The Bulls scored a major coup when they drafted Jimmy Butler 30th overall in 2011. A team that compiled the best record in the league in the previous season, as the Bulls did, isn’t supposed to be able to find a starting-caliber player in the draft. That’s exactly what Chicago has, and then some, in Butler, who became a full-time starter just last season but had already established himself as a future building block the year before, when he started 20 regular season games and all 12 playoff games for an ailing Luol Deng. Now the task for GM Gar Forman and his staff is to keep that building block in place and ensure the embodiment of that draft-night success from three years ago doesn’t turn into either an overpaid burden for Chicago or, perhaps even worse, a former Bull.
A report from last autumn indicated that the Bulls were higher on retaining Butler for the long term than they were on Deng, and that was born out when the team traded Deng to the Cavs at midseason. Chicago isn’t alone in its affection for the 24-year-old Butler, as there was reportedly wide belief that the Wolves would ask for Butler as part of Kevin Love trade talks with the Bulls. Love appears safely on his way to the Cavs, but there’s little doubt that other teams would relish the chance to snatch Butler away.
Butler endured a tough shooting season on a Bulls team that struggled mightily to score once Derrick Rose went down with yet another injury. The subtraction of Deng didn’t help matters, either, allowing perimeter defenses to focus more keenly on stopping Butler, Chicago’s remaining wing threat. Butler’s three-point shooting percentage dropped from 38.1% in 2012/13 to 28.3% last year, even as he nearly tripled his number of attempted treys per contest. His shooting percentage from the floor as a whole dropped from 46.7% to 39.7%, reflective of his greater focus on three-pointers.
The Bulls asked Butler to do much more this past season than he’d ever done in the league, and his efficiency dropped as a result, with his PER sinking from 15.2 in his second season to 13.5 in year three. Still, it would have been difficult for just about any player to have been effective offensively on last year’s Bulls, one of just four teams in the league to score fewer than a point per possession in 2013/14, according to NBA.com. Butler isn’t capable of single-handedly carrying a scoring attack, at least not yet, but he’s defined himself as a key part of one of the most well-coordinated defenses in league history. The Bulls gave up 1.5 points fewer points per 100 possessions when Butler played, as NBA.com shows, and while Butler alone didn’t influence that statistic, Chicago has been at least slightly better defensively when he’s played in each of his three seasons with the club.
The Bulls were also more effective defensively with Taj Gibson on the floor in each of his first three seasons in the league, which was no doubt on the minds of Forman and company when they reached a deal with Gibson on a four-year, $33MM rookie scale extension two years ago. It stands as an example of the team’s willingness to lock up a player who’s a mainstay but not quite a star, a description that also fits Butler, but there are differences between the two cases. Gibson came off the bench at a position that the highly paid Carlos Boozer occupied, while Butler is a starter on the wing, where the Bulls are thin. Butler is also a more integral part of Chicago’s offense than Gibson had been when he signed his extension. Those factors combined with rising salary cap projections for years to come make it unlikely that Butler will settle for salaries anywhere in the neighborhood of what Gibson is making.
It appears as though Chicago would like to keep Butler around, as I surmised last month when I predicted that the Bulls and the Happy Walters client would come to terms on a four-year, $42MM extension. That’s $9MM more than Gibson saw, but there’d still be a decent chance that it would end up a relative bargain for the Bulls, particularly if the deal is backloaded. Chicago already has about $58.6MM in commitments for 2015/16 and $43.8MM for 2015/16, so creating enough wiggle room as possible beneath the tax threshold will be important as the team attempts to contend in the next few years.
There’s a case to be made that the Bulls should hold off on an extension to see whether Butler’s offensive efficiency improves with Rose back in the lineup. Butler and Rose have only shared the floor for 273 total minutes over their careers, so surely Chicago is curious to see how they mesh in more significant time together. That question mark shouldn’t dissuade the Bulls from committing to a reasonable extension this offseason, lest Butler’s negotiating power increase commensurate with his continually expanding role on the team. Restricted free agency proved more kind this year to Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, a pair of wing players on the market’s second tier, than it has for point guard Eric Bledsoe and big man Greg Monroe, seemingly more attractive options. That would bode well for Butler, even though there are few certainties in restricted free agency, as this summer’s surprises have shown.
It’s quite a risk in today’s NBA for a team to commit an average of more than $10MM a year to a swingman who’s just a 30.9% three-point shooter, but for the Bulls, it appears worth it to do so with Butler. Chicago’s primary focus is on defense, anyway, where Butler has proven valuable, and Gibson’s blossoming offensive game is evidence that coach Tom Thibodeau and his staff are adept at continually developing players well into their careers. Butler needs to improve for the Bulls to have reaped a bargain with such an investment, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest he’ll do just that.