Smart, or not so smart? Everyone will just have to wait to see
POSTED: Nov 3, 2014 12:45 PM ET
Jimmy Butler passed on a reported $10 million a year from the Bulls.
CHICAGO -- Let the record show, as they say on the courtroom dramas, that the good Jesuit fathers of Marquette do not teach students to turn down $40 million guaranteed. I can vouch for that personally on the front end, though I'll never get the chance on the back end.
Jimmy Butler's decision not to accept such a contract extension from the Bulls, a decision that could have set him and several more generations of Butlers up for life, is perfectly legitimate and ultimately his business. But it's hard to defend in practical terms. And it could have implications on the Bulls' season if the fourth-year shooting guard's lesser financial security morphs into vulnerability, exposure to injury and pressure to constantly prove his value over what Chicago hopes is the next seven or eight months.
Butler wouldn't be who he is without some real-world context that shaped his decision: He was raised in Tomball, Texas, put out of his home as a teen, truly dirt poor. Never a highly sought recruit, he landed at Marquette, spent three years there and made it into the first round of the 2011 Draft when the Bulls saw enough to grab him at No. 30.
After what basically was a redshirt rookie season, Butler gained traction over the second half of his second season. In the playoffs he was essential, taking over for a hospitalized Luol Deng and logging 48 minutes five times in seven games against Brooklyn and Miami. Butler's growth and potential made it OK for Chicago's front office to play hardball with and eventually trade Deng last winter.
Butler sagged under his own injuries last season, playing in 67 games. His shooting worsened across the board -- from 46 percent to 39, from 38 percent of 3-pointers to 28 -- and his PER went the wrong way too (15.2 to 13.5). Meanwhile, his offensive and defensive "surplus" dipped from 121/104 to 108/100.
This season, on an otherwise remarkably deep Bulls roster, Butler doesn't have a reliable backup as the team's primary wing defender. He missed the first two games of the season with a sprained left thumb -- against New York's Carmelo Anthony and Cleveland's LeBron James -- and both he and the others are fortunate he did. If weary from chasing around those elite scorers Wednesday and Friday, Butler might not have been able to log more than 39 minutes Saturday -- and win the game at Minnesota with a pair of free throws with 0.2 seconds left. As it was, despite his 24 points and 11-of-15 foul shooting, Butler was minus-7 against a lottery-bound Timberwolves club.
Bulls vs. Timberwolves
Jimmy Butler scores 24 points, Pau Gasol adds 20 as the Bulls edge the Timberwolves down the stretch 106-105.
None of the above is offered to argue for or against Butler's value to the Bulls. It does, however, indicate that he remains a work in progress, even as he helps Chicago on a nightly basis in ways big and small.
Through much of October, the team's front office was eager to embrace Butler through the 2018-19 season at a price comparable to what it paid forward Taj Gibson two years ago (four years, $33 million). But the market shifted seismically when the likes of Alec Burks (four years, $42 million) and Kemba Walker (four years, $48 million) signed their extensions.
Butler and his agent Happy Walter reportedly raised their sights to Andre Iguodala-money -- $12 million a year for four years -- while the Bulls reportedly nudged upwards to around $10 million. A couple outlets cited a $2.5 million gap in average annual salary, which was enough to scuttle the talks several hours before midnight on Halloween.
Pardon us here for another veer into the real world: The impact of taxes, along with other deductions (like agent fees) tighten any such gaps rather dramatically. As SI.com's Michael McCann and tax expert Robert Raiola noted in the case of Carmelo Anthony's options in free agency, a "$129.1 million contract" gets rather quickly to a bottom line of $66.7 million, take-home dough that's barely half of the gross. As a result, what might have loomed as a $34 million gross difference between Anthony's max deal with the Knicks and the best-available offers from Chicago or Houston actually was in the $11 million to $13 million range in net dollars.
So a $2.5 million difference, stripped down after taxes, might be about half that. And, based on the Bulls' alleged offer, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent.
This is where it becomes about more than arithmetic and finances.
Consider: To Butler's left in the Bulls' dressing room sits Derrick Rose, who cannot seem to stay healthy and already has endured two season-crippling and potential career-threatening knee blowouts. Fortunately for Rose, his litany of injuries began AFTER he signed his five-year, $94.3 million maximum-salary extension on the heels of his 2010-11 NBA Most Valuable Player season.
To Butler's right, meanwhile, several stalls down one side of the room sits Gibson. As a lively power forward athletic enough to square up vs. LeBron James on the wing and affable enough to still happily accept his bench role, Gibson is as valuable to the Bulls as Butler. Admittedly, his deal was at 2012 prices and looks lopsided in management's favor now. But Gibson was an emotional wreck over his extension talks up to the minute he signed on deadline night, and frankly never fully recovered that season.
Through a couple cement-block walls from where Butler dresses for games sits Tom Thibodeau, who uses Butler now the way he leaned on Deng. That mutual dependency got Deng two All-Star selections from admiring Eastern Conference coaches, but it also ran up Deng's odometer, likely contributed to some of his injury breakdowns and may have drained an inordinate share of the versatile forward's useful NBA shelf life.
The mantra of the NBA these days is "TV money, TV money, TV money, aaah-ooom." But the 2016 flood of cash that isn't even in the system yet seems to have been spent already two or three times over by the owners, executives, players and agents. No one wants to get snookered. The emphasis on "comps" -- what some other guy is making, isolated from his team's payroll or competency -- is greater than ever. So the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Butler go forth on one-year deals.
Those are the circumstances now of Butler's 2014-15 season, only after which he'll be able to establish his market value -- in restricted free agency terms, with the Bulls able to match (no Omer Asik poison-pill structuring possible this time). In the meantime, the exposure to injury, the expected wear-and-tear as Thibs' go-to defender and any pressure he might feel to elevate his offensive game -- that's all on Butler. In a gamble for what might amount to a 10 percent raise over the already change-your-life cash on the table Friday.
There's some real-world context for him.