CHICAGO — Jimmy Butler is going to get paid next summer.
The Chicago Bulls failed to reach an extension with the fourth-year shooting guard by Friday’s deadline, setting Butler up to be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015. It’s a risky decision, a gamble that Butler isn’t going to play himself into a hefty contract this season. And in this market, that’s a bet the Bulls will probably lose.
Butler has maintained all along that he wants to be a Bull, and there’s no doubt that the organization values him highly. Certainly, defense-obsessed head coach Tom Thibodeau would hate to lose his best perimeter defender.
"Jimmy knows how we feel about him," Thibodeau said before the Bulls' Friday home opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "This is all part of the process. He's earned the right [to test the market], he's put himself in a great position. In the end, it'll all work out."
The Bulls’ efforts to lock up Butler at a discount were unlikely to be successful in any case, but after the Utah Jazz agreed to a four-year, $42 million extension with Alec Burks earlier on Friday, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, any chance that Butler would sign for less than eight figures annually was dead. The market for wings with two-way ability is set, with Klay Thompson signing for four years and about $70 million (via ESPN.com's Marc Stein), Kawhi Leonard holding out for a max deal and Gordon Hayward getting a four-year, $64 million deal this summer. As a restricted free agent in 2015, Butler will undoubtedly get offers in that range.
2014 Rookie-Scale Extensions for Guards
|Alec Burks||Utah Jazz||4 years, $42 million|
|Kyrie Irving||Cleveland Cavaliers||5 years, $90 million|
|Ricky Rubio||Minnesota Timberwolves||4 years, $55 million|
|Klay Thompson||Golden State Warriors||4 years, $70 million|
|Kemba Walker||Charlotte Hornets||4 years, $48 million|
Chicago can match any offer sheet Butler signs with another team, but there are risks to letting him test the market. The Bulls lost Omer Asik to restricted free agency in 2012 when the Houston Rockets exploited a CBA loophole to sign him to a contract that would have been brutal to match.
The Dallas Mavericks got creative this summer as well, stealing Chandler Parsons from the Rockets with a three-year offer sheet for max-level money with an opt-out clause after two years. If a team really wants Butler, there are ways to make it hard on the Bulls to match, no matter how much they value him.
The league’s new television deal poses another risk for the Bulls. The new agreement doesn’t kick in until 2016, but both the NBA and the players’ union have talked about possible strategies to smooth over the salary-cap increase to prevent it from jumping dramatically from 2015 to 2016.
It’s still unclear whether this will become a reality, but the possibility of a higher salary cap next summer will increase the maximum amount a team can offer Butler. If the Bulls had signed Butler now, he'd be locked in at a number that may look high today but will be much more of a bargain in 2016 when the league starts seeing that extra TV money.
Not that the Bulls would be unable to absorb a max extension for Butler. They're slated to have around $63.4 million on the books next summer, which will put them $3.1 million under next year's cap, according to Larry Coon's latest projections. A contract for Butler that starts in the $16-17 million range annually wouldn't kill the Bulls, but it would make it substantially more difficult to add more talent using the midlevel and biannual exceptions without going over the projected $77 million luxury-tax line, something Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf would like to avoid.
But the Bulls need Butler. They were able to trade away defensive ace Luol Deng last season because they had Butler waiting in the wings to take on that role. If they let Butler walk next summer, they'll lose their best wing defender with no clear successor. The closest thing they have to an in-house replacement is second-year forward Tony Snell, who hasn’t shown he is ready to be a day-to-day contributor.
The reluctance to offer Butler a max or near-max deal isn’t without reason. Despite his defensive gifts, he has yet to show that he’s a consistent offensive player. After a terrific 2012-13 campaign in which he shot 38.1 percent from three-point range, his shooting took a step back last year. But he was outstanding this preseason before the thumb injury that has sidelined him for the first two games of the season, averaging 15.8 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting from the field. At 25 years old, it's still safe to bet that he isn't a finished product as a scorer.
It's a gamble Butler made when he decided to test restricted free agency. He's confident he'll play himself into a max deal.
"I love my odds," he said in an interview before the game. "I think this team is really good, championship caliber. I’m going to produce. I’ll just bet on myself."
All NBA contracts involve a certain amount of risk, weighing what a player’s performance so far makes him worth against what you think he’ll give you in the future. When the Bulls signed Derrick Rose to a five-year, $94 million extension in 2011, they didn’t know he’d miss most of two consecutive seasons with knee injuries. They gave him the contract based on his talent coming off an MVP campaign. Even though two years of the deal have turned out to be sunk costs, there was no question it was the right move at the time, and they’d do it again under the same circumstances.
Meanwhile, extensions they gave to Joakim Noah in 2010 ($60 million over five years) and Taj Gibson in 2012 ($33 million over four years) look like outright steals compared to what they’d get on the open market today. When the Bulls have bet on their young talent to grow beyond their current value, they’ve been right. When they let Asik hit the market, they got burned. Losing Butler the same way would be a huge setback for the organization, one that could have been easily avoided.
The Bulls will probably keep Butler. They can match any offer, and he’s too valuable to lose. But by not extending him now, they made a gamble that could very well come back to hurt them next summer.
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report.