John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins to launch Rockets after James Harden trade?

An exhibition aberration? Or a ray of hope for a bright future? The John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins reunion may launch an epic post-James Harden era in Houston.

By Matt Fitzgerald
Dec 19, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins (0) talks with Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) after the game at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA preseason is utterly meaningless for the most part, unless you’re a Houston Rockets fan just getting a first look at John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

As current face of the franchise James Harden continues to make headlines with trade demands, Houston lifted off in its exhibition opener, and the reunited Kentucky tandem of Wall and Cousins showed flashes of the All-Stars they once were.

NBA preseason: John Wall, Boogie ball out in Rockets’ victory

In a 125-104 rout of the Chicago Bulls, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins put up some serious stats. In only 19 minutes of action, Wall had 13 points, five rebounds, nine assists and two steals. Although Cousins did pick up four fouls in 15 minutes, you could hardly blame him for being a little eager to get on the hardwood after missing the previous NBA season due to injury. For his part, Boogie nailed three 3-pointers and scored 15 points to go with five boards, along with two assists, steals and blocks.

Just look how beautiful this highlights package is, courtesy of the NBA on TNT:

Like Cousins, Wall didn’t play at all this past season, and the two combined to appear in only 62 games during the 2019-20 campaign, with Cousins playing 32 and Wall 30. Both are recovered from torn Achilles, one of the most notorious, painful and difficult injuries to come back from in all of professional sports, and Cousins has since dealt with a torn ACL and subsequent recovery.

The good news? These ex-college teammates gave themselves ample time to get healthy, and have now joined forces in a new NBA city where opportunity figures to be ample with Harden likely on the outs sometime soon.

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins ideal leaders for underdog Rockets

NBA preseason: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins ideal leaders for Rockets
Mar 6, 2020; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) on the court before the game between the Washington Wizards and the Atlanta Hawks at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Harden has been the catalyst for Houston in recent seasons, having led the NBA in scoring with 34.3 points per game in 2019-20. But much of what makes “The Beard” so successful is isolation offense, or 1-on-1 scoring, wherein Harden either launches a step-back 3-pointer, or drives to the hoop seeking contact and either an easy bucket at the rim or a trip to the free throw line.

With someone so ball-dominant, Harden’s latest assist numbers (7.5 per game) inevitably paint the picture of a more selfless teammate than he actually is. He’s among the most empowered individual players in the modern NBA, yet he hasn’t really earned that right to a large degree. Having failed to deliver a championship for the Rockets, Harden has seen future Hall of Famers like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook come and go. Now, he’s fighting his way out for a chance at a championship elsewhere.

All of this runs contrary to how Wall has handled his business. Trapped on the Washington Wizards for his whole career, he’s never made a stink of his time in D.C., and actually arrived in Houston as part of the Westbrook trade. Unlike Harden, Wall is a pass-first lead guard who can drive to the rim, yet is more often looking to set his teammates up for success.

It’s easy to forget how good Wall and Cousins were before they got hurt. Their respective recoveries and career renaissance narratives are enough for any teammates and fanbase to root for. Imagine if they both return to All-Star form and turn back the clocks to their brief one-and-done flash of greatness at Kentucky? That’d be one of the greatest storylines of the entire NBA season.

Beyond the sentimental factor of the Wall-Cousins partnership, there’s an intangible underdog mentality they haven’t really had to deal with before. Think about it: Wall was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, while Cousins went fifth overall that year. They got sent to bad teams, as you do when you’re drafted that high. Now they’re with an organization that’s accustomed to annual playoff trips. Much of the core, save for Harden, is still intact, but even prior to that blockbuster trade, everyone is writing Houston off.

Talk about a common cause for Wall, Cousins and these 2020-21 Rockets to rally around. And if their NBA preseason debuts were any indication, they’re on their way to an inspiring comeback. Considering Wall hasn’t played in the NBA for almost two calendar years and Cousins last suited up about a year and a half ago: so far, so very, very good.

Related: Russell Westbrook-John Wall trade: Winners/losers from Rockets-Wizards blockbuster

How John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins mesh with Rockets’ personnel

How Stephen Silas can fit John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins with Rockets after strong NBA preseason debut
Dec 4, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets associate head coach Stephen Silas calls a play in the second half against the Orlando Magic at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

New head coach Stephen Silas has done his best to handle the Harden situation with grace. Meanwhile, he has an ideal cast of players around Wall to make this team competitive in the Western Conference in 2020-21, with room for Cousins to grow into a prominent role, too.

The Rockets were savvy to sign-and-trade for an underrated stretch 4 in Christian Wood, who helps Houston’s spacing immensely and gives the squad much-needed size in the paint to crash the glass, which has desperately been lacking since Clint Capela left town. Wood averaged 13.1 points in only 21.4 minutes per night with Detroit last season in 62 games, shooting 56.7% from the field and 38.6% from deep on 140 3-point attempts.

Whether Wood is a reserve or begins the season in the starting five, he’ll play big minutes and take the pressure off Cousins, who can either play the 4 or fit in alongside Wood at center. Since Wall has prior experience and deep ties to Cousins, he innately knows how to play with him, and as it is Boogie is capable of filling really any function Houston needs him to.

Remember that the last time Cousins really played extensively and was freed from his sad stint in Sacramento was with the New Orleans Pelicans. He averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.6 steals and blocks. Although that was back in 2017-18, if Cousins is even 70% of what he was then, he’ll be a major asset to the Rockets in terms of ball movement, defensive versatility, rim protection and overall physicality.

Since Cousins can also spot up from 3-point range and is one of the NBA’s best passing big men, he presents another long-range shooter Wall can find, or he can move the ball around the perimeter on an extra pass to find a better shot. P.J. Tucker is a corner-3 sniper, Eric Gordon has insane range from beyond the arc, and let’s not forget double-digit bench scorer Ben McLemore from this past season.

It’s unlikely Silas is going to have his Rockets hoist treys quite as often as predecessor Mike D’Antoni, yet this should still be a potent, explosive offense no matter what Silas’ system looks like.

John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins may get more help after James Harden trade

NBA preseason: John Wall more inclusive than James Harden for underdog Rockets
Sep 6, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of game two of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So, from a leadership and personnel standpoint, Wall and Cousins are an upgrade over Harden. The current cloud that hangs over the franchise will soon be gone, and Houston can move forward. Another perk is how low-risk, high-reward Cousins is for this season in particular. He’s not crushing the Rockets’ salary cap with his $2.3 million salary.

Plus, whenever this Harden deal does go down and his exorbitant, $41 million-plus cap hit is off the books, it stands to reason Houston will get a healthy haul of players in return.

Say for instance Harden lands in one of his preferred spots (we’re excluding Philadelphia from this exercise, Daryl Morey ties notwithstanding): With the Bucks, Heat or Nets. All those teams are near the top of the Eastern Conference. A trade to any of those teams not only gets Harden out of the West, but figures to supply the Rockets with multiple weapons in return.

It’s not like Houston would land Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler or Kevin Durant. However, the team could get someone like Tyler Herro from Miami, or Jrue Holiday or Khris Middleton from Milwaukee. Brooklyn has some intriguing role players like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, not to mention a true center in Jarrett Allen who’s an excellent defensive presence and can help the Rockets’ rebounding efforts.

All may seem problematic in Houston at the minute as the transition to a new coach and general manager Rafael Stone continues. The NBA preseason opener is a small sample size to pull from, yet between the strong outings from Wall and Cousins, the organization’s patience with Harden’s controversy and the makeup of the roster that could soon markedly improve, there’s reason for the Rockets to be irrationally, if privately, optimistic in comparison to the wide public perception.

Related: 5 most realistic James Harden trade scenarios