After losing Derrick Rose to injury and Luol Deng to a cap-clearing trade, the Chicago Bulls easily could have packed it in for the remainder of the season and fallen towards the bottom half of the conference standings. But thanks to inspired play from Taj Gibson, DJ Augustin, and the truly incredible Joakim Noah. It’s been a season of overachievement for pretty much every member of this rag-tag squad, with the notable exception of one key cog in the Bulls rotation.
Jimmy Butler, the late first round pick who has captured the hearts of all Chicagoans with his rags-to-riches story and his balls to the wall style of play, has not developed in the way that I had expected coming into the season. I don’t mean to peg Butler as a complete disappointment, as his great on-ball defense and his ability to shoulder incredibly heavy minutes have added to the toughness that makes this team so great. But offensively, Butler continues to be half as effective as he is defensively.
Butler on the season is averaging an even 13 points a game on 39% shooting from the field and a pathetic 28.4% from three point range. In the 38 minutes a game that Butler averages, he is attempting just 10 field goals and 3.4 triples. While his minutes have increased significantly since the calendar switched to 2014, from 33 minutes to around 41 a game, his shot attempts have remained steady throughout the season.
To put those numbers into some context, I want to point out that Butler is currently fourth in the league in minutes per game. The other guys who make up the top ten are Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Lebron James, Chandler Parsons, John Wall, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. What do all of these guys have in common, except for Jimmy Buckets? They each carry a large load on the offensive end. Butler, meanwhile, seemingly forces the Bulls to play 5-on-4 offensively for the vast majority of the game. Butler currently sports a usage rate (usage rate calculates the number of possessions a player either takes a shot, turns the ball over or is fouled) of 17.1%, placing him in the same category as Courtney Lee, Nick Calathes and Marvin Williams, guys that don’t play nearly as many minutes as Butler. Mario Chalmers sports that same 17% usage rate with similar minutes played as Butler, but he obviously is in an environment where he doesn’t need to be taking a lot of shots every night.
Butler has been at or below average shooting from every single spot on the court except one: Butler is shooting a robust 46% on corner threes, perhaps the best and most efficient shot in the game. But Butler seems to lack confidence in shooting even from where he’s effective, as he has attempted only 61 corner threes in the 57 games he has played this season. Perhaps the reason for this is that teams are completely unafraid to run him hard off the line. Butler is not efficient when he puts the ball on the floor, shooting just 30% on pull up jumpers and 38% on drives to the basket, percentages that do not strike fear into any hearts.
There is a reason that Butler, despite his offensive ineffectiveness, plays all the minutes that he does. Jimmy, since the departure of Luol Deng, has been the Bulls’ best and most reliable wing defender. Able to cover both shooting guards and small forwards, Butler’s versatility and seemingly endless amount of energy have allowed the Bulls to be a dominant defensive team. This year, the Bulls have allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions, second in the NBA to only the Indiana Pacers. Butler is featured in each of the Bulls’ top defensive lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes on the floor together. The Bulls starting lineup since the Deng trade has been Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah, a lineup that has played just over 500 minutes this season, triple what the next most used lineup is. That starting five has a defensive rating of 92.2.
He also did this in a game where he later saved the day by poking the ball away from Lebron as the MVP drove towards the basket for a game winning layup, a play that was just business as usual for Butler who averages just a tick under two steals a game, which is tied for 4th in the NBA.
I bring all of this to attention as Butler and the Bulls are quickly approaching an important crossroad. This is year three for Butler, meaning that this summer he is eligible for an extension should the Bulls deem him worthy of one. These types of situations are tricky for NBA teams who are faced with a couple of options and no clear best solution.
Option number one is to sign Butler to an extension before the October 30 deadline. The advantage of doing this is that it allows the team to develop a clear plan beyond next season as they will know who the starting shooting guard will be for the next several years. It gives Butler peace of mind knowing that he doesn’t need to press and get his own numbers to lock down a contract the next summer. And it would be a move in good faith by the front office to show coach Tom Thibodeau that they aren’t systematically trying to give him a heart attack.
The drawback to this initial option is that the team is essentially bidding against itself. No other teams are able to even talk to Butler about what they believe his second pro contract should be worth. The last time the Bulls found themselves in this situation, they handed a giant contract to Taj Gibson, a player who has never started (although is finally getting starters minutes this season as Carlos Boozer begins to shop around for nursing homes) and similarly to Butler was believed to be a one way player. Gibson has grown his offensive game immensely this season and appears to be worth the 4 year/$33 million contract that he signed prior to this season, especially since he will likely move into the starting lineup next season. But is Butler worth that type of investment?
After taking a big leap in his second season, one in which Butler saw his playing time and scoring output triple, he has stagnated and even regressed in his new full time starting gig. After averaging 38% shooting on threes last year, on a measly 1.3 attempts a game, Butler has seen his percentage shrink ten percent this season. The most telling box on Butler’s basketball reference page is his per 36 numbers, which have stayed relatively stable over his short career.
The alternative option the Bulls can take with Butler is to simply let Butler finish out his rookie deal unextended and allow the Texas native to hit restricted free agency. As a restricted free agent, the Bulls would be able to match any contract offer that Butler receives from another team. The risks involved with this strategy are simple: some team will have the opportunity to either force the Bulls to overpay to keep their man, or risk losing him altogether. So what exactly is a player like Butler worth?The easy player comparison for Butler is probably Tony Allen, a guy who has lasted a decade in the league despite having almost no offensive skills. Last summer, as a 31 year old, Allen was awarded a 4 year/$20 million extension from a Grizzlies team that prides itself on the grit’n’grind culture that Allen represents. The deal was a curious one for the Grizzlies, as they are perpetually short of impact shooters and decided they would like to see how Allen holds up into his mid 30’s. Butler, at 24 years of age, is certainly at a different pint in his career than Allen. But how much better than Tony Allen is Butler ever going to be?
I believe the Bulls should try and lock down Butler this summer, for the right number. Coming off a down offensive year, the Bulls may be in the best possible position to negotiate a favorable contract with Jimmy. Perhaps a 4 year/$25 million dollar deal. I’m not sure that will be enough to satisfy Butler and his representation, but it’s a number that I honestly believe to be fair for a guy who has not been able to prove himself as a competent scorer.
Should the Bulls not reach an agreement with Butler, it is very likely that a similar deal could be struck the next year once Butler has had a chance to see what other teams value him at. But the big risk the Bulls face in letting Butler play out his rookie deal is that he might take the leap next year as a shooter that many expected him to make this year. Should Butler become a 38% three point shooter, some team will talk itself into making an offer in the $10 million per year range, a price that the capped out Bulls would cringe to match.
As the weather warms up in Chicago, expect discussions about Butler’s future with the team to heat up with it.