Reports of Houston’s Jimmy Butler Pursuit Put Rockets’ Futures Values at Apex

Reports of Houston’s Jimmy Butler Pursuit Put Rockets’ Futures Values at Apex article feature image
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Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden and Jimmy Butler

  • The Houston Rockets are reportedly interested in pursuing a sign-and-trade with free agent Jimmy Butler.
  • Matt Moore delves into how Butler would fit alongside Chris Paul and James Harden, and whether now is the time to buy Houston futures.

Never count out Daryl Morey, Daryl Morey runs the game. That’s something I have constantly reminded myself about the Rockets’ GM as we enter each offseason. Every summer it seems critics start to count out the Rockets, and every summer Morey seems to make moves to improve the team.

He’s at it again this summer.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the Rockets are in pursuit of free agent star wing Jimmy Butler to join their Western Contender.

Once free agency starts on Sunday, the Rockets are planning to recruit Jimmy Butler to push the Philadelphia 76ers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, league sources tell ESPN.

The Rockets don’t have the salary-cap space to sign Butler, so they’d need the threat of the Sixers losing him for nothing to a team with the available room to motivate Philadelphia into a trade. The Rockets also would potentially need to make this a multiteam deal to satisfy the rules of base year compensation that would cover Butler’s outgoing salary.

The Sixers plan to be aggressive in signing Butler to a new deal, sources said, and they could blunt a Rockets push with a full five-year, $190 million offer at the start of free agency on Sunday night. The Sixers could offer Butler a four-year, $146.5 million deal, too.

Morey telegraphed this move pretty hard a week ago, and Butler — who is from Houston originally — was in Houston last week, according to his Instagram.

It was easy to overreact to Yahoo Sport’s report that Chris Paul had demanded a trade and the team is essentially imploding. But in subsequent days you had denials from Morey, Paul and internal sources. While there is clearly tension, those dramatic interpretations of the situation were also pretty obviously leaked by a former member of the front office or coaching staff.

Meanwhile, through it all, the Rockets’ 2020 title odds have remained pretty  steady. Houston opened at 10-1 back on May 4. In early June, they went all the way to 12-1. But on June 14, as the Finals ended, they suddenly went to 8-1, and that’s where they’ve remained since.

So let’s be clear: If you were thinking about placing a futures wager on the Rockets for next season, now is absolutely the time to do it. If they land Butler, which seems definitely on the table, you’re not going to get a better number than this.

Let’s address the concerns…

Locker room combustion: Butler’s issue has been that he’s been the best player on each of his teams until Philly but has never been surrounded by players he felt were worthy of his talents or competitiveness. That will not be the case with Paul on board. Butler showed last year he could meld into a kind of “fill-in-the-gaps” player as he became the bridge between Ben Simmons’ playmaking and Joel Embiid’s dominant finishing. He pushed and took over when the team needed it, and pulled back into a supporting role when it was required.

Yes, Butler and Paul is likely not a long-term fit, but their shared competitiveness and zero-prisoners approach might actually fit. Butler has long been an admirer of Harden and would understand that Harden is the MVP; Butler doesn’t think he’s better than Harden, he believes he’s as good, which is different. Mike D’Antoni’s “shoot when you’re open” encouragement would also likely sit well with Butler, who doesn’t want to be shoehorned but instead wants freedom.

Eventually, there is a good chance of Butler clashing with Harden’s passive aggression, but that would be down the road.

On-court fit: Butler instantly makes the Rockets’ defense fundamentally better and alters all of their weaknesses. Paul was quietly very good defensively when he returned from injury last season. Having Butler would mean the Rockets have at least three top-end defenders on the floor in crunch time with Paul, Butler and either Tucker or Clint Capela, depending on what the sign-and-trade parameters would be. (Possibly both.)

Offensively, Butler has been around a 35 percent 3-point shooter the past three seasons, which is good enough in the volume system Houston employs. They would have to make some changes from their isolation-only scheme, but Morey and D’Antoni have both said they’re looking to do so.

Butler’s playmaking is the real underrated factor here. He ranked in the 81st percentile in the pick and roll (including passes) last season. The Rockets can use him as both the screener and the ball-handler in pick and roll, creating a weave with Butler, Paul and Harden that would be a nightmare to try and contain.

Now, Butler can still re-sign with the Sixers, the team that can still offer him the most money and one that was a 4-bouncer shot from taking the eventual champs to overtime in Game 7.

But if Butler did re-sign with the Sixers, it wouldn’t make the Rockets a bad bet. They have been the second-to-fourth-best team in the league over the last two years and have matchup advantages over Denver, Utah, and potentially the Lakers depending on who they bring on around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. (Essentially, I’m suggesting the Rockets may be able to simply out-3-pointer the Lakers if they don’t surround the stars with shooting.)

Even if you’re not in on the Rockets to win the title, the fact that Houston’s win total remains at between 51.5 to 53.5 with this news percolating gives that bet value (at a lower limit). Butler-Paul-Harden with D’Antoni coaching in a weak division is good for 55 wins as long as they don’t have a repeat of last year’s injury woes.