Jimmy Butler and the Designated Player Exception

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Thursday brought good news for Jimmy Butler and fans of the Chicago Bulls – Butler made the All-NBA Third Team. It was a well-deserved commendation for a season of career highs and the work of dragging an extremely flawed team into the playoffs. But is this distinction bad for Butler’s future in Chicago?

Go ahead and take a moment to celebrate Butler’s terrific season. Indeed, he was an All-Star starter with career best numbers in points, assists and rebounds per game with also dominating from the all-important free throw line with his best marks in both attempts and percentage. He also carried a team that would have been mired in the lottery to a first-round playoff series and two wins against the heavily favored Boston Celtics, a team that is currently doing battle in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Jimmy, you can pour one out, too. Though I’m sure you’re pouring out a protein shake, which is likely not the same beverage most of our readers are going to pour out in honor of

your fantastic season.

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Once we dive a little deeper beyond the hype, Butler making an All-NBA team could have a big impact on his paychecks in the future. He’s effectively set into motion a real chance at something called the Designated Player Exception (DPE).

Tim Bontemps broke down the DPE particularly well in his piece for the Washington Post back in December of 2016. One particular section sticks out pertaining to Butler and his recently bestowed accolade:

"“2. He has made one of the three all-NBA teams or has been named defensive player of the year in two of the prior three seasons or the league’s most valuable player in one of the three prior seasons.And this crucial stipulation: He has to be on the team that drafted him or has to have been traded on his rookie deal to another team.”"

By making an All-NBA team this year, Butler just needs to sneak onto one more All-NBA team either this season or the following year to qualify for the DPE. I guess we should circle back and explain why the DPE matters – it’s about the money.

A player that plays either with the team that drafted him or was acquired by his current team while still on his rookie deal and has met the designated criteria to qualify for the DPE can earn a massive payday. And when I say massive I mean massive.

How massive is it? In the case of Butler, it could be worth more than $90 million.

The exact numbers aren’t set in stone, all future calculations are just that, and they are based on projected numbers because nothing is set in stone yet. The best bet is to reference the pros at The Vertical who has this thing pretty well down to a science. Shams Charania wrote that the expectation is for the cap to reach $120 million for the 2020 season.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do the math. Sean Highkin of The Athletic was kind enough to tweet it out today and I was lucky enough to be scanning my Twitter timeline at the right moment to see it:

It’s pretty clear from those nice little numbers, but let me break it down in case you’re not following. If Butler decides he’s had enough of John Paxson and Gar Forman and wants to bolt Chicago when his option comes up, he can do so and in the process, earn himself a gargantuan contract of four years and just over $155 million. However, contracts are set up to favor the incumbent team. If he were to stay with the Bulls, he earns more money. But the only benefit is a single year of paychecks added on. Yeah, that’s big, but there are definitely players who would consider walking away from that fifth year if the situation isn’t right.

The DPE, for the few players that qualify for it, is meant to act as a catch-all for teams, presumably in small markets, to help retain their top talent and prevent such players from migrating to superteams and larger markets. If that DPE kicks in for Butler, he stands to earn as much as $246 million on a five-year deal with Chicago. For $246 million, even I would hang out with Gar for five years.

That’s great news! Bulls fans can rejoice.

The team has an All-NBA player that dragged the festering sack of flesh that this franchise is all the way to the playoffs in a year that should have been a total failure. Now, by virtue of his recognition for this feat, he’s poised to qualify for the DPE by repeating his All-NBA performance in either of the next two seasons.

That’s bad news! Butler fans should be cautiously optimistic.

At the end of the season press conference, Paxson failed to give a ringing endorsement for the team’s best and possibly only ostensibly good player. Both he and Forman talked about not wanting to hamstring their future and have plenty of cap flexibility over the next couple of years. In other words, they made it sound like they weren’t desperately looking to move Butler, but they might be secretly relieved if a deal came along.

The league is changing and players are most valued in their mid-to-late 20s. Once you go beyond that age range, even good players are considered risky contracts. A perfect example is the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over the Toronto Raptors and Kyle Lowry. Lowry is a key piece of that team, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30. Signing him to a five-year max deal, even without the DPE, commits a massive amount of money to player that could end up looking like 2017 Dwyane Wade by the time it’s over. You know, a good player cashing a fat paycheck based on what he did years earlier.

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It’s a better bet to assume Butler stays with Chicago and earns more money with more guaranteed years, but if the DPE kicks in over the next two years there will be real dilemma. It’s quite possible that we’re about to enter a game of chicken between the front office and Butler. Do they want to keep him around as much as he would like to earn a quarter of a billion dollars? Does Butler want to make that kind of money so badly that he’s willing to keep dealing with the GarPax shenanigans?

I guess we’ve got about two more years to see how that plays out, but Butler’s clock to his next massive payday was already ticking. Now, the ante’s been upped.