Is Jimmy Butler the Missing Link to the Houston Rockets' Title Quest?

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 25:  Jimmy Butler #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts in the second half during Game Five of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on April 25, 2018 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets have renewed trade talks with the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire Jimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski on Thursday.

In the proposed deal, Houston would get Butler for four first-round picks, the maximum number of firsts allowed per the Stepien Rule.

While the deal is drawing criticism that the Rockets are mortgaging their future for instant gratification, the most important question is this: If Houston does land Butler—whatever the costis it enough to close the gap and dethrone the Golden State Warriors?

Based on last season, when the Rockets finished with the best record in the NBA (65-17) and pushed the Warriors to a Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals, the answer should be a resounding yes.

With the preternatural skills of James Harden and Chris Paul, Houston was purposely built to beat the champs by employing an offense based on the most efficient scoring options: layups and three-pointers.

Had Paul not suffered a hamstring injury in the waning moments of Game 5, they might have.

But things have changed.

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On both sides.

For Houston, Butler—a two-way player capable of scoring and defending multiple positions—is an upgrade on the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. He elevates the Rockets' level of talent as a four-time All-Star and four-time All-Defensive Second Team selection still in his prime.

His hard-nosed defense will make it tough for opponents to score on the Rockets again and create opportunities to get out in transition going the other way. And despite Butler wanting out of Minnesota because of the rift with teammates Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, he's still producing at a high level, averaging 24.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 3.8 steals per game.

Golden State improved, too, though. Comically so.

DeMarcus Cousins signed a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the reigning champs back in July. The Warriors won their third title in four years with JaVale McGee at the center position last year. Now, they're taking another step forward with Cousins, who was considered one of the best centers in the league before going down with a torn achilles.

For the most part, the Warriors already have a consistent identity, so Cousins will be inserted into what they already do well. He's prolific on the low block, passes extremely well for a big man and can hit the outside shot. He connected on 35.4 percent of his three-pointers with the New Orleans Pelicans last season on 6.1 attempts per game.

"I think you'll see us use him in that David West role from the last couple years, when David anchored the second unit," head coach Steve Kerr told KNBR's Tolbert & Lund. "I think you'll see us play through DeMarcus once he's back, and we'll put him on the low block and have guys cutting around him.

"The other thing that we can do that we haven't really had a big capable of doing since I've been here is putting him in some high screens and popping him out to the three-point line. He's a really good three-point shooter. He's got amazing soft hands, soft touch, and then he can pass from out there too."

Last year, the Warriors were third in the league in offensive efficiency (113.6) and 11th in defensive rating (107.6). They're only five games into the regular season at 4-1, and they're already surging, ranked fourth in offensive efficiency (116.5) and 10th in defensive rating (107.0).

Houston, on the other hand, is fighting to regain its footing. Last season, the Rockets were analytics in action, ranking first in offensive efficiency (114.7) and sixth in defensive rating (106.1). Over their first four games in 2018-19, they're 19th in offensive efficiency (107.8) and 21st in defensive rating (113.7).

Losing the defensive-minded Ariza in free agency provides an obvious explanation.

"He's one of the better players for the last 10, 15 years in that role," coach Mike D'Antoni told the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith in April. "He's just steady. You know what you're going to get. His defense is always good, hawking the ball and all that. He's a big presence in the locker room. Sometimes you do take him for granted because he's smooth and quiet and all that."

Ariza was like a Swiss army knife for Houston with his versatility, but Butler can trump his production in D'Antoni's mathematically sound system.

Butler plays off the bounce, so the Rockets will have to utilize him in isolation plays off high-ball screens like they do with Paul and Harden. Last year, they led the league in those sets at 14.5 percent, with Minnesota fifth at 8.7 percent.

The 2015 Most Improved Player can also handle the ball, and that means he can help execute the offense and run plays, freeing up Harden and Paul should they need rest or creative space off the ball. It also gives Houston another go-to option should one of its primary ball-handlers get in foul trouble or suffer an injury.

Additionally, it looks like Butler worked on his three-point shooting over the summer. His shooting percentage improved from 35.0 percent last year to 42.9 percent over the last four games. He's not a catch-and-shoot guy, but if he can consistently knock down the three ball, it will help with floor spacing and open things up for Clint Capela to catch lobs and Carmelo Anthony to have more flexibility offensively.

With the new rules in the NBA set around creating freedom of movement, Houston will have enough room offensively to run up the scoreboard like last year and keep pace with Golden State.

Butler could be a curious fit within the confines of "Moreyball," but his desire to win—coupled with a chance to play for Houston like his hero, Tracy McGrady—just might be enough to ensure this works.

It could even be enough to beat the Warriors.

"It was Houston everything for me," Butler told Marc Stein of the New York Times in April about growing up in Tomball, 30 miles outside of Houston. "Whatever sport I was in love with at the time, I wanted to be playing for the Houston Rockets, Houston Astros, Houston Texans. I was Houston to the death."


Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.