This post has been in the oven for months. I’d perused every recent extension, both in terms of what players of Jimmy Butler’s ilk receive, and how likely it is that he would reach an extension by the Halloween deadline at all. There was also plenty to think about in terms of roster construction. What happens if the Bulls get Carmelo Anthony? Would the Bulls have to choose between Butler and Taj Gibson long-term? Do I care about the luxury tax considering it’s Jerry Reinsdorf’s money?
Well, the answer to that last question is always and forever a resounding “no,” but the new TV deal essentially blew everything to smithereens. No longer do the contracts signed by the likes of Gerald Henderson or Avery Bradley set any sort of precedent in regards to what an impending restricted free agent like Jimmy will earn in 2015 and beyond. While those comparisons are relevant no more, here are the factors that make this negotiation with the Bulls so complex and fascinating:
-Money to Blow
As mentioned, the new TV deal will cause the salary cap to rise, and its corresponding elements like the mid-level exception will rise along with it. The consensus with the extensions that have been reached so far with Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker inking four year, $48 million deals, as well as Denver’s Kenneth Faried, who got just a smidge more, is that they’ll be a bit overpaid at first, and then underpaid following the influx of cap space. Butler is surely looking at those deals, as well as the massive paydays that fellow wings Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward fetched over the summer, as a barometer for not only what he could get now, but also what would await him next summer from another team, via an offer sheet the Bulls would have the option of matching.
-A Cautionary Tale
While his Class of 2011 contemporaries locked up deals through the 2018-2019 season, Butler may be wise to take a lesson from Luol Deng’s excursion into free agency. After turning down a take-it-or-leave-it deal from Chicago and finishing out the year in Cleveland, Deng surely expected to hit the jackpot considering the money teams like Dallas, Houston and Atlanta had to spend. He ended up settling for a two year deal with Miami at a touch under $20 million, which in retrospect shouldn’t be that shocking considering it was impossible to read a free agent profile of him that didn’t prominently feature the words “Thibs,” “tread on his tires,” or “heavy minutes.” Right or wrong, Deng’s workload the few years with the Bulls likely affected how teams project his performance for the rest of his career. It’s the only explanation for why a consummate professional and two-way player like Deng, who, believe it or not, isn’t even 30 yet, didn’t get a meatier deal.
Now, if Butler reaches an extension with the Bulls, he’ll hit unrestricted free agency earlier in his career than Deng did, since six year extensions like the one Luol got are a thing of the past, but Jimmy was also much older upon entry to the league. Deng left Duke after just one season, while Butler was 22 by the time his rookie campaign kicked off in 2011. So, if Butler signs a four year contract, that means hitting unrestricted free agency right before his 30th birthday, quite possibly with double the years under Thibs compared to Deng.
-The Upside Play
Butler might be better off copying Parsons, who signed an oddly short contract with Dallas, structured so Houston wouldn’t feel comfortable matching it. Rather than get the maximum four years, Parsons agreed to a three year contract in which he can hit the market again after just two seasons if he chooses. If Butler went that route, not only would he tap into the new TV money sooner, he’d be doing so before his 28th birthday as opposed to his 30th.
It’s obviously risky leaving a whole year’s salary on the table, as well as playing this year out risking injury or poor play, but it could pay off in a huge way. Butler’s value is in question (Grantland’s Zach Lowe stated on his podcast that he has a wager with an executive who is adamant Butler will not receive $10 million per year on his next contract), but as the saying goes, “it only takes one ***hole,” so he has little reason to accept a below-market offer as Taj Gibson did a couple years back. He won’t have any trouble finding a suitor willing to pony up, after which, he’ll be doing this:
That Parsons scenario is something the Bulls should be avoiding at all costs and one that gives Fegan leverage because teams crave certainty, and if Butler hits the weekend without putting pen to paper, GarPax will be starting the clock on a very volatile few years. They won’t have control of what Jimmy does next summer, short of the choice to match whatever contract he signs. Joakim Noah is the defending Defensive Player of the Year, but is being managed through a nagging knee injury and will hit free agency in 2016 at age 31. The following summer, Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Gibson can all test the market, as well as Butler if he opts for that shorter deal.
On top of that, it’s unclear how the league will attempt to massage the impending ballooning of the salary cap. For a team that craves playing it safe, as they prove by bringing back Kirk Hinrich every two years, that’s about as uncertain as it gets and makes the ramifications of roster moves between now and then more difficult to discern.
-Bird Rights and Replacing Jimmy
Barring a turnaround for Tony Snell (not impossible, but certainly not something to rely on at this point in time), the Bulls simply can’t afford to lose Butler. There were a litany of other factors, but it’s not a coincidence that the Spurs have had more success as Kawhi Leonard matured. In 2012 as a rookie, he wasn’t ready for Kevin Durant and the Spurs were blitzed by a more athletic team in the Western Conference Finals. The next year, Kawhi was intermittently brilliant, and they were a carom off the rim from the title. Last year, Leonard claimed Finals MVP as the Spurs topped Durant and LeBron in back-to-back series. Until further notice, any team that seeks to win the title will likely have to go through one or both of those two, and Butler is one of the very few defenders in the league capable of making life difficult for them.
Also, the Bulls have enough money on the books that they would only have the mid-level exception to replace Butler next summer, as teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap to keep their own players (via Bird Rights), but not to add players from other teams.
The situation is comparable to a stance ESPN’s Colin Cowherd likes to take. His claim is that, in the NFL, Houston’s J.J. Watt is severely overpaid because quarterbacks that make the type of money Watt does would never have 2-14 seasons like the Texans did in 2013. What Cowherd misses (or chooses to ignore for entertainment’s sake) is that Houston doesn’t have the option of acquiring one of those quarterbacks. Their choice isn’t Watt vs Star QB X, it’s Watt vs the players they would have to overpay in free agency.
So, sure, it may not make sense in the grand scheme of things to match a max deal for Butler, but the question becomes: What’s the alternative? In 2015, it would be paying a marginal player the mid-level exception to join a wing rotation of Doug McDermott, Hinrich and Snell (Mike Dunleavy is also a free agent next year). In the years to follow, going back to the inflated salary cap, every caliber of player will see a pay hike, so Butler in his prime in the $14-16 million range will be a better investment than the likes of a past-their-prime Jeff Green or Corey Brewer making eight figures.
-On the Court
All of this long-term talk does slightly obscure that this year really is the time for the Bulls. It will take time for LeBron James and coach David Blatt to instill defensive habits into Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, plus the pieces will simply take a while to gel. On offense, there is too much talent to not be extraordinary, especially by the time the playoffs roll around, however, for the LeBron super teams in Miami, it was defense that became their calling card early on, not offense. These Cavs don’t have anywhere close to the defensive personnel that those Heat did, as Dwyane Wade was a terror on that end when engaged, and Chris Bosh’s length on defense is something Love isn’t capable of matching regardless of how committed he becomes. If the Cavs become a good defensive team, it will come through chemistry and familiarity, which players themselves admit can take years.
As for the West, it’s hard to envision Oklahoma City, the Clippers, or even San Antonio themselves matching the blend of symphonic basketball and emotional investment of last year’s Spurs, still smarting from letting the 2013 title slip away in agonizing fashion.
The Bulls are by no means favorites, but this likely represents the best shot they’ll get to win it all. Sure, LeBron is about to turn 30, but so are Noah and Gibson. Signing Butler now prevents any sort of need for Butler to get his own stats to prove his offensive bonafides to teams, thus hurting the flow of the offense.
I was certainly a vocal critic of the Bulls cashing in so may assets to acquire McDermott, but he appears to be the real deal, which is huge for Butler. Having Deng and Butler together was a mismatched pair, as they didn’t complement each other. With McDermott though, if Jimmy never develops his offensive game past being a below-average shooter and a good rebounder who can attack the basket and get to the line, that’s enough. The Bulls finally project to have a balanced lineup for the first time in the Rose Era. Hinrich remains a fly in the ointment, but Chicago should be able to finish games with Rose, Noah, Butler, McDermott and the power forward of their choosing for the foreseeable future.
That future hangs in the balance though, because there’s less than 48 hours left for the Bulls and the 48 Minute Man.