SIXERS BETTER SIGN JIMMY BUTLER BEFORE ROCKETS POACH HIM!

By Peter Brennan

NBA free agency starts in four days, and the Sixers are going to have to play offense to retain the rights to their heart and soul man Jimmy Butler.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Houston Rockets are planning to recruit Butler to push the Sixers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston.

The Rockets don’t have the salary-cap space to sign Butler, so they’d need the threat of the Sixers losing him for nothing to a team with the available room to motivate Philly into a trade.

The Rockets also would potentially need to make this a multiteam deal to satisfy the rules of base year compensation that would cover Butler’s outgoing salary.

The Sixers plan to be aggressive in signing Butler to a new deal, sources said, and could blunt a Rockets push with a full five-year, $190 million offer at the start of free agency on Sunday night. The Sixers could offer Butler a four-year, $146.5 million deal, too.

Butler would be eligible to sign a four-year, $140 million contract on the way to the Rockets, but Houston likely would need to include two of these players — center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and power forward P.J. Tucker — to make the financial deal work, sources said.

The 76ers are facing a free agency that includes Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick. They’re expected to make a significant four- or five-year offer to keep Butler, whom they acquired in a trade with Minnesota for Dario Saric and Robert Covington in November.

The Rockets offered Minnesota four future first-round picks for Butler before the Timberwolves agreed to the trade with Philly league sources said.

In a potential trade with Houston, the 76ers could turn Butler into a large trade exception and redirect the Rockets’ assets to additional teams.

If the Sixers were to lose Butler in free agency — and were in position to keep Harris and Redick — it is possible they could simply want the payroll flexibility and dismiss the potential idea of a sign-and-trade scenario for Butler.

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