Despite having limited salary-cap space, the Houston Rockets are expected to “be aggressive in their pursuit” of Philadelphia 76ers star Jimmy Butler, according to the Houston Chronicle‘s Brian T. Smith.
Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes confirmed what many expected Friday when he reported Butler will opt out of his contract with the Sixers and become an unrestricted free agent.
The obvious question is how the Rockets could possibly sign Butler, who will presumably want a max contract. Houston is heading into the offseason$16.2 million over the salary cap, per Spotrac.
ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowskireported in May that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was open to trading anybody-including James Harden under only the right circumstances.
In order to realistically sign a max-level free agent such as Butler and keep Harden, Morey would have to trade some combination of Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon.
Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill reported Tuesday that Paul had demanded a trade after a breakdown in his relationship with Harden. Likewise, Harden “issued a ‘him or me’ edict” regarding the nine-time All-Star. Morey subsequently refuted the report:
Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen
Couple things: Paul shares his thoughts, often pointedly. Rockets have never made a secret of that, as if they could. And he is good with taking it back. Tucker gets in his face, too. It’s what they do. Second, FWIW, Harden/Paul sit next to one another, play cards on the charter.
Zach Lowe @ZachLowe_NBA
Just spoke to Daryl Morey. He reiterated there has been no trade demand from Chris Paul. “Tweet that I said that. Print it. Tweet it twice.” https://t.co/oo6ge0Wkop
Still, it’s easy to see why Morey would want to unload Paul and the$124 million he’s owed over the next three years.
Paul’s contract will make it hard to trade him, though, since he missed 24 games in each of the last two years and saw his performance dip on the court. He averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists while shooting 35.8 percent from three-point range.
Absent trading Paul, creating a max-level slot will be difficult. Gordon and Capela combine to make a little over$28.9 million in 2019-20. Throw in PJ Tucker ($8.3 million) and you get enough to accommodate a marquee free agent but have to factor in the salary-matching aspect of trades.
You also have to question whether gutting the team’s remaining depth in order to sign Butler actually makes the Rockets significantly better.
A trio of Paul, Harden and Butler or a pairing of Harden and Butler would be extremely top-heavy. The Sixers tried this approach by trading for Butler, and it amounted to a second-round exit in the playoffs.
As much as Morey might want to shake things up, the injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant leave the Western Conference wide open in 2020. The Rockets should be careful not to overreact to their postseason disappointment and end up taking a step backward.