B/R NBA's Max 5 Series: Is Jimmy Butler Really a Maximum-Contract Player?

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistJune 22, 2015

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler talks to a teammate during Game 3 of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday, April 23, 2015, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Aaron Gash/Associated Press

This is the first installment in a five-part series where we'll be discussing whether or not five of the NBA's biggest free agents are worth maximum-salary contracts. We'll start today with Chicago Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler

Last October, Jimmy Butler turned down what was reported (by the Chicago Sun-Times) to be a four-year, $40-plus million contract extension from the Chicago Bulls, betting that his play during the 2014-15 season would be good enough to command a much larger offer during the summer of 2015. 

Butler had dealt with multiple injuries throughout the 2013-14 campaign—he missed 15 games and appeared hobbled in the 67 he played. (He was dealing with turf toe for much of the season.)

His shooting percentages, which had been at 46.7 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three during his second season, dipped all the way down to 39.7 percent and 28.3 percent, respectively. It made perfect sense to wager that he'd be both healthier and more effective in his fourth NBA season. 

That decision has worked out extremely well for the 25-year-old swingman. Butler is coming off what was by far his best season, one in which he averaged 20.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 38.7 minutes per game while raising his shooting percentages back up to 48.4 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from beyond the arc. He also went to the free-throw line 7.1 times per game and made 83.4 percent of his foul shots. 

He made his first All-Star team, was named to his second consecutive All-Defensive Second Team and won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award in a landslide. 

All that improvement put him in position to receive what will probably be a maximum-contract offer. As early as January, reports surfaced that the Bulls planned to offer Butler the maximum allowable contract of five years and $91-plus million, and that they expect to sign him to that deal before another team even gets the chance to present him with an offer sheet. 

Based on the current projection of a $67.1 million salary cap and Butler's four years of service time, here's how much Butler would stand to make under a maximum contract with the Bulls and on a maximum offer sheet from another team.

 Re-Sign With BullsSign Offer Sheet

However, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported that Butler plans to reject a maximum-contract proposal from the Bulls and instead pursue a shorter deal that would allow him to hit free agency again in a couple of years. 

One way the Bulls can combat this is by giving Butler what's known as a maximum qualifying offer. See here for more details, but what it basically boils down to is that any offer sheet Butler signs with another team would then have to include a minimum of three contract years, not including options, so the two-year deal with a player option before the third season that Wojnarowski floated would not be possible. 

Whatever the case, it seems incredibly likely that Butler will be pulling down a maximum-contract offer from one source or another, whether it is for two, three, four or five years. Still, the question remains: Is he worth it?

The Hope: Why Butler Is Worth the Max

Butler was one of just seven players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and three assists during the 2014-15 regular season. The other six? LeBron James, Rudy Gay, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and James Harden

Gay is the only one of those players not currently working under a maximum contract (technically James isn't either, but he'll continue to make the maximum annual salary on his one-year deals until he feels like signing for the full max). 

With an average salary of $17.14 million, that group of six players made over $15 million more than Butler himself did last season; and about $1.3 million more than the salary at which his potential max contract would start next year. 

Add in the fact that those statistics only shed light on Butler's offensive exploits—and that he is clearly a better defensive player than he is on offense, and you're looking at an extraordinarily valuable player. 

He's gotten so good, so quickly, that Grantland's Zach Lowe recently thought nothing of referring to him as, "Jimmy Butler, Chicago's best all-around player."

And it's really Butler's defensive acumen that truly makes him worth the money. There are few wing defenders in the NBA more capable of making life difficult for the opposing team's best scorer, no matter the position, than Butler.

The godfather of modern NBA defense himself, Tom Thibodeau, said of Butler at one point late this season“Well, I’m biased, but in my opinion, he is (an All-Defense caliber defender). I don’t know if it gets much better than him on the perimeter." 

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Butler can easily slide between guarding any of four positions in isolation. His pick-and-roll defense, particularly as part of Chicago's off-ball rotations, is sublime. He can hold his own against (most) bigger players in the post. He is one of the league's foremost pilferers, as well; his 1.8 steals per game tied for ninth-best in the NBA. 

In the 4,267 minutes Butler has shared the floor with Joakim Noah over the last three seasons, the Bulls have allowed an absurdly low 97.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, a figure good enough to rank in the league's top three on a yearly basis, and one that would have led the league this past season. 

Butler is, quite simply, a foundational defensive player, one around whom you can construct a large part of your point-prevention game plan and feel confident that it will be successful. When you add in the type of offensive value he provided during the 2014-15 season, it would be more difficult to justify not giving him a maximum salary contract than giving him one. 

The Doubt: Why Butler Might Not Be Worth the Max

There is not much of a reasonable argument against making Butler a max player, especially when you consider that his "max" deal would pay him significantly less than the one signed by, say, a 10-plus-year veteran like Chris Bosh (five years, $118 million) last offseason. 

You could say that Butler really only has a one-year track record of working as a high-level offensive player, and that even that year was marked by fits and starts in terms of his viability as a primary scoring option. 

His field-goal and three-point percentages experienced wide month-to-month variations, as did his ability to generate free throws. He was not often the actual No. 1 offensive option on the floor, given the presence of Derrick Rose and/or Pau Gasol, so having the entire defense geared up against him was a relative rarity. These things are all true. 

Also true is that Butler has dealt with multiple injuries over the last two years, and he's carried a minute load that could charitably be described as insane. But with Thibodeau being replaced by Fred Hoiberg as the Bulls' coach, one would assume that burden will be eased in the future, allowing Butler to remain healthier.

And again, Butler derives most of his value from his defense. Anything he adds on the offensive end is just a bonus. And at the very least, he appears to be a comfortably above-average offensive player with the potential and ability to be much more than that.

The Market Reality

CHICAGO,IL : Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center During Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 14, 2015 in Chicago,Illinois NOTE TO USER
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

When you consider that Mark Deeks of Sham Sports spoke to an executive who said he'd happily max out Butler last offseason, and that he unquestionably raised his market value this year, it becomes very clear that the contract Butler signs this summer will be right within that range. The only question is for how many years it will last.

Given the recent Adrian Wojnarowski report that he'll insist on a short-term contract enabling him to hit free agency again in two to three years, it seems more likely Butler will sign an offer sheet with a team other than the Bulls—who will then have the option to match it—than Butler re-signing in Chicago in the opening days of free agency. 

Here's the list of teams that could use a player like Jimmy Butler: all of them. Half the league (or more) could have maximum salary-cap space and, thus, the ability to sign Butler to the kind of offer sheet it would take to potentially steal him away from the Bulls. 

Wojnarowski already floated the Lakers as a potential destination that intrigues Butler, and it's not at all difficult to see teams like the Knicks or 76ers making a run at him as well. All of those teams will have requisite cap room for a Butler max, plus more, and thus could potentially weather the three days of waiting to see whether the Bulls would match a deal. 

In the end, though, it's hard to see the Bulls letting him walk, even when factoring in owner Jerry Reinsdorf's well-earned reputation for stinginess. Butler's simply too valuable a player. That's why the prediction here is that Butler signs an offer sheet elsewhere, which the Bulls match. 


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