Any minute now, Jimmy Butler will make a decision on whether to take the Bulls' standing long-term max salary offer. If he does, it can be no shorter than three years guaranteed, which means that Butler -- though he has spent four years with the Bulls -- cannot become an unrestricted free agent until 2018 at the earliest. There's one other option: Butler can sign the Bulls' one-year qualifying offer for $4.4 million and become an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
This is a really tough decision if Butler indeed wants to leave Chicago, and it shows the immense power teams retain of the first half of top players' careers. Due to the arcane max offer provision the Bulls used -- soon to be known as the Butler Rule, of course -- Chicago essentially controls the first seven years of Butler's career, with the qualifying offer his only escape hatch.
That is a valid escape hatch. Greg Monroe used it to ensure he wouldn't be forced to remain in Detroit longer than five years. Certainly, $4.4 million is not chump change, though it's far under Butler's market value. Qualifying offers are based on 125 percent of the players' previous salary; since most restricted free agents are coming off of rookie deals, these are typically fairly low. Butler was the last pick of the first round in 2011, so his qualifying offer is especially low compared to others in similar situations.
On the open market, Butler would command a max salary: roughly $17 million a year for a player with four years of NBA service. And indeed the Bulls have offered that fair market value!
The problem for Butler is that if he becomes a free agent again in 2016, his max salary would be $22 million. Hence why Butler reportedly sought a one-year deal with the Lakers. He wants to go back to the well once the salary cap explodes in a year. The Bulls have effectively prevented that. If Butler wants to take a one-year deal and hit free agency in 2016, Chicago has ensured that one year will be played in red and black and that it won't cost the Bulls much at all.
It's impossible to feel too bad for Butler. The deal on the table would pay him $90 million over the next five seasons to play basketball in one of America's finest cities for an exciting new coach on a rather good team.
That said, if we're looking at where battle lines will be drawn in upcoming labor negotiations, the fact that Butler can't decide where he works for the first seven years of his NBA career without risking a minimum of $13 million (the difference between his 2015-16 max and the qualifying offer) is certainly a problem for players.
The money is there for just about everyone: superstars, mid-rung players, role-playing vets and team owners. Money should really not be an issue in 2017, when either side can re-open the collective bargaining agreement that governs the NBA's transactional rules. Control will be an issue. And for players, the vagaries of restricted free agency are the biggest limit on self-control (next to the draft itself, which isn't likely going anywhere). Instead of quibbling over a percentage point or two, attacking the rules that make it so easy for teams like the Bulls to control their draft picks for half of their careers might be in the players' union's best interest.
Teams that don't like building with high draft picks might be willing allies in the fight. Consider that because New Orleans was real bad for one year, they won much more than just the right to draft Anthony Davis. Because of restricted free agents and special contract cut-outs for incumbent teams, they also won the rights to lock him up for eight full years. Add in the age minimum (which theoretically makes higher picks less risky) and the deck is really, really stacked in favor of teams who hit home runs in the draft.
No wonder Sam Hinkie is so convinced his plan will work. The NBA's contract rules make it the safest and potential most rewarding blueprint available.
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