Daryl Morey has been telling everyone who will listen he believes that not only will the Rockets be back with roughly the same lineup of players, but he expects them to be the favorites in the Western Conference. With just days before the opening of free agency, however, rumors are flying that the Rockets, in desperately hot pursuit of Sixers free agent forward and Tomball native Jimmy Butler, are ready to bet the farm if it means a shot at third star.
Reports on Wednesday said the Rockets were shopping Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker, three of the team's five starters, to try and make space available for Butler, who they also tried to land at the beginning of last season.
One of Morey's talking points has been that they were perhaps the best team in the NBA the second half of last season with their current roster fully healthy. But, as Tucker said in an interview at the NBA Awards this week, Morey is one of the smartest guys in the league and always seems to have something up his sleeve while managing to keep his cards close to the vest.
To recap Butler's current situation, the All-Star wingman is likely to pass on the one-year option that remains on his contract and become a free agent. He helped a surging Sixers team get just a bounce or two away from a birth in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers can offer him a max deal worth more than any other team can in free agency and there is no reason to think Butler won't cash in his chips on what could be the biggest payday of his career. But if he wants to play with his close friend, James Harden, and return to his home town, Philly might opt for a sign-and-trade to Houston rather than lose him for nothing.
The problem is a complex set of math variables that basically makes a straight-up trade for Butler impossible for both teams. As a result, the Rockets would need to include a third team in the deal either by trading a player to a team with cap room in exchange for quality draft picks or involve another team in a three-team deal that nets the Sixers someone of value.
Any deal would likely have to include Gordon and Capela. Gordon would be expendable given he plays a similar position to Butler, but Capela would leave a rather sizable hole in the front court where the Rockets are already short on length. In fact, they were one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA last season with Capela.
They could try to bring back Kenneth Faried, who provided a tremendous lift off the bench when he was picked up at midseason, but he remains undersized. They might also try to target another Texas native, Deandre Jordan, to replace Capela with the mid-level exception they own.
That is a very high risk, high reward wager with serious consequences if it doesn't work out.
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Then there is Tucker. Up until now, even when the rumors were flying that everyone except Harden was available earlier in the offseason, most believed Tucker was also nearly untouchable. He is certainly their best defender, a now-reliable three point shooter, and the glue that seems to hold the locker room together. His intensity has been a boon to the team since they added him two seasons ago.
If the Rockets had to unload Tucker as part of any deal that would include Butler, Capela and Gordon, that would represent essentially the opposite of Morey's claim that they were keeping the squad together because they were so good last season. If that winds up being true, his poker-faced comments outside the NBA Awards about how frustrating and strange it had been dealing with the wild rumors flying around would be the bluff to end them all.
Maybe acquiring a third star ultimately trumps continuity, particularly when it is someone of Butler's caliber, but they would definitely need to have multiple other deals in place with other players if they wanted to fill out their lineup with something other than G-Leaguers.
Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta has been adamant that the team will surround Harden with the best possible players available. Fertitta amassed much his fortune gambling, figuratively and literally. If he decides he wants to go all in on Butler when free agency opens this weekend, he better have pocket aces ready or the only flop we could end up witnessing is the one on the floor of the Toyota Center.