The NBA rumor mill, ever-so-active in the days leading up to free agency, has suggested recently the Houston Rockets are looking to execute a sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers for the services of Jimmy Butler. The flames were fueled on Thursday after The Athletic reported Houston has “a firm place in the lead” in their pursuit of Butler. The incentive for Houston is obvious; while they’d have to wheel and deal in order to clear the cap space necessary for the trade to go down, Daryl Morey has always been a big-game hunter. The pairing of James Harden and Chris Paul wasn’t enough to make the NBA Finals, and the Rockets want a third star. Butler would be just that.
The incentive in Philly, however, is a little murkier. Signing Butler is debatably their best-case scenario, given they don’t have a clear path to replacing him with a player of his caliber and need a third All-Star to be considered serious threats. But locking up a 30-year-old with a history of knee injures for the next five years on a max contract would take away any and all financial flexibility. Combined with the fact that it’s far from a sure thing that Butler even wants to stay, and a sign-and-trade remains their best option.
The Sixers can’t afford to lose Butler for nothing after shipping off two rotation players in Robert Covington and Dario Saric, along with draft picks, to get Butler in the first place. They could renounce his rights and make a play for another free agent, but it’s far from a sure thing. A sign-and-trade would likely net them Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker. They aren’t Butler, but combined, they’ll replace the value of an All-Star as well as any other two players of their caliber in the league.
Gordon is a sharpshooter on an expiring contract, and Tucker is the new prototypical glue guy who doubles as one of the best corner shooters in the league. The additional draft picks they’ll likely receive aren’t worth much, but any extra ammo could help facilitate a trade for another All-Star in the future- a trade they’ll be able to make without their cap space tied up in an aging star.
Butler is a very good player, and getting back two good but not great rotation guys in Tucker and Gordon won’t replicate what he can do. But Butler isn’t the best fit with the future faces of the franchise in the first place; as a ball-dominant guard, his playstyle directly conflicts with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, both of whom need the ball just as much, if not more, than Butler to be great. If Butler were a true 3-and-D superstar, Philly should do everything they can to sign him. But he isn’t, and they’d be better served maintaining their flexibility while adding two players hand-crafted to play a big role in today’s game.