Jimmy Butler stole our hearts during the 2012-13 season, dunking on Chris Bosh, locking down elite wing scorers, knocking down threes and literally playing entire playoff games. It was Muffin Top Mania.
Butler's defensive prowess was evident his rookie season, but it was his offensive progress the following year that started to get people really riled up when talking about his potential. After showing a rather limited offensive game that rookie year, Butler shot 38.1 percent from long range in 2012-13, a number that went up to 40.5 percent in the postseason. In addition to showing an improved three-point shot, he continued to display a propensity for getting to the free-throw line, a valuable trait in a wing man for a Bulls team that lacked shot creators.
Setting aside some of the crazy and homeriffic prognostications (I'm talking to you, people who likened Butler to Paul George and/or Scottie Pippen), it wasn't out of the realm of possibility to think Butler would make the "next step" in his third season. Maybe not a surefire All-Star, but perhaps a fringe All-Star player.
Needless to say, things didn't exactly go as planned last season. Butler dealt with injuries, a broken jump shot and a crazy minutes load, and by the end of the season, the dude just seemed worn out. (along with the rest of the team) The final shooting numbers for Butler weren't pretty. He shot 39.7 percent overall and a pitiful 28.3 percent from long range. In the first-round series loss to the Wizards, those numbers were 38.6 percent and 30.0 percent, respectively. In Zach Lowe's recent column at Grantland about intriguing extension candidates, Lowe noted that Butler shot 32 percent on pick-and-rolls and 31 percent on guarded shots outside of 10 feet.
Somebody not as privy to the situation would take a look at Butler's shooting numbers and ask how the hell he's on a list of "intriguing" extension candidates. But when examining his worth, there are so many other factors that go into it. We know he's an elite defensive player, as he earned All-Defensive Second Team honors last season. And although his shooting plummeted last year, there are reasons to believe he's better than he showed in 2012-13. There are still quite a few unknowns in regards to his offensive potential, which is a huge a reason why these negotiations will be interesting. Oh, and have I mentioned the salary cap may make a huge jump in a few seasons? That could play a role as well.
With negotiations on an extension likely to ramp up soon, I'd like to take a closer look at some of these factors that'll be considered when figuring out how much Butler is worth.
This doesn't need much explaining. Ever since he came into the league, we could tell Butler was going to be a boss on the defensive end. He has shown an ability to hold his own against the likes of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and most importantly, LeBron James. Butler never backs down from any of those guys, always getting up in their grills and doing an excellent job not biting on some of the tricks they use to create separation.
I feel like the job Butler has done on LeBron over the past few years can't be overstated, especially with the development of the Cavs' Big Three. LeBron will be in the Bulls' division for years to come and will be the biggest competition in the East, so having a guy you know can effectively slow the Best Player in the World is quite important. It's damn nigh impossible to stop LeBron, but Butler has always made him work hard. In that 2013 playoff series, LeBron averaged 23.6 points on 43.8 percent shooting, his worst marks of that postseason. Butler had the pleasure of hounding LeBron that series, and hound him he did.
Butler isn't perfect on the defensive end, as he sometimes struggles with smaller, quicker guards. Think Victor Oladipo in that crazy triple OT game last year or Bradley Beal in the postseason. Even so, these occasions weren't exactly commonplace throughout the year, and I wouldn't hesitate to let Butler guard point guards at times in order to give Derrick Rose a breather on the defensive end.
There's been plenty of debate on this site about how much Butler's turf toe affected his shooting last season. Prior to the injury, Butler shot 43.5 percent overall and 38.5 percent from deep in nine games. That overall shooting percentage isn't all that impressive, but the 38.5 percent from long range was just about in line with 2012-13.
Butler proceeded to miss the next 11 games with turf toe. When he came back, all hell broke loose. For the rest of the regular season, Butler shot 39.3 percent overall and 27.1 percent from three. Even his free-throw percentage took a significant dip.
It should also be noted that Butler's percentage in the restricted area went down. After making 63.7 percent of his shots at the rim in 2012-13 and 66.7 percent at the start of 2013-14, that number dipped to 56.0 percent after he returned from the injury, per NBA.com's stats page.
Could these shooting woes have something to do with a lack of proper lift due to the toe injury? It's really tough to say. Butler insisted it wasn't a big issue as the year wore on, and he seemed to move well enough on the defensive end and didn't appear to lose his impressive leaping ability. However, turf toe does tend to linger, so perhaps it was bothering him a bit and he didn't say anything about it.
So again, it's difficult to say just what kind of effect the injury had. I tend to believe there was at least something to it, whether it had to do with improper lift, lost rhythm, lost confidence or a combination of it all. But something that may have worked in conjunction with the toe to make things harder on Butler were...
Butler made a name for himself as an iron man in 2012-13. The last month of the year, he played 42.3 minutes per game and excelled, averaging 14.6 points while shooting 48.1 percent overall and 56.0 percent from three. With Luol Deng suffering from the spinal tap mishap in the postseason, we saw Butler play THE ENTIRE GAME five times in 12 games and 46 minutes in another. Again, his performance didn't really suffer, as he shot well and played hellacious defense against LeBron.
With everybody back and ready to go in 2013-14, Butler played a more reasonable minutes load to start the year. But after Deng was traded, Butler again took over that iron man role. Butler played 41.4 minutes per game after the Deng trade and 43.8 minutes per game in the playoffs. You don't really mind the big playoff minutes because after all, it's the playoffs, but to me it really looked like Butler was dragging ass at times out there against Washington.
Some will say (and we know Thibs and Butler say this) that a young player like Butler should be able to handle these high minutes loads. But I really do think fatigue did help play a factor in Butler's struggles last year, especially when we're talking about a guy who was also dealing with that toe issue.
And I'm not just talking about big minutes over the course of the season. I'm also talking about general in-game fatigue. Butler would consistently play long stretches of game time without a rest, including many an entire second half. When you look at his shooting numbers by quarters, one has to wonder if fatigue played a role in how things played out (via NBA.com stats page):
Furthermore, Butler shot 33.0 percent overall and 20.0 percent in overtime periods last season. Across the board, Butler shot worse in the second quarter than in the first and worse in the fourth than in the third. There's a stark difference in the three-point shooting, and that 69.2 percent from the line in the fourth quarter is pretty ugly. A result of being fatigued? Perhaps.
With the Bulls again boasting a deep roster, there's not much of a reason for Butler to play such big minutes next season. But having this depth could also have another effect on the negotiations.
I wasn't thrilled with the Bulls making Pau Gasol a priority over a wing after the failed attempt to lure Carmelo Anthony. But while the Bulls didn't land an impact wing in free agency, there are players in place who could threaten Butler's value going forward.
Mike Dunleavy isn't really a long-term solution, but he still could play an important role this upcoming year because of his shooting ability. The more intriguing players to watch out for are Tony Snell and Doug McDermott. Snell and McDermott both tore it up at Summer League, and we know how much the Bulls love Dougie considering how much they gave up to get him. Like the Gasol signing, I wasn't crazy about the McDermott thing, but I've come around (on both) and feel the rookie will at the very least carve out a niche in this league because the dude can flat out fill it up.
Snell I'm not as sure about. He ranged from decent to unplayable last season, although I do think he got a bit of a raw deal. Thibs basically gave up on him as the season went on, and while some may argue that was deserved due to poor play, I still would have liked to see him get more of a chance to develop as opposed to running Butler into the ground.
The Summer League stuff was a good sign for Snell, and if that can carry over to the regular season, that makes the Bulls even more dangerous. But in regards to the Butler negotiations, would the Bulls not be as willing to "overpay" because they have faith in the cheap backup plans of Snell and McDermott for the next few years? We kind of saw this happen with Deng and Butler, and perhaps it happens again, whether it be during negotiations before the year or after the season if no extension can be reached. I personally think it would be pretty crazy to low-ball Jimmy Butler because of Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, but I guess you never know.
The rising cap and the market
The Bulls are capped out right now, but they're still well clear of the luxury tax for this year and are probably safe for next year as well. Lowe says the cap is expected to rise to about $66.5 million in 2015-16, which would put the tax somewhere around $80 million. Even with a lucrative Butler extension, I don't see a way the Bulls break that threshold.
When things really could get crazy is 2016-17. Some speculate that with the new TV money coming into the league, the cap could go as high as $80 million. In that type of scenario, what could seem like an overpay for Butler now wouldn't be a big problem in 2016-17, especially if he finds his offense again.
Something else to consider are some of the deals that were handed out this past offseason. When trying to figure out what Butler is worth or what he may be seeking, I keep coming back to Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons. Hayward got a max contract after a dreadful shooting season and Parsons got $15 million a year after a good but not great season.
The Hayward thing is really interesting to me. He shot just 41.3 percent overall and 30.4 percent from three last season, somewhat similar numbers to Butler. The dips in efficiency likely had to do with the fact that Hayward became the focal point of the Jazz offense and continued to up his usage. This same thing could also have been a factor in some of Butler's shooting woes. With Rose hurt again, Butler took on a bigger role and as Lowe pointed out, ended up with the ball in his end a lot at the end of the shot clock. That resulted in tough, last-second heaves that helped derail his shooting percentages.
Rose's return to the lineup alone should help with Butler's efficiency. Butler will get better looks and some of those bad end-of-shot-clock jumpers will be eliminated. If he can take advantage of those better opportunities and continue to do what he does well (16th in the NBA in free throw rate, per TeamRankings.com) among a few other improvements, he'll be a valuable offensive contributor. Butler will never be as good as the versatile Hayward on that end, but the Bulls' wing is a far superior defensive player. If a guy like Hayward can get a max contract offer after a down season, it wouldn't be completely out of the realm of possibility for Butler to get an offer in that ballpark if he regains his form on the offensive end, especially with the potential of a skyrocketing cap.
Earlier this offseason, Mark Deeks of ShamSports.com said this:
@McGrawDHBulls I spoke to an NBA executive the other day who said they would happily max Butler. Double checked and he wasn't joking.— Mark Deeks (@MarkDeeksNBA) July 2, 2014
I, along with many others, LOL'D pretty hard at the time. But after really thinking about it and considering all these factors, I'm not laughing as hard anymore. Even after a such a poor shooting season, Butler ranked as one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league based on ESPN's RPM stat:
Quick graphic: Klay Thompson is a *borderline* 2-way shooting guard by RPM. Not the best. pic.twitter.com/bmXFBtyJoO— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) September 16, 2014
We could probably debate further whether Butler is really a 2 or a 3, but I'm not sure it matters all that much in this NBA. I feel like sometimes we get too caught up talking about what position a guy plays.
It would still be pretty wild to me if Butler got a max offer sheet if he gets to restricted free agency, but Lowe even mentioned this possibility if his offense gets back on track. I'm sure the Bulls would rather not pay Butler max money, which is why they'd surely like to get a more "team friendly" deal done this offseason.
But would Butler really go for that? By all accounts, he's a team guy who loves being in Chicago, so perhaps he'd be willing to give that hometown discount. Maybe he sees what has happened with Rose and wants to get a new contract locked down as soon as possible, eliminating an injury risk. After all, that toe could still be a lingering problem and Butler had to miss Team USA camp this summer with a groin issue.
But if I'm Butler, I'm betting on myself having a bounce-back offensive season. Butler knows he can be much better than he was last season, and with Rose back in the lineup in addition to other weapons, he has to feel like he can flourish in a role better suited to his game. Toss in some of the other deals handed out this offseason and the possibility of a skyrocketing cap, and he's not just taking any deal.
I envision the Bulls starting negotiations around $7-8 million (maybe less?), but I see little chance Butler goes for that. Chuck Myron over at HoopsRumors speculated himself that a four-year, $42 million deal would get it done, and I think that would certainly be a fair offer. It may seem like a bit of an overpay now, but if Butler finds his offensive game, it's a fine deal. Even if his offense doesn't bounce back like we all hope, the rising cap would make it so the deal isn't really a cap killer.
Now we just have to wait. Just what does Butler and his camp think he's worth? How high are the Bulls willing to go? CSN Chicago's Aggrey Sam said Friday the sides could be "a bit apart" in how they value Butler, further cementing the notion that these will be tough negotiations.