Philadelphia traded for Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves during the 2018/19 season, sending Dario Saric and Robert Covington to the Western Conference. The Rockets were rumoured to be keen on Butler at the time, and were interested in offering four future first-round picks for the former Chicago Bull.
The temptation to add a third star is clear for the Rockets. The West is wide open, and Houston will consider themselves favourites. Adding another All-Star could elevate them further.
The 2018/19 season faded fast for the Rockets amid conflict between Chris Paul and James Harden. The severity of their disagreements is unknown, but the tension within the organisation is without doubt. Paul is a fierce, almost obsessive, competitor. Harden is a ball-dominant scorer who likes to do things his way.
One spat between teammates is unsurprising. Houston have been under pressure though, with Paul’s enormous contract an obvious burden on the franchise as he ages.
Adding Butler, who isn’t the easiest locker room presence, to that mix seems like a mistake. Butler is confrontational, and unerringly self-confident. How long would a Paul, Harden and Butler core survive? Maybe it’s long enough to win a title, and any future fallout wouldn’t matter, but a character like Butler being put into the current turbulent Rockets is a risk.
Then there’s the on-court question marks.
Houston will have the ball in Harden and Paul’s hands a lot. Butler will be fine with that if – and it’s one hell of an if – he gets his fair share. Butler didn’t take long to complain about the system in Philadelphia, he wouldn’t be content with spacing the floor for Harden while the 2018/19 MVP runner-up dribbles for 20 seconds.
That’s not to mention that a sign-and-trade would – according to Wojnarowski – see at least two of Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker depart. The balance of Mike D’Antoni’s team would be altered drastically.
From Butler’s perspective, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense either.
Houston might have better title credentials than Philadelphia in 2019/20, though that is up for debate. Butler could be leaving a lot of money on the table by leaving the Sixers (Philly can offer a five-year, $190 million contract, the Rockets can’t pay more than four years, $140 million).
The questions about fit both on and off the court are key for Butler too. He’s moved around more than any other NBA star, but seemed to find a role in Philadelphia. He got along well with Joel Embiid, and after a rocky period in winter, flourished in the playoffs, leading the Sixers to Game Seven against the Raptors.
Slotting into the offence with Embiid and Ben Simmons wasn’t easy, and the fit still isn’t perfect, but it’s something Butler has seen work. He was Philly’s closer, and that’s not something he can expect if he joins Paul and Harden in Texas.
Finally, there’s the Sixers.
They would get a return for losing Butler. It’s better than seeing him walk in free agency for nothing, but the players they would receive and potential picks are hardly franchise changing.
Losing Butler, though, will be hard to swallow for a franchise that went all-in last season and talked the talk about running it back in 2019/20. It was already probable that Philadelphia would offer Butler the full five-year max, if anything, this news has made that more likely, and it’s hard to envisage Butler turning down the extra $50 million to join an imperfect situation in Houston.