When NBA stars plan and scheme their futures to maximize their earning power, it doesn't register a bleep on the general radar for fans anymore. It's become the norm to position oneself for major paydays, in part due to the realization that an athlete's career is short and sweet, thus possessing a shell life that shouldn't go wasted.
Because of that, a somewhat important question has begun getting ignored. Are they worth it?
For Jimmy Butler, who is positioning himself to sign a deal down the road worth $190 million, it's a perfectly legitimate question. He may be an All-Star, a Top 3 shooting guard, and a Top 5 two-way player right now, but the sample size of his newfound stardom remains fairly small. Butler played 65 regular season games and followed it up with 12 in the playoffs, providing 77 games of All-Star caliber play. That's not a large amount of games, and is potentially a worrying sample size to build up a vision of acquiring $190 million.
Now, Butler's season doesn't unveil his future necessarily. With a more offensive-minded coach in Fred Hoiberg, Butler could see his scoring and efficiency skyrocket, erasing any doubts about the worth of such a contract in a few years. But until that has happened, it might be wise for Butler to further establish himself before taking on dreams of dollar amounts of that magnitude.
Looking at Butler this year, there are no issues in the idea of handing him a max contract based on the current salary cap, worth an estimated $90-95 million. That's already a lot of cheddar. But going the route of opting out after two or three years, to take on a significantly higher salary, is what prime LeBron James does. Butler, for all his improvements, is not on that level. Unless he somehow steps up his game again, and becomes a fully fledged league-wide superstar with All-NBA 1st team nods every year, $190 million is a number that shouldn't be made available for Butler by any team. It'd be almost $70 million more than what Joe Johnson got back in 2010 - and that was over six seasons, not five - and even if the cap is going to bloat more than me after taco night, $190 million is still a tremendously large investment.
What could also potentially be concerning is that his focus seems to have shifted. $48 million, per Adrian Wojnarowski, would have been enough to keep him. This means Butler was willing to accept less than $50 million, and now his end goal is an additional $140 million? The success of Butler was proving people wrong, and feeding on the idea that he was mostly ignored around the league. Losing that motivation, or replacing it with monetary goals, might not field the same results, which begs the question: Is he going to be a Bull in a few years?
A frequent crippling element of team building is locking players up to deals that leaves the team unable to move financially. The Bulls always dread this, rightfully so, and in Butler's case they'd be put in a tough spot. Even if he remains an All-Star level player, but isn't a top tier guy, losing him would hurt, badly. But overpaying him by a drastic amount, and potentially seeing his production decline, will leave them in no man's land for years to come.
Adding to the worry is the fact that Butler will be 26 when the season rolls around. If he decides to stick around Chicago, but only on a bigger deal after opting out by 2017, the Bulls would pay him these big bucks from age 28 to 33. That will by no means be an easy call for them. Butler's prime is now, not two years away. Even if he maintains a high standard in his 30's, you're still gambling with salary numbers of downright insane value.
The problem, as always, is that someone will always mess it up for others. Some team out there will offer Butler a ridiculous contract if he opts out in 2017, and the Bulls would be facing losing him for nothing, or position themselves for salary hell. Additionally, if they wanted to trade Butler by 2016 due to his demands, his value will decline drastically due to his pending free agency and monetary demands being known around the league.
The best possible outcome for the Bulls is Butler signing a five-year deal with no options this summer. It'd keep him retained during his prime years (age 26 to 31), they'd avoid the salary-bloated cap spike on his contract, and it would be easier to stomach letting him go by 2020 if some teams offers him a ridiculous amount of money, knowing full well his best years were behind him for the most part.
But what the Bulls want is, ironically, the most unrealistic part of this piece. The odds of Butler accepting a five-year deal now, and leaving the potential of many more millions at the door, are low.
The most likely scenario? Butler signs a three-year offer sheet with Orlando, the Bulls match, and come 2018 both have decisions to make.
Why Orlando? Because if on the off-chance the Bulls doesn't match, and Butler is all about the green, going to Florida where there is no state income tax and a team standing by with a herd of cheap talent, is an optimal situation.
The only thing that's for certain right now, is that the Bulls will be forced to take on a long-term view of the Butler situation this summer. Maybe even more than they prepared to do initially.