Last July, when Jimmy Butler sat with Chicago Bulls brass in the event room at the United Center to announce a five-year, $92.3 million extension, nobody imagined we’d be here, with rumblings of a trade even a possibility.
After a breakout 2014-15 season where Butler won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and established himself as the team’s best player at both ends of the floor, the notion that his long-term future in Chicago was even a discussion was ludicrous.
Yet, here we are.
The follow-up season couldn’t have gone much worse for the Bulls or Butler—the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and Butler missed a month with a knee injury while becoming a local lightning rod for his December comments that Fred Hoiberg needed to coach the team harder.
It all culminated in Bulls general manager Gar Forman declaring at a season-ending press conference that nothing was off the table, when asked specifically about the team’s commitment to Butler as the face of the franchise.
That's led to Butler’s name being thrown into this offseason’s pool of big-time stars who will constantly come up in trade rumors between now and next February’s trade deadline. As the Sacramento Bee's Aileen Voisin reported, DeMarcus Cousins is back on that list, and Paul George is a relative newcomer, according to Bill Simmons. But nobody saw Butler coming.
The reality is, it would be hard to justify the Bulls pulling the trigger on a Butler trade, regardless of management’s questions about his handling of the leadership role he’s been thrust into.
The Bulls figure to make major changes this summer to a roster that’s grown stale, but a 26-year-old All-Star who plays both sides of the ball and is under contract for three more years (plus a player option for a fourth) is not someone to get rid of just for change’s sake.
In recent weeks, the Bulls have made efforts to downplay their openness to moving Butler.
He put in an appearance at last week’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, making sure to be seen talking to Forman and Hoiberg. And the Bulls selected him to represent them at Tuesday’s draft lottery in New York—an olive branch of commitment after Forman’s end-of-season comments undoubtedly ruffled some feathers.
For his part, Butler told ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell this week that he fully expects to be in Chicago when training camp kicks off in October:
Yeah, I think so. I definitely do. I do think that with the year that we did have last season -- it's unacceptable. So you have to then, truth be told, you got to look at everything. I didn't do my job, so truth be told, can I help this team win? That's the question that's brought up. And I can't be mad at that. You can use whatever excuse you want to use, but we didn't make the playoffs. That's all anybody sees and that's rightfully so. So do I think I'm going to be here? Yeah, I think so. But that's just me thinking.
It’s unlikely the Bulls move Butler—they won’t get an offer that reflects his on-court value. He essentially has the opposite problem of polarizing backcourt mate Derrick Rose, who isn’t worth trading at this point because his health history and inconsistency have left him with little to no value on the market.
Butler is in the class that commands a major package of young players and future picks. He’d likely be the best player in any deal he’s involved in, so a team would have to blow the Bulls away with an offer just to get them to listen. There aren’t many teams with both the need for a star and the kind of package that could pique interest.
The Boston Celtics have been linked to Butler in the past, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, and they’re one of the few teams that fit the bill. They’re already a playoff team, but they lack the kind of first option that would vault them into the next tier of contenders.
They also have the most impressive collection of trade chips of any team in the league, including the No. 3 overall pick during next month’s draft, another future pick from the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets and a slew of useful young players on "good value" contracts, including Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart.
If he wanted to, Celtics GM Danny Ainge could put together a formidable package for Butler with some combination of those picks and players, and the Bulls would have to at least think about it. But since Butler is in the first part of a long-term deal, the Bulls are in no rush to move him, and there’s been no indication Ainge is willing to empty his war chest for him.
If they wanted, the Los Angeles Lakers could get involved in discussions for Butler too.
Vice president Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak are entering the final season of a self-imposed three-year timeline to contend, and there could be pressure to land an established star to accelerate the rebuild.
They have plenty of assets to work with: They just landed the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft and have a promising group of young players, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson (the latter of whom would have to be signed and traded as a restricted free agent).
Russell would be particularly attractive to the Bulls, as he would give them a replacement point guard should they decide to move on from Rose when he hits free agency next summer. Still, it’s asking a lot for the Lakers to give up on the youth movement, especially just weeks after they hired 36-year-old Luke Walton as head coach.
There are pluses to L.A. making a potential trade for Butler, but it’s unlikely its willing to surrender the assets Chicago would want. All of which is why, whether or not it’s ideal for either side, the most likely outcome is Butler will be a Bull, at least for now.
The all-but-inevitable departures of veterans like Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah could make Butler's transition into a leadership role smoother, but he’ll have to learn to get on the same page with Hoiberg. It’s not going to be seamless, but until further notice, Butler is here to stay.