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Jimmy Butler to the Rockets makes sense

If Houston is going to overcome Golden State, Butler could be just the man to get them over the hump.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

As I’m sure readers have heard, Jimmy Butler is on the move from Minnesota. The only questions remaining are: Where? And for how much?

As Jeremy outlined earlier this week, if the Rockets want to get in on the sweepstakes, they’d likely have to part ways with a package centered around Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and a first-round pick.

While that package probably doesn’t sound too attractive to Timberwolves fans’, as the returning players don’t fit the young core’s timeline, one needs to keep in mind that it is Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau doing the negotiating, and he’s generally more worried about winning a game this week than a championship in five years. With Butler’s value depressed by the public nature of his discontent, the Gordon-Tucker package might just get it done.

Losing Gordon would certainly hurt, but whenever Brandon Knight returns from injury, he should be able to replace enough of Gordon’s production to get by. The Tucker loss would be much harder to stomach, as it’d drastically limit the Rockets’ possibilities of going small with this current roster. But even if losing Tucker means Marquese Chriss becomes a Kevon Looney-esque sacrificial lamb in small-ball lineups, getting targeted possession after possession, you make the move. Butler is worth it.

So that brings us to the million (actually 190 million) dollar question: how would he fit? Well, if we’re being honest, at first glance, it’s a bit messy from an offensive standpoint. The two things Mike D’Antoni’s Houston offense prioritizes most— isolation play and three-point shooting— are two of Butler least-polished skills.

In isolation, Butler’s average for an All-NBA player, falling in the 67th percentile for all players (per stats.nba.com). He leans heavily on his midrange pull-up, which although is effective, doesn’t come close the efficiency midrange maestros like Chris Paul attain. Conventional wisdom suggests he could improve that efficiency if he took more of those shots from three, but his 30% on pull-up threes would suggest otherwise.

As for his outside shooting, it’s not as hopeless. Butler shoots excellent percentages (38.7% on catch and shoot 3’s, 41% on wide open threes, and 43% from the corners), but doesn’t take many, as every Rocket besides Nene Hilario and Clint Capela had a three-point rate at least double Butler’s last season. In Minnesota’s archaic offense, Butler would only settle for threes when the opportunity was too good to pass up. He’d definitely take more in Houston, but it remains to be seen how he’d fair on high volume.

For Butler to fit well with the Rockets, he’d have to accept a smaller role. While that’s likely not exactly what he’s looking for in his move, it might be for the best. Butler’s elite offensively when he’s employed as a support player, attacking a defense not totally keyed in on him.

Although Butler sees himself as an alpha offensively, his shooting percentages see a noticeable decline when he takes more than two dribbles or has the ball for more than two seconds. It’s not a coincidence he’s at his most efficient in play types where he isn’t the primary initiator (cuts, transition, spot ups). He’d be an exceptional second option to have on the floor with one of Houston’s star guards, beating weak-side closeouts after an initial strong-side pick-and-roll or isolation.

While his usage would certainly decline in Houston, it’s possible he’d hit career highs in shooting percentages. Last season, Butler posted up on over 8% of his possessions, but was average both passing out of it and scoring for himself (56th percentile). Reducing those post-ups, mixed with an increase in the quality of his three point looks, and the space around the rim provided by Houston’s shooters (where he shot a solid but not elite 63%), and the added benefits from being the defense’s second priority, should do wonders for his efficiency.

The biggest benefit from Butler’s addition, however, would come on defense, as it would provide the elite wing defender that the roster currently lacks.

Last season, in addition to ranking in the 95th percentile for isolation defense, Butler ranked top five in the league for deflections per game, loose balls recovered per game, and steals per game. He’s truly a special defensive talent, and throwing him out there with Chris Paul would be as formidable of a 1-2 punch that this league has for slowing down two of Golden State’s three dynamic perimeter scorers.

From an entertainment perspective, being traded to Houston would put Butler at a bit of a crossroads. His list of preferred destinations (Brooklyn, New York, or Los Angelos) suggests he desires being the top option in a large market. However, Butler is on record as saying “I just don’t think there have been many people that have understood how important winning is to me” and “I only play to win”. So it’d be interesting to see which priority would win out if he were to end up on the best team of his career in the Rockets.

As for the argument that the Rockets not being included on Butler’s list means they won’t deal for him, don’t put too much stock into it. Each of Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyrie Irving ended up being traded to a team that wasn’t one of their preferred destinations upon initially requesting a trade. Daryl Morey and the rest of the front office also hold an edge on all other non-list teams, as Butler grew up in the Houston area and his city pride was reportedly “to the death” before entering the league.

Even with the personal connection and surprisingly comfortable fit, this still “ups [the Rockets] risk profile” a lot, as Butler could walk next offseason. The Rockets know what they have in Gordon and Tucker, so sustained success is far safer if they choose to keep them. But with Paul’s age— and the percentage of the cap owed to the Rockets stars— increasing each year, no one would blame Morey for flat out going-for-it this season and trading for Butler.

The timing and fit might lower their floor in the regular season, but with Butler, you’d have three sure-fire top ten talents (which even the Warriors don’t), so their playoff ceiling would undoubtably rise.

Ultimately, it’d give the Rockets a better chance of knocking off the Warriors than they have now. Isn’t that all that really matters anyway?