Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey has always been aggressive. He doesn’t hesitate with bold moves to upgrade his team, whether it was acquiring Chris Paul in 2017, offering four first-round picks for Jimmy Butler last season, or the current sign-and-trade pursuit of Butler now as free agency is fast approaching.
Talks surrounding a potential sign-and-trade grew on Wednesday, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported that the Rockets are shopping Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker:
“The Houston Rockets are canvassing NBA teams with significant salary-cap space to individually offer center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and forward P.J. Tucker as a prelude to their pursuit of a sign-and-trade deal for Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Jimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN...
“If Butler and the 76ers were open to the trade scenario — and there has yet to be a formal indication the team or Butler are interested — the Rockets would need to include two or three of those players in a deal to the Sixers or a third team to make the salaries match on a four-year, $140 million maximum contract for Butler.”
It’s clear how intent the Rockets are on making something happen, but it may not matter.
This deal comes down to what Jimmy Butler wants, not Daryl Morey. It’s important to note that Woj added there is still no indication that Butler is interested, and he ultimately decides if the trade could be executed. The Athletic’s Sam Amick has reported that “it’s looking likely” the Sixers would be willing to complete a sign-and-trade. Depending on what they could receive from a third team for Capela, it could make sense to take helpful pieces like Gordon, Tucker and possibly another role player plus draft picks rather than lose Butler for nothing, if they find out he does want to leave. But there’s still no sign that Butler himself has any interest in this.
If more momentum was building with this sign-and-trade as a greater possibility, you’d think there would be at least some murmurs coming from Butler’s side. Perhaps at this stage, the Rockets are only seeing what they’ll need to do and what they can get for their trio of players, rather than trying to make any moves just yet.
The matter of fit
There are plenty of reasons why the Sixers make more sense.
First, money. The Sixers can offer a five-year, $189.7 million contract compared to no more than a four-year, $140.6 million deal anywhere else. For a player entering his thirties and the last star-level pay day of his career, the extra year of major financial security would be a lot to turn down. The Sixers’ front office may have given plenty of reasons for people to doubt them in recent years, but there shouldn’t be any reason they traded for Butler — and watched his elevated playoff performance at both ends of the floor — without being willing to offer him a full five-year max. That’s what Butler wants. It’s time for the Sixers to step up, and there’s no reason to hesitate.
Then, there’s the simple fact that the Sixers are really good. There's no question in Butler's mind that the group he'd be teaming up with works. He already knows the starting lineup excelled, with a +17.6 net rating in the regular season and +24.7 in the playoffs (+8.7 against Toronto). If the Sixers can re-sign their other two free agent starters, JJ Redick and Tobias Harris, or at least one of them, the starting unit will still be a formidable one (if, worst case scenario, only Butler returns, Philly would then have $18.4 million in cap space to use). Beyond that, addressing the biggest hole on the bench by signing a reliable backup center would make a big difference for a team that could have easily made the Finals last season. There are plenty of possible targets the Sixers could pursue using some of their mid-level exception.
After some questions of how much Butler could be maximized in the regular season with limited pick-and-roll chances and overall touches next to Ben Simmons (coasting on defense and passing up catch-and-shoot 3s wasn't ideal either), the playoffs were a perfect example of how things can flourish. Butler stepped up in the backup point guard role over TJ McConnell, and operated as the team's lead guard far more against Toronto. It makes sense for the Sixers to utilize this strategy more often going forward as well, even when it isn't coming due to necessity with Kawhi Leonard guarding Simmons.
Butler was extremely valuable to the Sixers throughout his time with them last season, but the playoffs ended things on a high to demonstrate just how creative and important he can be in the offense (I wrote more about that here). In doing so, he helped the Sixers give the Raptors more trouble than anyone else on their way to a title.
There’s also the benefit of the Sixers’ younger core. Even though you can ask questions about Simmons’ shooting or upside next to Embiid, or the latter’s long-term health, the fact of the matter is the team has two star players — including a top-10 superstar in Embiid — who are both 25 or under. They’ll have Harris, 26, for a few more prime years as well if he decides to re-sign. As long as Embiid is healthy, the Sixers have a chance to put together a contender. Butler can ensure that's the case by staying put.
The same cannot be said for the Rockets' core.
There’s no denying the battle to win the Western Conference will look totally different next season. Golden State will be heavily depleted after injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, who will be out for the season (or out of Golden State all together if he decides to leave in free agency — Thompson staying still seems extremely likely). That said, I’d argue the Rockets won’t even be any better if they lose Gordon's shooting and complementary ball handling, Tucker's excellent defense, and Capela's interior presence to bring in Butler. Despite having all that top-end talent, they’ll be left with three ball dominant players (including a declining 34-year-old Chris Paul) and a seriously thin roster. There's no path for Butler to find a much higher usage if he wants more control of an offense, and his reluctance as a spot-up shooter certainly doesn't make him the best wing to slot off ball next to Paul and Harden.
The trio is far from perfect before you even consider possible chemistry worries, and they won’t have much depth to support them. Having one of the NBA’s worst contracts in Paul (owed $124.07 million over the next three years) and Harden’s huge deal ($169.34 million over the next four years) limits their flexibility. With Paul and Harden’s combined salary of $76.65 million for 2019-20, the Rockets could wind up with as little as $13.22 million between their team salary and the apron threshold of $138.21 million if they add Butler and trade away Gordon and Capela, as Jeff Siegel has explained in more detail at Early Bird Rights. Their room to fill out the team would be minimal.
Of course, even though Houston has emerged as the loudest Butler pursuer, they aren’t the only team who could have interest. The Los Angeles Lakers now have $32 million in cap space and room for a third max contract, thanks to adding a deal with Washington as part of the Anthony Davis trade and Davis agreeing to waive his $4 million trade bonus. If the Lakers can’t land Kawhi, don’t get anywhere with a D’Angelo Russell reunion (another expected target, per Woj) and look to use their cap space on a max guy rather than a few role players, they can emerge in the mix for Butler. Teams like Brooklyn and New York may be forced into a pursuit of Butler as well if they miss on a top target such as Kyrie Irving and/or Durant. The Clippers could potentially be the most enticing team of the lot, if they can also land Kawhi and sell Butler on L.A. and their strong cast of role players.
Let's return to Houston, though. Could Butler really have interest in agreeing to a sign-and-trade?
Maybe. Nothing can be ruled out just yet. At the very least, he’s been linked to the Rockets in the past and as a native of Tomball, Texas, perhaps he has interest in going home.
However, back in Philly, Butler has a proven, contending situation. The Sixers can offer him a better combination of title contention, co-stars entering their primes, basketball fit, money and long-term security than anyone else. All things considered, both on and off the court, the Rockets don't make nearly as much sense.