Market heating up for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler

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Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) slam-dunks over New Orleans Pelicans forward DeMarcus Cousins (0) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

CHICAGO – For a lot of Chicago Bulls fans, it’s not so much whom the team might be trading, it’s who would be doing the trading.

And then, who would be doing the drafting, recruiting and overall rebuilding.

Pretty persuasive cases – for trading All-Star forward Jimmy Butler or for keeping him – can be made in both directions. With the 2017 Draft, fast approaching and teams growing increasingly desperate to at least look like they can chase down the Golden State Warriors and/or Cleveland Cavaliers – NBA Twitter lit up Monday afternoon (Tuesday, PHL time) with reports that the Boston Celtics suddenly had significant competition in their possible pursuit of Butler.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns all reportedly were exploring ways to pry Butler out of Chicago with combinations of proven players, prospects and draft picks.

Missing, though, was any confidence that the Bulls’ front-office – namely, VP John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman – was up to the task of moving Butler, replacing his contributions and then upgrading the rest of Chicago’s roster enough to propel the team out of the NBA’s dreaded middle.

“GarPax,” as the Bulls’ tandem has become known in Windy City sports shorthand, has earned fans’ skepticism through a series of maneuvers more helpful to the two executives’ job security than to any turnaround in the team’s basketball fortunes. Two years ago, Tom Thibodeau – the Bulls’ most successful coach since Phil Jackson – was dumped largely due to communication issues with his bosses, more than any failings on the floor.

Guard Derrick Rose’s injuries and inability to return to his All-Star/MVP status dealt the Bulls’ blueprint a serious blow, knocking them off the top tier of NBA title contenders. But the team’s acquisitions and decisions since then – in particular, pulling Fred Hoiberg out of Iowa State to coach the past two seasons and signing long-in-the-tooth veterans such as Pau Gasol, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade – have looked like stop-gap moves intended to snag low playoff berths and keep seats filled at United Center.

Chicago’s most laudable deals lately have been refusing to bid up the price of used-up, broken-down players such as Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. But the swift turnaround on shooter Doug McDermott – acquired in the 2014 Draft in a trade-up deal with Denver, then flushed in February with veteran free-agent-to-be Taj Gibson for a dubious package built around unproven Cameron Payne – didn’t help GarPax in credibility. Nor have recent selections and/or assessments on the likes of Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Tony Snell and Marquis Teague.

That there’s been no talk of Chicago trying to lure Paul George in free agency or pursue him on a one-year rental is a reminder that this management team hasn’t changed a thing, in terms of making the Bulls a destination team.

But boy, Paxson and Forman sure have managed “up” to please cost-conscious team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who is famously loyal to his executives both with the Bulls and the MLB White Sox. More than anything they’ve put on the court, that’s what keeps the pair in position to usher in the next era of Bulls basketball.

If that at all resembles a rebuild – laser-focused, meandering or something in between, given the Bulls’ modest assemblage of assets for trades or future drafts – that’s another three to five years of continued employment without hard objectives or repercussions for the fellows in the suits.

As for the yeas or nays of moving Butler, you can argue both sides. Here’s part of the case for trading the three-time All-Star, who has played himself up from the No. 30 pick in 2011:

– If Butler is your best player, you’re not going to reach the Finals.

– He doesn’t reliably make teammates better and plays best when dominating the ball.

– He’ll be 30-years-old when he’s due for a massive new contract in 2019, by which time Butler will be out of synch with whatever cast management surrounds him in 2019.

– Assuming the Bulls would prefer not to have Wade, at an old 35, opting in for a $23.8 million salary in 2017-18, trading Butler to all but assure a dreary, lottery-bound season might dissuade the proud former Heat guard from sticking around.

A competing case for keeping Butler would invariably include:

– When you have an all-NBA player who wants to stay with your franchise, the way Butler ostensibly does with Chicago, you better hang onto him – unless you’re swapping him for same.

– Butler is so adept at both ends of the court, if you move him, you might have trouble replacing him even with two players.

– Butler’s salaries for the next two seasons — $18.7 million this year, $19.8 in 2018-19 – are reasonable for a player of his ability, by 2017 standards anyway.

Among the Bulls’ potential dance partners in a Butler deal, Boston’s interest dates back the furthest, with the No. 3 pick in this week’s Draft as the likeliest bauble dangled for the Bulls. Minnesota is where Thibodeau works now, and his appreciation and usage of Butler – the sort of veteran the young Wolves’ locker room needs – was a boon to both men during their Chicago years.

Phoenix seems to be involved primarily as a third team to facilitate a proper return of players and picks, while Cleveland could entice Butler with championship dreams while freeing LeBron James from his offensive and defensive overloads.

The Cavaliers are trying to navigate this important week, heading toward free agency, as the franchise announced on Monday that it and general manager David Griffin agreed to part ways. The wheels-spinning Bulls, on the other hand, must cope with the heavy certainty of theirs.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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