CHICAGO -- The Jimmy Butler contract situation is one full of questions with no clear-cut answers.
The biggest one being: How much money is Jimmy Butler worth?
ESPN's Marc Stein reported Thursday night that Butler is one of several players from the 2011 class unlikely to receive extensions by Friday's deadline. Butler's worth is the question at the forefront of the minds of Bulls general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson. More specifically, the question could be formed this way: Is Butler worth $12 million a year? That's what it took for the Charlotte Hornets to lock up Kemba Walker for four years. And that's how much some in the league believe it will take in order to get a deal done for Butler.
In the midst of Wednesday night's Bulls/Knicks telecast, ESPN analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy said he believed Butler would ultimately get a $12 million-a-year offer. As Forman and the Bulls' front office continue having discussions with Butler's agent Happy Walters, maybe the most important question becomes if the Bulls don't give Butler what he wants now, will he be able to get that kind of money from another team in the future?
The educated guess, assuming Butler improves offensively, appears to be yes. With the new $24 billion TV deal in place, the salary cap will go up significantly in the near future. The problem for team executives and agents is they just don't know exactly how much that will be.
But use the Walker deal for comparison: Over his career, the UConn product is averaging 16.1 points a game, 5.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds in almost 33 minutes a night. He's also a lifetime 39.8 percent shooter from the field and has earned a reputation as an improving offensive weapon.
Now, look at Butler's stats: Over his career, he is averaging 8.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 26.6 minutes a game, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Butler didn't play much during his first season and a half as he struggled to crack Tom Thibodeau's rotation. Once Luol Deng was traded last season and Butler's role became even more prominent, he earned second team All-NBA defensive honors and the burden that comes with guarding the opposition's best perimeter player each night. He averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in almost 39 minutes a game.
The issue for Butler, and the one Forman and Paxson are surely harping on in negotiations, is that he struggled to find consistency on the offensive end last season. His jump shot betrayed him on many nights as teams game-planned for him. But in the comparison with Walker, Butler's numbers actually shake out well. Butler shot 39.7 percent from the field, just a tenth of a point behind where Walker was a season ago. The difference is that Walker is viewed as a scorer, a guy who can, at times, get hot and carry a team like he did Wednesday in hitting two clutch shots to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime. Butler is viewed as an all-league defender, but not a guy a team can count on each night offensively.
In his defense, Butler was having the best all-around preseason of his career before spraining his left thumb a week and a half ago. Could he turn into a better offensive player over time? Maybe, but the Bulls have to make their decision based on the evidence in front of them. They have to decide if they are willing to shell out $12 million a year on a defensive-minded 25-year-old and bank on the fact he will continue to improve over time.
The most leverage Butler may have is in that there is no clear cut replacement for him defensively. Second-year player Tony Snell could turn into a perimeter stopper over time, but he has not shown that development yet. The Bulls also have to consider which player would guard LeBron James in the future if they don't come to an agreement with Butler, or they let him walk as a restricted free agent next summer.
There is no such thing as a "LeBron stopper," but Butler has held his own with James over the past two seasons. The Bulls know they must go through James regardless of whether he stays in Cleveland for the long term.
Is that kind of protection in the lineup worth paying Butler $12 million a year? Are Thibodeau's defensive schemes strong enough to endure the loss of Butler in the future? All these questions are the ones that Forman and Paxson must sort through as the deadline creeps closer Friday night.