Rockets: The case to trade for Jimmy Butler
Over the past week, it has become abundantly clear that the Houston Rockets plan to seriously target another star caliber player to pair with James Harden and Chris Paul this offseason. It has also become clear, through Daryl Morey himself, that the Rockets already have someone in mind.
According to Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle, that player may just be four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler. The Rockets are expected to pursue Butler aggressively and view him as an ideal fit, according to Smith. There has been additional reporting since to corroborate Smith's reporting.
Butler certainly makes a lot of sense as a name that Houston would be interested in. He's in his prime, a tough defender who can guard multiple positions, and has turned himself into quite the efficient scorer over the past several years. Also, the Rockets had significant interest in Butler this year and reportedly were willing to trade four first round draft picks to acquire him when he was still on the Timberwolves.
In reality, most Rockets fans don't need a case to be made for Butler; they're already on board. Butler is a Tomball native and reportedly has a strong relationship with Rockets star James Harden. There could be mutual interest from both sides to get a deal done. If indeed the Rockets could pull off what would be a very complicated process, it's worth noting just what Butler brings to the table for Houston and how much he raises their ceiling.
The greatest asset Butler immediately brings to Houston is his defensive versatility. The Rockets have been searching for lengthy, athletic wing players that can defend multiple positions ever since they chose to let Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute walk in free agency last summer and Butler brings that in droves. Butler is 6'8" with an average wingspan, but what he lacks in length, he makes up for in IQ, awareness, active hands, and strength.
Much like Chris Paul, Butler is constantly a threat to get into passing lanes, grab steals, and run the floor. If the opposing team makes one errant pass, Butler will make them pay for it. He is what you would call a ball-watcher in the best possible way.
For Houston's switching system, Butler falls in line quite nicely as he doesn't get bulldozed by bruising big men like Karl-Anthony Towns.
The Rockets also haven't had anyone to take over the best wing threat on opposing teams when P.J. Tucker is off the floor. Ariza filled this role quite nicely for Houston two years ago, but since then, Houston has gone to guys like James Ennis, Gary Clark Jr., and Iman Shumpert as less-than-flattering alternatives. Butler has even shown a willingness to switch on to smaller, quicker guards and has been effective at doing so.
Houston has a very clear need for another perimeter defender and Butler helps fill that role very cleanly. As a team, the 76ers last year defended 8.9 points per 100 possessions when Butler was on the floor. The year before, the Timberwolves defended 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with Butler on the floor. The positive impact he has defensively for every team he plays for is real and is much needed on a team that is currently starting a three-guard lineup with a Defensive RTG that ranked 18th this season (110.1 points per 100 possessions).
The Rockets technically don't "need" extra offense considering how highly they've ranked over the past few years with Harden and D'Antoni orchestrating everything. However, a player like Butler adds a layer of sophistication to Houston's offense that could prove useful in the postseason. Houston's offense is a pretty simple spread pick and roll attack that turns into isolation when teams switch on defense. It's hard to guard with Chris Paul and James Harden running the show, but adding a player like Butler diversifies Houston's attack.
For example, Butler's willingness to cut and attack the rim without the basketball is something the Rockets don't have as a perimeter option.
Butler also displays this willingness to move without the basketball in transition, which is extremely lethal when paired with passers like Harden and Paul.
As a shooter, Butler is about average. For his career, he's a 34.1% three-point shooter which is fairly poor. However, Butler has a lot of inefficiencies in his game that could easily be cleaned up by an organization like Houston. The Rockets make it their mission to eliminate inefficient shots from their offense as much as they possibly can. One way they do this is by taking away mid-range shots from mediocre mid-range shooters. Butler is a textbook case of a player who takes too many mid-range jump shots and doesn't shoot efficiently enough to justify taking them at all.
Jimmy Butler from mid-range 2018-19:
3.6 attempts per game
Butler scored 0.714 points per possession when he takes a mid-range shot versus 1.014 points per possession when taking a three-pointer even though he shot only 33.8% from three. With the Rockets, Butler will likely cut out all those mid-range attempts in favor of three-pointers which would make him a more efficient scorer. Butler is already fairly efficient as is (57.1% true shooting), but with a spaced floor, willing passers that will find him for cutting opportunities, and the Rockets cutting the fat out of his game, we could see him approach 60% true shooting.
Butler could also help significantly with lowering the great burden on Harden. Because of the limited scoring options available, Harden has had to shoulder an unusually heavy usage rating over the past few years. Even when the Rockets traded for Chris Paul, Harden's usage rating increased the following season.
James Harden usage rate:
These are historically high usage rate that Butler's addition could help lower substantially.
It's important to not gloss over Butler's greatest ability: attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. The Rocket's have never had anyone on the roster that could get to the free throw line nearly as well as Harden. However, Butler career 48.1% free throw rate is just shy of Harden's career 52.7% free throw rate. Butler's quickness off the dribble and strength at the rim when he gets there is something invaluable, especially with the floor spacing he will have if he were in Houston.
If the Rockets were to possible acquire Butler, it's safe to say he'd be a welcome addition on both ends of the floor.
How does it happen?
How the Rockets can possibly acquire Butler considering their cap situation is a fair question, but one that can be dumbed down into one word: trade.
There's pretty much two situations that would allow the Rockets to acquire Butler without completely gutting the roster.
1) An opt-and-trade with Philadelphia
If the Rockets wanted to acquire Butler, the cleanest way they would go about doing so would be via opt-and-trade. This would require Butler opting in to the final year of his deal under the condition that the 76ers would trade him to Houston immediately after doing so. This is how the Rockets acquired Chris Paul two years ago.
An opt-and-trade scenario would almost assuredly involve moving either Eric Gordon or Clint Capela's contract plus salary filler (either Nene Hilario or a couple minimum contracts). More than likely, the Sixers would prefer Eric Gordon as Capela would just become a really expensive reserve center for them and Gordon provides shooting and shot-creation in Butler's absence. The Rockets would also likely have to forfeit some significant draft compensation for Philadelphia's cooperation.
This would effectively involve a handshake agreement that the Rockets would re-sign Butler to a four-year max deal the following summer to recoup some of the money he lost by not signing a five-year max with the Sixers this summer.
2) A sign-and-trade
If Butler chose to opt-out to seek more immediate long-term security, things get tricky for the Rockets. Houston would have to then move out both Eric Gordon and Clint Capela in a deal with the 76ers and possibly involve a third party to absorb Capela and send more usable assets Philadelphia's way. It would be incredibly complicated and difficult to find a third team to help facilitate this.
There is also an alternative route on the table that would involve swingman Iman Shumpert. Shumpert is an unrestricted free agent and the Rockets have his full bird-rights. If the Rockets were to re-sign Shumpert and do a double-sign-and-trade, they could manage to make the money work while only having to give up one of Gordon or Capela. Shumpert's first year would have to be incredibly lucrative to make the money work, while the second and third years could be more team friendly for the 76ers.
Both trade-types would be incredibly complicated and difficult to execute, but few GMs have pulled more rabbits out of their hat than Daryl Morey. If the Rockets want to land someone of Butler's caliber, which Morey reportedly does, creativity will be king this offseason.