The Houston Rockets were a little over 16 minutes away from taking that next step in 2018 but just couldn’t quite make it over the hump. A combination of bad luck, questionable officiating and those damn Golden State Warriors just seemed to always get in the way. The most frustrating part is that Houston was right there at the cusp, and it’s always made me wonder how it would have unfolded if they just had one more piece.
2017-18 will be the biggest “what if?” due to Chris Paul’s brutal hamstring injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, but the other question I’ve been pondering is if the following season could have been salvaged by yet another blockbuster trade.
Story posting soon: The Houston Rockets are making a renewed bid to acquire Minnesota All-Star Jimmy Butler, including four future first-round draft picks in their most recent trade offer, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) October 25, 2018
Tomball native Jimmy Butler was very famously a disgruntled employee of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the time and a homecoming of sorts would have made a lot of sense for the Rockets. Obviously, it didn’t come to fruition as the Philadelphia 76ers outbid everyone else in the Butler sweepstakes.
Sources: Philadelphia's Jerryd Bayless has also been traded to Minnesota as part of Jimmy Butler deal. Covington/Saric/Bayless/2022 2nd for Butler and Patton. https://t.co/qSvFzjG5BU— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) November 10, 2018
Seeing the way Butler has elevated his game during the postseason as a member of the Miami Heat rubs some salt in the wound because a pathway to the finals was also there in 2018-19.
Jimmy Butler has five 40-point games as a Heat.— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 18, 2022
All five games have come in the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/HcbQ6euDwG
Now of course there’s a lot of other factors that go into how the season would have played out. Playoff seeding would have likely been different. Would Kevin Durant have still hurt his calf? Could the James Harden and Chris Paul beef been avoided? Those are all valid points, but it’s also hard to argue that on paper, a Harden-Paul-Butler led squad wasn’t better than the previous iteration of the roster.
The better question is, would it have worked?
So would it have worked?
Well, it takes more than just three players to win a game, much less a championship. It appears Eric Gordon would likely have been a casualty of the trade. The Rockets still would have had P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela to round out the starting lineup with Gerald Green, Iman Shumpert and Austin Rivers receiving the majority of the bench minutes.
The Rockets would have sacrificed Gordon’s three point shooting, but in return they would have gained Butler’s defensive prowess and his ability to get to the free throw line. Both of these attributes would have been well-served as a countermeasure to the Warriors’ firepower. It’s not unreasonable to think that Houston would have made light work out of the Portland Trail Blazers in the WCF and had a good shot at defeating the eventual champions, the Toronto Raptors, had they finally surmounted Goliath.
The only thing that brings me hesitancy in proclaiming that this would have been a title team is the underlying tension between Paul and Harden and when it started. They reportedly didn’t speak for two months straight during the season. Winning can override a lot, but if the respect between the two had already started to diminish, adding another ego to the equation might have sent the whole ship spiraling out of control even sooner.
Reports suggest that part of the reason Butler left Philadelphia is because he wasn’t able to run the offense as much as he desired due to the needs of Ben Simmons. With that in mind, pairing Butler with the two ball-dominate guards in Houston suddenly sounds less ideal. Also, the thought of Paul and Butler, both known to having grating tendencies as teammates, getting after Harden for his more laidback approach doesn’t sound like an over-exaggeration.
That being said...
This was the ultimate boom or bust trade and, for what it’s worth, I would’ve still done it. Houston was so close to the mountain top and in this business, you should take full advantage of your window.
I remember when people were mad at what the Rockets gave away from CP3 and what they were allegedly ready to give away for Jimmy Butler. You trade for talent. You just do. The rest will come.— The Dream Shake (@DreamShakeSBN) October 10, 2020
How far would a Harden-Paul-Butler trio have taken the Rockets?
This poll is closed
At least 1 championship
NBA Finals appearance
Stuck in the Western Conference
None of the above, it would have been a disaster