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How the Rockets and Sixers can both win in a Jimmy Butler trade

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Butler’s sign-and-trade is complicated. But if he wants to go home, the Rockets can make it worth Philly’s time.

Daryl Morey got out in front of it.

Almost immediately after a Yahoo! Sports report deemed the relationship between Chris Paul and James Harden as “unsalvageable,” the Rockets general manager shot down the notion as sternly as he could. “No, Chris Paul does not want to be traded,” he said on a June 17 appearance on Sports Talk 790. When asked if he would field calls on a Paul trade, Morey responded: “No. We want to add one more star to this team.”

Nearly a week after Morey’s radio appearance, Houston’s ideal third star has been identified. It’s Jimmy Butler, the same player the Rockets had a chance to acquire from the Timberwolves in November, but couldn’t complete the deal. Minnesota, as you know, went on to deal Butler to Philadelphia for a package headlined by Robert Covington and Dario Saric.

Morey is now attempting to atone for that misstep by forcing a sign-and-trade for Butler just as he enters free agency in a landscape that could feature 10 teams with max cap space. It’s ballsy and will take some serious cap gymnastics, but it sounds like Morey and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta are on the same page, for better or worse.

How would this work?

Houston cannot sign Butler as a free agent. The Rockets have $77 million committed to Paul and Harden alone. Clint Capela is on the hook for the remaining four years of his five-year, $90 million deal. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker combine for an additional $22.3 million. The salary cap is only $109 million.

Their best hope is what they’re attempting to do: trade everyone not named Paul or Harden, and siphon the assets off to Philadelphia for Butler.

If Butler truly desires to leave for his home region and a chance to compete alongside Paul and Harden, he would have to sacrifice some money to do so. The Rockets have no cap space, so they would only be able to pull this trade off so long as it falls in accordance with the league’s complicated base year compensation rules. Butler can only agree to a sign-and-trade at max Houston could offer him: four years, $146 million. Philadelphia can, and reportedly will, offer him the full five-year, $189 million max extension.

If Butler chooses to leave the fifth years worth $43 million on the table and wishes to play in his home region, the Rockets can create the pathway for this to happen. For this to work, the Sixers would have to execute a sign-and-trade with the Rockets at Butler’s four-year max. This has to be a multi-team deal — it’s the only way it would be allowed by base year compensation rules. (This ESPN video offers a good explanation of base-year compensation).

Houston would then find deals for two or all three of Tucker, Gordon and Capela, then redirect those assets to Philadelphia as a hat-tip for facilitating the trade. The Sixers would not need to take back any salary; they could create a traded player exception worth Butler’s Year 1 salary of $32.7 million. They could then renounce that trade exception, creating cap space to add a new max free agent or multiple key players to their rotation, or use it if they stay over the cap.

It remains to be seen, though, if Houston will fetch assets for their players. If the Knicks strike out on their top free agents, fashion icon P.J. Tucker would make a great fit in New York City. Gordon is a bona fide hooper, and any team angling for a championship would love to have him on their bench, but he’s getting up there in years.

Moving Capela might be tricky because of the length of his contract. Case-in-point: The Celtics are interested in acquiring him, but The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach reports a deal is “unlikely” because Boston “would not have interest in surrendering the players needed to complete the trade.” But Capela did post career-highs in scoring and rebounding last season. He can help a team, that much is certain.

The Rockets’ odds at landing Butler will rest on their ability to move these players. This will be easier said than done, and it wasn’t easily said at all. But Morey found a way to finesse Paul from the Clippers, then re-sign him to a long-term deal. If anyone can pull this monstrosity of a deal off, it’s him.

This, of course, is assuming Butler wants to leave the Sixers

If Butler doesn’t want to leave, Philadelphia would have no incentive to trade their prized free agent to a championship contender. The Sixers had been confident they’d not only be able to re-sign Butler, but Tobias Harris, as well. And for good reason: the lineup of Butler, Harris, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick only played 11 regular season games together before their playoff push. It was the second-best starting lineup behind the Warriors during that stretch.

But Philly’s playoff run ended with a Kawhi Leonard buzzer beater that tapped the rim four times before ending Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It could have very well been the Sixers in the Raptors’ place, had Leonard’s shot tapped the wrong way that fateful night.

The Sixers owe it to themselves to run it back, and the bond Butler formed with Embiid was undeniable. That team still has room to grow. Remember: the Sixers gave up Saric and Covington for Butler, then most of their other young players and assets for Harris. Pressing the big red button so soon would mean sacrificing so much for a second-round exit.

The ball, however, is not in Philadelphia’s court. It’s in Butler’s, unless they take an adamant no-trade-to-Houston-on-our-watch stand.

One more wrinkle: Which team has an easier path to championship contention?

The East could be even more competitive this season depending where Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Leonard and Kemba Walker land in free agency, but it won’t be nearly as ridiculous as what's out West.

  • The Lakers have Anthony Davis, LeBron James and at least $23 million in cap space to sign one or multiple free agents
  • The Nuggets grew up last season, drafted Bol Bol, and could have Michael Porter Jr. back from injury
  • The Jazz just traded for Mike Conley and could still have $17 million in cap space to add to Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert
  • Paul George just placed third in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting, and the capped-out Thunder are reportedly looking to improve via trade just like Houston
  • The Clippers have cap space to sign two max free agents
  • Portland just went to the Western Conference Finals
  • You can never count Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs out
  • The Warriors without Durant were still enough to beat the Rockets in Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals

That’s eight teams already, and who knows what happens with other teams like Dallas, Minnesota and Sacramento. The Rockets will also need to fill the other 10 spots on the roster with limited funds. It will be a challenge: players willing to take pay cuts for championships will have multiple options this summer.

It all boils down to Butler, and what he wants to do with his future. Philadelphia can facilitate his route to Houston, so long as the Rockets pay the toll. Or they can convince him to stay and run it back with a team that came just a tap short last season.

Either way, Morey creating this option for Butler and the Sixers is genius in and of itself. Scared money don’t make no money, and the Rockets are going all-in on themselves.