It’s safe to say the Bulls’ front office didn’t expect Jimmy Butler to take on such an important role in just his second NBA season. With the departures of Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, Butler was expected to step into a regular rotation spot behind Luol Deng, but given Deng’s ironman status, extended minutes didn’t seem likely. That all changed when backcourt injuries made Butler the next and best option at shooting guard.
Since taking over for Rip Hamilton as the starting shooting guard, Butler has been a revelation, averaging more than 13 points per game while also playing his trademark shutdown defense. At 6-foot-7, Butler has the rare ability to defend four positions. He covered one of the league’s best point guards, Deron Williams, last week in Brooklyn, keeping the former Illini star from getting to the rim in the closing minutes of a game the Bulls eventually won by a single point. Butler has also done a good job defending Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the past, and he’s strong enough to guard power forwards in a pinch.
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Now the question is what does Butler’s tremendous growth in Year 2 mean for his future with the Bulls? Clearly, Hamilton won’t be back next season, and since Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson are heading into free agency, they might not return either. Gar Forman might just decide his best option going forward at shooting guard is with the guy who entered the draft in 2011 with serious questions about his outside shooting ability.
Butler worked hard over the past two summers to develop his mid-range shooting, and now he’s become adept at hitting the corner 3, which is one of the most efficient shots in the game. Butler still needs to become more consistent from beyond the arc, and work on his ball-handling skills, but that shouldn't be a major issue. Clearly, the former Marquette star has the skill set to be a better than average starting guard in the league.
Not only is Butler’s emergence a major positive for the Bulls in the short term, it also might help the front office manage a very tight salary cap situation in the years to come. The assumption has been the Bulls would try to free up cap room for a run at a major free agent in the summer of 2014.
But to accomplish that they would need to use the amnesty provision on the final year of Carlos Boozer’s contract (2014-’15) and choose not to offer a contract to Deng, who becomes a free agent following the 2013-’14 season. If Butler can fill the void at shooting guard opposite Derrick Rose, the Bulls could negotiate a new deal with Deng and try to compete for a title with a starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Noah, Deng and either Taj Gibson or European import, Nikola Mirotic.
The current belief in the NBA is teams can only compete for titles with multiple stars like Miami’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Oklahoma City made the NBA Finals last year with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but after trading Harden to Houston, does that mean the Thunder has no chance to win a championship in the coming years?
The other issue is the availability of All-Star caliber free agents in the coming years. Miami’s trio can opt out of their contracts in the summer of 2014, but do you really expect any of them to leave Miami if the Heat win another title or two in the next two seasons? The free agent class of 2014 is potentially loaded with big name players, but most of them are past their prime like Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki.
Bottom line, the Bulls aren’t likely to find that second star to team with Rose in free agency. Having a relatively low salaried player like Butler establish himself at shooting guard will give the front office the flexibility to make a move if a star player like Harden becomes available in the future because a team needs to shed payroll to avoid the more severe luxury tax penalties.
Salary cap management and successful drafting is more important than ever in today’s NBA. The Bulls have done an excellent job finding rotation players late in round one like Gibson, Butler and potentially Marquis Teague and Mirotic. Now, the key will be waiting for that moment when a young star becomes available and using a combination of assets to bring him to Chicago.