In the summer of 2014, Chicago Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler bet on himself when the team tried to sign him to an extension worth a reported $40 million-plus over four years. After declining that deal, he broke out by averaging 20 points in 2014-15, earning the NBA‘s Most Improved Player award while playing excellent defense for big minutes under then-Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. This was a happy story — Chicago would have liked to lock him up for $10 million-$11 million per season, but it was a no-brainer to give him a maximum contract after he established himself as a star.

It turns out that there might be more layers to this story. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Ryen Russilo reported that, when the initial offer was on the table, someone in the Bulls front office threatened to bench him in favor of Tony Snell, who had just finished a rookie season in which he averaged 4.5 points on 38.4 percent shooting. The implication was that this would depress Butler’s market value, so he would be better off signing the extension.

Of course, if this threat was ever made, there was no follow-through. Given how fractured Thibodeau’s relationship with the front office was, and how singularly devoted the coach was to winning, it is crazy to think he would have ever done it anyway. When Butler was asked about this Wednesday, he neither confirmed nor denied it, instead saying he doesn’t remember and it’s nobody’s business.

From Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“I’ll tell it to you like this,” Butler said. “That [bleep] happened so long ago I didn’t think it was a matter of anything. We went into contract negotiations. I said I would hoop and play the year out. I did that, had a decent little year. We won’t go into detail about what was said, what wasn’t said, it’s not anybody’s business. We got a deal done, I thought it was a fair deal. That’s that.

“But for anybody to say this or say that … I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember what went on. My agent was in there handling the majority of it. And then, my main thing was to just worry about basketball so I can’t tell you what was said or what wasn’t. One, because it was so long ago, and two because it ain’t y’all business anyways.”

Butler was asked about his relationship with general manager Gar Forman and VP of basketball operations John Paxson, and called it “professional.”

“It’s good,” Butler said. “They’re my bosses. We talk like men if I have a problem, if they have a problem we talk like we’re supposed to. I think it’s very professional.”

Jimmy Butler in Chicago

Jimmy Butler’s breakout season with the Bulls two years ago is under the microscope. USATSI

A few thoughts:

  • Chicago’s front office is already taking a ton of heat for assembling a mediocre team that is neither rebuilding nor contending, with an obvious lack of shooting and entirely predictable chemistry problems. The last thing it needs is stories about shady negotiating, especially when it comes to its franchise player. This is an awful look, and it doesn’t help that Butler decided not to deny it.
  • If it happened, Butler shouldn’t have to deny it. It would only be natural for him to distrust the organization, as trade rumors have swirled around him for the past couple of years despite his ascension to superstar status. Even now that he’s probably a top-10 player, the Bulls front office is still split when it comes to being committed to building a team around him, according to ESPN’s Nick Friedell on a recent appearance on The Lowe Post podcast.
  • Butler has little to gain by confirming the story. Even if he wanted to, it would be a bad time to create another distraction for his team. Just last week, he and Dwyane Wade lashed out at their younger teammates after a loss, so things are awkward enough already. Chicago is still seventh in the Eastern Conference, but it appears to be in a fragile place.
  • The Sun-Times reported that Butler was upset at management for leaking stories about him being a “diva” last summer and having assistant coaches “spy” on players in the locker room over the past couple of years. It would seem, then, that Butler’s characterization of his relationship with the front office as “professional” could be a bit generous.
  • This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to start looking at trade destinations for Butler. Even if this relationship is as strained as it sounds, he’s under contract through the 2018-19 season. It’s extraordinarily difficult to acquire players of Butler’s caliber, and it’s not unheard of for stars to stick with a team for years after feuding with the front office — remember Paul Pierce coming close to orchestrating a trade away from the Boston Celtics in 2005 and Kobe Bryant demanding a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007? Still, if rumors start to pick back up again, it’ll be hard not to think about this story.

Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Jimmy Butler won’t confirm or deny Bulls threatened to bench him in 2014-15