Jimmy Butler and His Fate with The Bulls

Whether you believe you can build with Butler, or view Butler as the only asset the Bulls have to jumpstart a rebuild, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.  Here is a snippet into Butler’s current and future contract, tracking the 2017 offseason, and the consequences of a Butler trade.

Butler’s Current Contract

Butler is under a 5 year, $95 million contract that kicked in during the 2015-16 season , putting him under the Bulls control until 2018-19.  Currently, Luol Deng and Allen Crabbe are making more money than Butler, with Tobias Harris making roughly $300,000 less than Butler. Butler’s contract puts the Bulls in a position to bargain from a position of strength… for a limited amount of time.

Position of Strength

The Bulls can come to the table and bargain with a position of strength for three reasons: (1) Butler is one of the best two-way players in the league (2) he is entering the prime of his career (3) and Butler will not be a rental.  The Bulls have been asking for a “godfather” deal — and rightfully so.  One thing GarPax have consistently preached is to put themselves in position to be flexible, and they have done just that. Basketball Insiders estimates the Bulls can have up to $54 million in cap space this offseason, the Bulls have a $5,462,000 trade exception from the Taj Gibson trade, and will have even more cap space during the 2018 offseason.  There are valid reasons to be frustrated with GarPax for Bulls’ fans, but GarPax have not hamstrung themselves with bad contracts to take them out of the free-agent market, and are now in a position be major buyers to improve the team.

However, as time passes, the value of Butler will decline.  If the Bulls do NOT trade Butler this offseason, it is only logical that teams will offer less for Butler who may only be with them for 1 1/2 years, or a one one-year rental.  Sure, the New Orleans Pelicans took that risk with Boogie Cousins, but there is no doubt a playoff team like the Celtics would love two postseason runs with a core of Thomas, Horford, and Butler. Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren of the Celtics are two of the brightest executives in the league, and the Bulls and the Celtics have been involved in numerous discussions regarding Butler.  This all adds up to some high-stakes drama off the court during the summer.

Butler Stays Put

So what happens if Butler stays put, and the Bulls decide to “retool” with Butler? Here are two things the Bulls are looking at.

  • Free agency
  • Resigning Butler

As mentioned above, the Bulls will have ample cap space this offseason.  The projected Salary Cap is set at $102 million next year.  Let’s take a look at what potential free agents the Bulls have their eyes on.
Note: This is a completely subjective free-agent list I’ve made based on the Bulls interest in these players in the past, and areas of need the Bulls need to improve.  There are big names like Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, and Chris Paul out there in free agency… but I just don’t see their teams letting them walk.

  1. Danilo Gallinari — Player Option.
    Gallo has a Player Option of $16,100,000 for next season. He has had injuries in the past, but he is an efficient three-point shooter, which is much needed for the Bulls. He can play the stretch four and small forward positions, which would allow Butler in certain lineups to play at his more natural position of shooting guard, where he can use his strength to post-up and get to the line against weaker opponents. Although the fit would be nice, Denver has oodles of cap space to pay Gallo if he opts-out, so it will likely take a long term deal in the mid-to-upper $20 millions to pry Gallo away.
  2. George Hill — Unrestricted Free Agent.
    After Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, and Stephen Curry, Hill may be the best free-agent point guard available.  Hill has had a career year this year with the Jazz.  He has been shooting an effective rate; boasting a 56% Effective Field Goal percentage and a 61% True Shooting percentage, and is a capable defender.  He could slide into the starting point guard spot and immediately provide some much needed spacing on the court for slashers Butler and Wade.  However, there are big concerns with Hill regarding his age, injury issues, and his potential contract. Hill is 30 years old (will be 31 at the start of next season), and has missed 27 games for the Jazz due to injury.  He is also looking for max-level money, as he turned an $88 million extension with the Jazz. Hill is an above-average player who is trying to use the market to get max-level money, and who can blame him. But the Bulls would be wise to not act out of desperation and sign Hill.
  3. Joe Ingles — Unrestricted Free Agent.
    It is no coincidence I put these current Jazz teammates back-to-back.  The Jazz have been the surprise team of the Western Conference, and Ingles has been a big part of it.  Ingles is a knock-down shooter from down undah’ (say it with me in an Australian accent), and just makes the right basketball play nearly every time.  Currently making about $2.5 million, the Bulls would be wise to hop on over and put a nice chunk of change in Ingle’s pouch (sorry, as you can tell I don’t write about Australian people often).
  4. Darren Collison — Unrestricted Free Agent.
    Collison is a speedy point guard that would fit into Hoiberg’s system of pushing the ball with pace.  Collison has been effective from 3, shooting them at 40% clip last year, and at 42% this year.  The Bulls are also familiar with Collison as he was on the 2011 Pacers team that faced the Bulls in the playoffs.  Collison can also provide versatility as a starter or come off the bench, as he has played both roles throughout his career. The only problem with his versatility is the money.  If the Bulls offer Collison backup money, they can be outbid by another team that sees him as a starter.
  5. Chris Bosh — assuming the Heat release him.
    The Bulls appear to be first in line to go after Bosh if the Heat release him.  The Bulls have plenty of cap space to take on the rest of his deal, and he would be an immediate upgrade in the starting unit.  Of course, health is the big question.  Blood clots are career-threatening injuries, so there is no doubt there is serious risk in signing Bosh at the age of 33.
  6. Rudy Gay — Player Option.
    The Bulls have also been previously linked to acquiring Rudy Gay, but their thinking may have changed since Gay’s injury. Rudy Gay suffered a torn achilles in January of 2017 and is 30 years old.  He has a player option of $14,263,566 with the Kings for the 2017-18 season, which he will probably opt-in to if there are no offers on the market.
  7. Ersan Ilyasova — Unrestricted Free Agent.
    Ilyasova may not be the biggest name on this free-agent list, but the Bulls need three point shooting, and their power forward position is in flux — Mirotic may not come back, and is Portis a starter or more of a high energy guy off the bench? Ilyasova is the prototypical stretch four, and the Bulls have seen first hand how effective he can be when he dropped 31 and 11 on them this past January.  He may fall into the same situation as Collison where teams may get into a bidding war for his services, and his price may be too high.

As you can see, these are just a few options the Bulls have.  The main point is that they have the space to add, but it will be upon management to improve the team.

If the Bulls don’t trade Butler, then GarPax would need to keep in mind what it will cost to resign Butler if he stays with Bulls for the remainder of his contract.  Butler will opt out of his $19,841,627 Player Option in 2019-20, making him a free agent after the 2018-19 season, because he can make more money on the market.  Butler would have accrued 8 years of NBA service after the 2018-19 season, which puts him under the tier II for max-salary contracts under the old collective bargaining agreement (I have not read or seen anything that changes this rule in the new CBA) — making Butler eligible to earn 30% of the salary cap in 2019-20.  Per Basketball Insiders, the salary cap will be $102 million in 2017-18, and a tier II max salary player (like Butler) can earn approximately $28.8 million.  If the salary cap climbs to the projected $109 million in 2019-20, Butler’s yearly salary can be upwards of $30 million.

Another interesting wrinkle the Bulls must be aware of is the “designated veteran players extension” in the new collective bargaining agreement. To summarize the extension, if Butler makes any of the three All-NBA Teams in two of the next three seasons (counting this season, 17-18, and 18-19), he will be in line for a huge pay raise for the 2019-20 season — assuming he opts-out of his player option (the extension is very restricted and nuanced, that I will explain in a separate blog post).  Butler certainly has a good chance to make it the All-NBA Team as a forward this year, after the injuries to Kevin Durant and Kevin Love.  If he qualifies for this extension, Butler may earn up to 30-35% of the salary cap — in other words, MORE money than $30 million yearly, discussed above.  Although the 2019-20 is a few seasons away, the Bulls have to keep in mind if Butler makes any All-NBA teams.  Although we are playing in the land of what-ifs, as there are so many great guards and forwards in the league, this is something the Bulls will certainly have to keep in mind.

In either scenario, Butler is in line to make big money starting the 2019-20 season.  It is ironic that Butler’s rise to stardom combined with the CBA may be an unintended consequence for the Bulls to trade him now, instead of paying him in the future.  Or the Bulls can just back out the Brinks truck and pay the man.

The Consequences of a Rebuild vs. Retool

If the Bulls trade Butler, it is no longer a “retool“, but a full-scale rebuild. Although Wade has $23.8 million reasons to stay, at age 35, Wade will have to seriously think to stick around a Bulls team that likely won’t make the playoffs without Butler.  Rondo is not guaranteed to stay on the team regardless if Butler stays or goes.  Mirotic may not be back if the Bulls don’t give him a Qualifying Offer as he is a Restricted Free-Agent, or if the Bulls don’t match an Offer Sheet Mirotic gets from another team.  The Bulls can potentially have four of their best players gone from their team next year, which translates to a total rebuild.

The retool theory seems more plausible looking at how the Bulls have set themselves up for free agency.  As mentioned above, the Bulls have ample cap space, but it remains to be seen if they can find the pieces to complement Butler.  The fact that the Bulls are in such a big market, and did not make the playoffs last year, and are also fighting for their playoff lives this year, has to be noted.  In a big market like Chicago, it is very hard to sell a rebuild.  Like all other professional sports, basketball is a business, and tanking may not be the best business move for the Bulls.  Don’t give me the Cubs analogy.  We had 108 years of experience is losing, so we were used to it. Since the 2004-05 season, the Bulls have only not the made playoffs twice. Regardless of how far they’ve gone in the playoffs, The Bulls have consistently been a winning product.  How will it be good for business if ownership waives the white flag and signals to the fans that the Bulls will most likely not be in the playoffs for the foreseeable future?  This may not be the basketball answer Bulls’ fans want to hear, but this is the reality of the business side of basketball.

Regardless of the decision the Bulls choose to pursue, it is clear they have their plates full. With all the drama the Bulls have been facing on the court during this season, it looks like there will be even more drama off the court during the offseason.

By the way, go have yourself some moose track ice cream.  You deserve it.

Feedback: Comments or concerns?  I’d love to hear from you guys.  Find me on twitter @mooselorenzo or email me at mali40@kentlaw.iit.edu .

Sources: I try my best to link all the sources I used in the blog itself.  If I missed something or someone, please let me know, and I will correct it.  Also, if I got any of my salary cap stuff wrong, let me know, that’s kind of the whole point of this blog thing.