shooting that payroll flexibility and a trade involving those picks would have brought. The Clippers can shoot from anywhere, which makes Wall a better playmaker. The Lakers don’t… Wall himself went 0 for 4 from long range on Thursday, and he has only made 32.3 percent of his long-range shots in his career. He’s not as bad at spacing as Westbrook is, but he probably wouldn’t do as well as Westbrook in an off-ball role next to James. His better catch-and-shoot history helps his case. Since the NBA started keeping track of such looks in 2013, he has stayed around 38 percent.

Risk is also something to think about. Thursday, Wall was great. In one game, he only played for 25 minutes. That’s a much easier thing to do than start for 82. Before this season, Wall had only played a total of 72 games over the last four seasons. The Clippers can handle a $6 million backup player getting hurt. With $47 million on the bench, the Lakers would be doomed. It’s too soon to know how well Wall will hold up over a full season or how his body would change if he played a bigger role with the Lakers.

Even looking back doesn’t help in this case. Wall probably would have been a lot better for the Lakers than Westbrook. At least, he has never gone 0 for 11 from the field. But he would have stopped them from being able to trade midseason, and he would have caused similar, if less severe, problems. If the Lakers could go back in time to February and change their minds about a deal for Wall, they would probably say no again.

Still, seeing Wall do well with the Clippers will make people question that choice. They might have been able to get Wall. The Clippers are very happy that they don’t have to. On Thursday, when the Clippers won 103–97, it was a close game. This might have made the difference.

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