On Tuesday, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that Chicago Bulls free agent Jimmy Butler wants a shorter term deal than he is eligible to receive.
As a free agent with full Bird rights on his side, the Bulls are able to offer Butler a five-year contract for anything up to and including the maximum salary, with maximum raises of 7.5 percent on that first-year amount. If he were to try and sign with any other team (“try” being the operative word; Chicago is entitled to extend him a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent, and certainly will do), he can still sign for up to and including the maximum salary, but with a maximum of 4.5 percent raises, and for a maximum of four years. The Bulls therefore have some leverage in his free agency negotiations, by virtue of both his restricted nature and the extra year they can offer him.
Per Wojnarowski’s report, however, even four years would be too much for him. Yahoo! Sports reports that Butler intends to seek a contract that allows him to opt out and become a free agent again – this time unrestricted – after the 2016-17 NBA season concludes. All offer sheets, regardless of a player’s Bird rights status or ability, have to have at least the first two years not contain any options. So unless Butler re-signs with the Bulls on a one-year deal (be it for his comparatively paltry $4,433,683 qualifying offer, or by individually negotiating a bigger one-year deal, a la David Lee and the New York Knicks in 2009-10), this is the quickest way he can hit unrestricted free agency.
However, this is something the Bulls can prevent.
There’s a little known clause in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is little known because, as best as can be ascertained, it has never been used. When a player coming off of a rookie scale contract is entering restricted free agency, his team can, in addition to the regular qualifying offer of an amount predetermined by the CBA and his draft spot, extend something called a Maximum Qualifying Offer.
A Maximum Qualifying Offer is, essentially, an offer of a maximum contract. It is not a contract – it is an offer. It is not binding on the player. It is not something the player has to accept, or that prevents him from signing contracts with other teams, be they in the NBA or elsewhere. But it is something that impacts upon their options afterwards.
In a Maximum Qualifying Offer, there can be no option years whatsoever, nor any bonuses, nor any wiggle room on the salary. A Maximum Qualifying Offer is an offer of the very maximum; the full five years, the full 7.5 percent raises, and a full 100 percent guarantee in each year. It is the most player-friendly contract a team can possibly offer. And that is why it has never been used.
If Chicago extends Butler a Maximum Qualifying Offer, nothing will ostensibly change. Butler will remain a free agent, he will remain a restricted free agent on account of the original one year qualifying offer he was extended, and he can still accept that QO. He can also accept the Maximum Qualifying Offer, or indeed sign another type of contract with his incumbent team or any other franchise. He does not even have to sign for the maximum, despite how illogical that might seem.
The only difference is the length of the offer sheet he can potentially sign with a new team. If Chicago offers a Maximum Qualifying Offer, an offer sheet with a new team has to have at least the first three years be optionless, as opposed to the first two.
In this specific example of Butler and the Bulls, that difference is a highly significant one. By extending a Maximum Qualifying Offer, the Bulls can ensure that Butler, if he still chooses to sign with another team, cannot hit the unrestricted free agent market until the summer of 2018, two years after the salary cap has begun the very huge increase he wants so badly to cash in on. Butler is thinking about his next payday, despite not having received the first one yet, because of the potential rewards it may yield. For the same reason, Chicago will not want him to. Using this clause, they can do something about that.
Butler may plan to reject the five-year offer, but he cannot prevent the Maximum Qualifying Offer. He does not have to accept it, of course, but simply by virtue of it being there, the Maximum Qualifying Offer gives him all the more incentive to sign with Chicago. If he wants to be a free agent in either 2016 or 2017, then Chicago is the only team he can do it with. They have that power available to them in the form of the Maximum Qualifying Offer.
How savory of a strategy that would be is another matter. The Bulls need to keep Butler for all manner of reasons, not least of which is the fact that they dared him to go and earn the maximum salary, and they cannot now afford to lose him after he has done so. Due to the power restricted free agency bestows, they surely won’t. But they need to do so in such a way that Butler is not re-signing begrudgingly. If Butler begrudgingly re-signs this time, he will not want to do so next time. And the option of taking the one-year qualifying offer still exists – as demonstrated by the Ben Gordon situation, this is not a scenario that harbors any good will or in any way maximizes a player’s value.
Chicago however must reconcile that perception issue with the business concerns, something they are known to always prioritize. A frustrated Butler under contract is still a Butler under contract, and although the very extension of the Maximum Qualifying Offer is designed to stymie Butler’s options, it would be tough for anyone to argue that offering a player the most they can be offered by rule is in some way disloyal or manipulative. The Bulls also were relatively recently burned by the case of Omer Asik, who, precisely because his first NBA contract was only two years long, was lost via free agency. This Butler situation is suitably synonymous to dig over those wounds.
There are an absolute plethora of options available to Butler, who holds a lot of leverage despite being a restricted free agent. Depending on how much of an eye he is giving to future paydays beyond his most immediate one – and in light of Wojnarowski’s report, he seems to fully be aware of this – there are many scenarios that can make him a free agent in any of the next five years. But the Bulls have the ability to take some of them away. If Wojnarowski is right, and they are prepared to offer a five-year maximum salary contract, then that is exactly what they are going to do.