When Jimmy Butler turned down the Chicago Bulls’ four-year, $44 million contract extension offer in the fall of 2014, most rightfully assumed him to be a bit of a nutter. That’s a four-year extension for a player who was coming off of only his first year as a full time starter. He played standout defense during that season but also shot less than 40 percent from the field, hardly acting as a 3-and-D guy at 28 percent from long range. He was not much of a dribble penetrator or post-up artist despite a sturdy frame, and scored just 13.1 points per contest despite getting to stay on the court for nearly 39 minutes a game.
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No, Butler was going to – everyone say it, one final time – bet on himself as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015, when heaps of teams with salary cap space would fail to land stars and overpay on consolation prizes like Jimmy. This frustrated the Bulls, not so much because they thought Butler would get away from them, but because they were possibly going to be forced into paying far more than they should to match any offer from a desperate team and retain a guy who plays great defense but can barely shoot or dribble.
Just over eight months later, Butler has somehow developed from a consolation prize into one of those stars, signing on the first day of NBA free agency to a five-year, $95 million contract that the Bulls are more than happy with.
Instead of Butler having all the leverage with free-agent suitors while potentially coming off of another season at 39.7 percent, Chicago exercised its own restricted free-agent leverage for a player who scored 20 points per game while making the All-Star team and winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Bulls may have missed a chance to grab the NBA’s greatest bargain for just a few million more last fall, but in a lot of ways the team’s leverage improved just as much as Butler’s game did – even while eventually paying him twice as much.
That leverage included risk-it-all last chance option for Butler to play for a tiny qualifying offer of $3 million in 2015-16 in order to become an unrestricted free agent in 2016, with the best-case monetary scenario being what Butler just agreed to – a five-year deal worth $95 million, including an option to opt out after 2019, when the Bulls can re-sign him (unless the league’s next collective bargaining agreement changes this NBA staple) for more years and more money than any other team.
Chicago had stated all year that it would match any offer sheet that Butler, a restricted free agent, would sign. The Bulls later made life even tougher on Butler’s side of negotiations by offering him the Maximum Qualifying Offer – as first detailed by the brilliant Mark Deeks. This isn’t a contract, per se, but an offer that makes it so any offer from an outside team would have to last for three seasons.
Chicago would, again, quickly match that offer, making it so Butler couldn’t hit unrestricted free agency until 2018, while working for less money per year due to the fact that an outside team had signed him to the initial offer sheet. Unless, again, Butler decided to play for the qualifying offer and $3 million this year instead of over five times that in 2015-16 with a very good Bulls team.
In a move that is good for all sides, Butler will most definitely play for five times that qualifying offer, an offer many last autumn thought he would eventually have to take after the old, 39.7-percent version of Butler failed to come to terms with Chicago in 2014.
Butler’s deal with include 7.5 percent raises on each season and he’ll have an opt-out after the 2018-19 campaign just prior to turning 30 years old. If he continues his existence as the best two-way shooting guard in the East (or, depending on what you think of James Harden and Klay Thompson’s defense, the game), teams will want to take advantage of his services into his 30s, with Chicago again able to offer more money than anyone else – and this time it’s TV money!
Jimmy Butler remains a superior athlete, but it was his improved fundamentals – especially footwork, dribbling, movement away from the ball and post-up know-how – that turned him into an All-Star in 2014-15. This is why his game will age well past this new contract, especially if his above-average 37.8 three-point shooting from last year holds up.
The Bulls, as always, are in an interesting situation.
Jimmy Butler will join Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as the three players on the team making eight figures under the “old” salary cap. Nobody knows if Rose and Noah will ever regain their All-Star status after knee surgeries, and they’ll still be relied upon as cornerstones because despite Butler’s fantastic play shooting guards not named “Michael” (who played for Chicago), “Kobe” (who tried to be traded to Chicago in 2007), and “Dwyane” (who is from Chicago) rarely lead teams to NBA titles.
Bulls fans are worried that Taj Gibson might meet the same fate as Noah after his major ankle surgery, there is fear that Pau Gasol’s All-Star campaign from last season might be his last great year, and that Doug McDermott will never pan out. There are fears about Kirk Hinrich shooting basketballs.
The Bulls will have to rely on new coach Fred Hoiberg taking a varied and talented roster and helping it perform greater than the sum of its parts. Former coach Tom Thibodeau did fantastic work with these Bulls, but the team’s combination of a high-end star or two plus endless role players played exactly as the paper suggested.
This is a new era in Chicago, with Thibodeau out, Noah possibly gone next summer and Rose the year after that. And the commitment to an improving and versatile Jimmy Butler, armed with a contract that acts as the station at work that everyone can agree on, makes sense moving forward.
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