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Report: Warriors, Thompson agree to four-year max extension

By NBA.com staff reports

The Warriors have agreed to terms with Klay Thompson on a four-year maximum extension projected to be in the $70 million range, according to sources.

The 24-year-old shooting guard averaged 18.4 points last season, second on the team to Stephen Curry.

The Warriors had until midnight Friday to reach an agreement with Thompson, who would have become a restricted free agent next summer otherwise.

Report: Jazz, Burks agree to 4-year extension

HANG TIME BIG CITY — With tonight’s midnight deadline looming for teams and players from the 2011 NBA Draft to agree to contract extensions, another player has reached a long-term deal. According to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz have reached agreement with shooting guard Alec Burks on a 4-year, $42-million extension.

Burks, a 6-6 shooting guard, is entering his fourth season at just 23 years old. Last season, Burks appeared in 78 games and averaged 14 points per game.

Writes Wojnarowski:

Reachable incentive clauses could push Burks’ deal to $45 million, sources said.

Burks has developed into one of the NBA’s better young shooting guards and is a cornerstone of the franchise’s youthful core.

Burks, a member of the 2011 NBA draft class, and his agent, Andy Miller, had until midnight EST on Friday to negotiate an extension with Utah – or Burks could’ve entered into restricted free agency in 2015.

Burks, 23, is the third young Jazz player, along with Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, to reach a four-year extension with the franchise.

The Jazz and power forward Enes Kanter ended extension talks Wednesday, and he’ll enter into restricted free agency in July. Utah can match any offer sheet and retain him.

Schedule could add to Lakers’ troubles


VIDEO: Kobe scores 27 in a preseason loss to the Suns

And then there’s the other part of the Lakers’ problems.

The season begins tonight with 2013-14 health flashbacks — no Nick Young, no Ryan Kelly, no Steve Nash, maybe/maybe not Ronnie Price and Xavier Henry — but with the additional burden of an unsympathetic schedule. The Rockets are first, at Staples Center for the opener as the return of Kobe Bryant in the most rare of Lakers sightings, a player joining the lineup, and also the first step into the obstacle course.

The first 15 games are all against opponents who are either heavy favorites to make the playoffs or can make a decent case: the Rockets (twice), Suns (twice), Clippers, Warriors (twice), Hornets, Grizzlies (twice), Pelicans, Spurs, Hawks, Mavericks and Nuggets. And, there are four back-to-backs. At least eight of the 15 are at home.

That takes the Lakers through Nov. 26, the final installment, against Memphis, as part of a four-game home stand. Just before they go East to play three games in four nights.

Bryant’s first regular-season game in nearly 10 months comes after he averaged 26.7 minutes while playing in six of the eight preseason contests.

“I’m not going to go over the top and say I’m overjoyed by it,” Bryant said Monday, as quoted by Mark Medina of the Los Angeles News Group. “But I’m happy to be out there and happy to be playing. It’s about finding a balance and trying to keep poised and calm without getting too over the top.”

Love sits, learns no Cavs’ injury ‘minor’


VIDEO: Kevin Love scores 25 as the Cavs top the Bucks in preseason

Kevin Love‘s not in Minnesota anymore.

Cleveland might not rate as much of an upgrade over the Upper Midwest hinterlands on most hipsters’ scales of livability and excitement, but in NBA terms, it’s the difference between Dorothy‘s Kansas and the Emerald City.

So while Love’s occasional aches, pains and injury absences from the Timberwolves’ lineup barely caused ripples – beyond skepticism of his “knuckle pushups” explanation for a broken hand in October 2012 – there’s no escaping the spotlight with every bump, bruise and blow to the ribs.

That’s what happened to the All-Star power forward this week, prompting him to miss some court time Tuesday with more than 48 hours still to go before the Cavaliers’ opener, as reported by Jason Lloyd of Ohio.com:

Kevin Love took a shot to the rib cage and sat out part of practice on Tuesday, but Cavs coach David Blatt said he will be fine for Thursday’s opener against the New York Knicks.

“We pulled him out, but he’s OK,” Blatt said.

Love has suffered a number of minor dings during the preseason. He was kicked near his Achilles in a game against the Heat, but remained in the game. He missed time with a sore neck and also battled a sore knee during the preseason.

Love wanted this upgrade in opportunity and expectations, so he surely understands if a headache, a hangnail or a bout of indigestion leaves him trending on Twitter.

Ezeli return a big moment for Warriors

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If Festus Ezeli can stay healthy, the Warriors could have three 7-footers to protect the rim. (NBAE via Getty Images)

OAKLAND – Under cover of the Giants in Game 1 of the World Series at the same time, with the Clippers resting Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the Warriors sitting ill Andrew Bogut and using David Lee for 19 minutes, with everyone ready for the exhibition schedule to be over already, Tuesday night at Oracle Arena unsuspectingly turned meaningful.

Festus Ezeli played, newsworthy in itself given the length of his absence, and on his 25th birthday at that as an added layer to the celebratory mood of getting directions to the court. That he played well, though, was the thing, enough of a development to attach value to a sloppy preseason game, enough to prompt coach Steve Kerr to note that Ezeli “was really aggressive with what he did,” a sign that Ezeli was not shying away from contact inside.

Enough to nudge the jammed Western Conference playoff pack.

It was such a little thing — 11 minutes, just shy of the 12-minute limit imposed by the medical staff, 10 points, three rebounds, four baskets in five attempts, five fouls — and it was just one October outing with months ahead that really count — but it could become such a big thing. And now we’re talking developments.

The thin bench that was part of the Golden State downfall last season remains a concern the week before 2014-15 opens, projected point-guard backup Shaun Livingston may not be back from toe surgery when the season begins Wednesday in Sacramento, and Kerr is facing an Andre Iguodala-or-Harrison Barnes decision for the start at small forward. But if Ezeli can return to his former role of dependable second-string center, the Warriors have a key roster addition when they need it most.

That is obviously a big if. When Ezeli took the court with 3:05 remaining in the first quarter Tuesday, it was his first time in uniform in 17 months, since the Warriors were eliminated in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. No, it was, he said afterward, the first time in any five-on-five run since surgery on two ligaments in the right knee on June 12, 2013, cost Ezeli all last season and inflammation in the lower part of the same right leg took away much of the training camp and preseason that was supposed to be a fresh start.

But if he is healthy, if he can reclaim the 2012-13 form, if he can be depth behind Bogut, the little thing on a baseball night in the Bay Area can grow into something that could be worth enough wins to alter their place in the West. (A season ago, six victories separated four through nine, the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and the lottery.) If not, hello Ognjen Kuzmic and Marresse Speights.

“It’s big,” Kerr said. “Ezeli and Kuzmic. Kuz has really come along this training camp. We’ve given him a lot of time in the exhibition games and he’s performed well. If Festus can make strides… if he can come around physically and we can have three 7-footers who can all protect the rim, then I think we’re in pretty good shape. We would prefer to stay big most of the time. We like to have a rim-protector in there. With three guys, assuming we can count on all three, that protects us against us some injury and foul trouble and that kind of stuff.”

The source of optimism Tuesday night was Ezeli entering late in the first quarter, needing 68 seconds to block a shot by Jared Cunningham as the Clippers guard drove to the rim, another 55 seconds to hit an eight-foot jump hook from the left baseline, and 55 more seconds to finish a pick-and-roll by grabbing an Iguodala lob with both hands and flushing it through the net. The nervousness of making the return with family and friends in attendance as part of the birthday was replaced by a surge of confidence.

“That’s what people have been saying and people always talked about, how light we were at the center position and they didn’t feel we had enough depth there,” Ezeli said. “This team, we feel like we’re pretty decked. We have a pretty nice deck of cards on this team. But they felt like the center position was pretty light. But now, Kuzmic has been working his butt off. I’ve seen him work every day and I’ve been right there with him.

“The good thing about being out so long, I really don’t care what anybody thinks about me anymore. I don’t care because the people that write the articles… and the people that talk about me and put the other people down, nobody was there with me while I was doing my rehab. What they think doesn’t matter. It’s about what we as a team think about ourselves, and we think we’re pretty good and we have a lot of talent on this team. That’s all that matters.”

This will still be a process. Ezeli needs to improve his conditioning the same way all players coming back from extended layoffs do and needs to re-calibrate to the speed of the game — Kerr quickly pointed out that Ezeli picked up so many fouls in a short time against the Clippers “because the game is going to move too fast for him right now.” And it was just one night. Those are the reality checks.

On the other hand, the Warriors could have much-needed bench help and could end up with the important acquisition of a player who officially was always on the roster. Those are the bottom lines, for Golden State and the West.

BOG vote down Draft lottery reforms


VIDEO: Commissioner Silver discusses the owners’ vote

NEW YORK – Dealing with ultra-competitive people who’ve chased down success in both sports and business, vying in an industry with millions and these days even billions of dollars at stake in revenue and franchise valuations, it’s no wonder that every NBA rule on and off the court gets bent nearly to the point of breaking.

So dialing in the right mix of incentives, disincentives and weighted percentages in crafting or reforming a draft lottery is like dribbling through the Chicago Bulls defense – in a minefield of unintended consequences. Veer this way and … kaboom!

That, ultimately, was why a proposal from the league’s Competition Committee to modify the lottery failed to pass at the Board of Governors meeting that concluded Wednesday in midtown Manhattan. A 17-13 vote in favor of some significant changes still fell short of the 23 votes needed, based on the league’s by-laws. The issue goes back to the committee for further study.

“We’ve tinkered with the draft lottery several times,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I don’t necessarily disagree with the way it works now. I’m concerned with the perception.”

Silver, in fact, considers it a “corrosive perception” held by some fans, media types and people within his own league that teams can win big by losing big.

The essence of a draft is to deliver the best young talent to the neediest team. Yet “neediest team” is a moving target: Sometimes it’s a good team whose star player has gone done for a season – or left for good as a free agent. Sometimes it’s a chronically mismanaged roster full of players who never quite panned out. And still other times it’s a crew in need of serious rebuild whose front office has determined that “tanking” in search of a high draft pick is the surest way out of Stinkville.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the current poster guys for that strategy, using lottery picks on injured Joel Embiid and Euro-stashed Dario Saric one year after adding hurt-and-redshirted Nerlens Noel and finishing 19-63. Other teams such as Milwaukee and Orlando lined up with them – the 15-67 Bucks actually undercut the field in 2013-14 – in pursuit of the same prize.

The sense that one or several of the league’s 30 teams would take the court intending to do anything but win is one that rankles Silver. But for every tweak in the lottery system allegedly keeping teams honest in one direction, there was potential for a different club to game the system in another.

“Whether it’s the case, I’m frankly not sure. Sometimes perception becomes reality,” Silver said. “I think there’s an unfair pressure on some of our teams to actually underperform. There’s a view in those markets that they’re better off performing poorly in order to win in the long-term.”

Teams voted for or against the lottery reforms for other, more specific reasons. Some franchises in small-revenue markets feel they’re at a disadvantage in free agency (luring players) or trades (keeping acquired players long-term. They see the draft – and the rules of rookie contracts that can stretch as long as five seasons, at salaries lower than market value – as an equalizer. Teams in larger markets, with greater pressure from their fan bases to win, may view the draft as rewarding the league’s laggards or, worse, the intentionally bad.

According to Yahoo! Sports, the votes broke somewhat, but not entirely, along market-size lines. The 13 “no” votes reportedly were: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, Washington and Utah.

The proposals floated this week called for broadening the lottery’s sweet spot and giving more teams a better shot at landing the top picks. In flattening the odds among the teams with the four worst records, the “neediest” team’s chance at the No. 1 pick would have been cut from 25 percent to 12. Also, it would be guaranteed no worse than the seventh pick, rather than fourth in the current system, if its lottery numbers proved unlucky.

“People want a change,” one Eastern Conference GM told NBA.com, “but they weren’t happy with the proposal.”

Other topics addressed at the Board of Governors meeting included:

  • Reports on revenue sharing and the new TV and digital rights extensions with Turner Broadcasting and ABC/ESPN that will pay the NBA $24 billion over nine years beginning in 2016-17, approximately triple what the current deals generate.
  • Discussion about the league’s latest marketing campaign and the status of the Atlanta Hawks’ unsettled ownership situation.
  • Presentations on domestic violence, diversity and other workplace concerns.
  • The extension of Minnesota owner Glen Taylor’s term as Board of Governors chairman for one more year.
  • The establishment of the David J. Stern Sports Scholarship, a $30,000 package based on merit and need for a student in sports management. Included: an internship at the NBA office in New York as a junior and direct mentoring from Stern, who retired as NBA commissioner after 30 years in February. “He was honored, flattered,” Silver said. He’s looking forward to engaging directly with these young students.”

The TV money issue looms large over the next two years because, while the infusion of cash won’t occur until 2016-17, all parties know that it is coming. NBA players already have talked about getting back some of what they felt was sacrificed in the last round of collective-bargaining talks in 2011, when their share of league revenues fell from 57 to approximately 50 percent. Owners reportedly are questioning revenue-sharing arrangements agreed to at about that same time and fine-tuned since.

Silver said Wednesday that one-third of the league’s 30 teams still are not profitable, though he added after the news conference that the onus still is on the individual teams to manage well their business. Some in attendance raised the specter of labor strife again in 2017 when the current CBA can (and likely will) be re-opened, and the possibility of a lockout similar to or worse than 2011 in a squabble over the flood of dollars.

The commissioner wasn’t ready to go there.

“So many great things are happening in this league right now,” Silver said. “Putting money aside, I think the system elements are working in the new collective bargaining agreement. I can’t remember a time when we had so many competitive teams in the league, so much hope in markets throughout the league.

“As I’ve said to the players, from day one when I became commissioner, my focus is on growing the pie. And if we do our job growing the pie, the incremental differences in percentages will be rounding error compared to us both sharing in the success of the league.”


VIDEO: Silver breaks down the new media deals

The last less likely to be first, under expected draft lottery reforms

NEW YORK – The NBA’s Board of Governors, expected to approve an overhaul of the league’s draft lottery Wednesday at their fall meetings in midtown Manhattan, might want to be careful what they vote for.

In thwarting the Philadelphia 76ers in what many consider their shameless plunge into, and loitering about, the lottery for consecutive seasons, they might in fact wind up aiding GM Sam Hinkie‘s team on the way up.

Lottery reform, as reported by multiple media outlets, is likely to pass with at least the 23 (of 30) votes needed. The changes essentially will broaden the lottery’s sweet spot, giving more teams a better shot at landing the No. 1 pick and therefore, presumably, discouraging teams that might be inclined to “tank” their way to a rebuilding strategy.

That’s what Philadelphia has done, trading last year for injured big man Nerlens Noel, sputtering through a 19-63 season, then using its two lottery picks in June for two more players – Kansas center Joel Embiid and Euro-obligated Dario Saric – who won’t help at all in 2014-15.

Flattening the odds among the teams with the four worst records, cutting the worst club’s chances (25 percent now) approximately in half and guaranteeing it no lower than the seventh pick (no longer the fourth) all reportedly are among the reforms considered by the owners this week to strip incentives from finishing dead last or nearly so.

But given the young talent already on board in Philadelphia, it’s possible the 76ers could be improve considerably in the next two or three years – and find itself with a Top 3 pick again, thanks to the rejiggered odds.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of the league’s worst team landing the best draft prospect would be lessened again. And that’s happened only three times in 21 years anyway since the lottery adopted its current weighting – a pattern that some believe argued against tanking in the first place. A 25 percent shot at No. 1 means a 75 percent shot at not getting the top pick.

Clearly, the league is a long way from its days of heads or tails, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Neal Walk and Magic Johnson vs. David Greenwood, dictated by coin flip. But the 76ers and others got good enough at gaming the system to grab the Governors’ attention, and a draft system intended to help the truly awful might wind up aiding the merely mediocre. That is of particular concern to the league’s smaller-revenue markets, which already feel disadvantaged in attracting free agents and retaining players acquired via trades.

Among other items believed to be on the Board of Governors agenda:

  • A report on the league’s new replay center in Secaucus, N.J., the clearing house for all reviewed calls this season.
  • Discussion of the flood of TV money from new rights extensions with Turner Broadcasting and ABC/ESPN and its expected impact on player compensation, the salary cap and revenue-sharing.
  • Update on the Atlanta Hawks ownership and front-office situation.
  • Conversations about the NBA’s code of conduct, particularly as it relates to domestic violence.

Big minutes matter in rookie race


VIDEO: The Starters make their picks for Rookie of the Year

The cut line has been established: 30.5 minutes. No one has been voted Rookie of the Year the last 10 seasons averaging fewer per game, and Kyrie Irving cruising to victory over Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried in 2012 is more anomaly than anything. Winning with that comparatively light workload does not ordinarily happen.

Really, based on recent history, a first-year player will need to log closer to 35 or 36 minutes an outing to have the kind of role that sways voters, a trend that is relevant with no clear preseason choice for the award and some of the most NBA-ready prospects opening 2014-15 in reserve roles.

Julius Randle would be a much stronger candidate in other places, but not amid Lakers plans to rely heavily on Carlos Boozer to chase that elusive 30th victory. Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott join a crowded and experienced group of forwards as the Bulls chase something other than the past. And in Boston, Marcus Smart would have better odds as opening night approaches if not for the likelihood he will spend a lot of time coming off the bench once Rajon Rondo returns from a hand injury, which could happen very early.

No one has won Rookie of the Year averaging less than 30 minutes since Mike Miller of the Magic at 29.1 in 2001, his easy victory over Kenyon Martin. In the previous 10 seasons, to be exact:

2013-14 — Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers, 34.5 minutes and 70 games.

2012-13 — Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers, 38.6 and 82.

2011-12 — Irving, Cavaliers, with 51 appearances in the 66-game, lockout-shortened schedule.

2010-11 — Blake Griffin, Clippers, 38 and 82.

2009-10 — Tyreke Evans, Kings, 37.2 and 72.

2008-09 — Derrick Rose, Bulls, 37 and 81.

2007-08 — Kevin Durant, SuperSonics, 34.6 and 80.

2006-07 — Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers, 35.4 and 57.

2005-06 — Chris Paul, Hornets, 36 and 78.

2004-05 — Emeka Okafor, Bobcats, 35.6 and 73.

Anyone hoping to crash the party from the bench this season is going to need a lot of big moments on a good team and probably even as a difference maker for a playoff club. Voters generally want numbers or a lead role, not a complementary spot for a winner (the 76ers were 19-63 last season, the Trail Blazers 33-49 as Lillard won, the Cavaliers 21-45 as Irving won. On and on. Rose is the only Rookie of the Year in the 10-year sample to play for a non-loser, with the Bulls at 41-41.)

The outlook will change with the depth charts, of course. Boozer averaged 28.2 minutes in Chicago’s last regular season and was down to 24.2 in the playoffs, so he’s not exactly an insurmountable obstacle for Randle. If the Lakers are taking on water and getting the 2013-14 Boozer, the ROY race could change, given projections that power forward Randle should be able to handle himself physically and score inside now.

The week before the new season opens, though, the same player that would have a stronger case on another team has a problem. And leading candidates Nerlens Noel and Jabari Parker have an advantage.

Suns try lineup with three point guards


VIDEO: Suns look to build on momentum from last season

It was probably inevitable the Suns would go there eventually, and exhibition games are the time to push the envelope, so push away. The details just happened to be Thursday night, US Airways Center in Phoenix, 3:12 remaining in the second quarter against the Spurs.

Point guard Goran Dragic, point guard Eric Bledsoe and point guard Isaiah Thomas were used together for the first time and probably not the last. There is no indication it will be a common sighting, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if coach Jeff Hornacek opts for microball in situations during the regular season, depending on the opponent and whether Phoenix simply needs a burst of energy at that time of the game.

The appeals and drawbacks are obvious: The Suns could force the tempo they like, but would risk getting turned into little more than speed bumps on defense by going 6-foot-3 (Dragic), 6-foot-1 (Bledsoe) and 5-foot-9 (Thomas), not to mention risking injury from getting stepped on. They would have to counter by staying in scramble mode the entire time, trying to force turnovers or get the opponent horribly out of rhythm since playing straight up wouldn’t be much of an option.

The immediate feedback Thursday was an 11-2 run with the Bledsoe-Dragic-Thomas grouping, although that doesn’t really count as evidence of anything, not when it’s against the pseudo-Spurs with three starters and sixth man Manu Ginobili getting the night off or nursing injuries. Coach Gregg Popovich didn’t even make the trip to Phoenix. The actual value for Phoenix was the chance to take the unique lineup out for a test drive to see how all five Suns on the court played off each other, especially the three, in something other than a scrimmage setting.

“We were small but everybody got in and rebounded and we pushed the tempo and the lead just went up,” Bledsoe, who had three defensive boards during the run, told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. “We definitely was having fun out there. Everybody was sharing the ball. I know Isaiah did a great job.”

It’s an adjustment period for all three, and not just if they’re on the court together. Thomas is coming to a new team as a free agent and making his first move as a pro after three seasons with the Kings, Dragic is learning how to play with him, and Bledsoe is back for his first full season after missing 33 games in 2013-14 with a knee injury, with added expectations after re-signing at five years and $70 million. It worked with Dragic and Bledsoe then and it can work with IsaiahDragsoe now, with the same starters as before and Thomas winning Sixth Man of the Year.

Phoenix has three more exhibition games before opening the regular season Oct. 29 at home against the Lakers.

Bulls’ Butler a high-volatility stock


VIDEO: Butler plays preseason hero against Hawks

Asterisks abounded Thursday night, when Jimmy Butler went vintage-Derrick Rose – or one-off-Michael Jordan – down the stretch against the Atlanta Hawks.

* Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau had starters, including Butler, on the floor late in the Bulls’ mostly dismal performance.

* His Atlanta counterpart, Mike Budenholzer, was rolling with third-string Hawks.

* Rose, the Bulls player who would normally be called upon at such a point, was on the bench (prompting some predictable hand-wringing from critics who aren’t happy when the point guard plays a lot or when he plays a little).

* It still was the preseason.

* And Butler is in the midst of a salary drive, his performances this month potentially out of character, with the real impact of deal-or-no-deal in his contract extension talks to be determined later.

Still, the Bulls shooting guard did score 29 points – one more than his career high in three NBA seasons – in his team’s scramble back from 21 points to win. Butler got 20 of those in the final 5:11, an explosive stretch that might have been aided by the various asterisks but explosive nonetheless.

He did it, too, in ways that made the worriers feel a little better about Butler’s offense – no one questions his defensive effort or effectiveness – at a position where Chicago needs more oomph. Butler, who shot 39.7 percent from the floor (28.3 percent on 3-pointers), dramatically beat the buzzer from 26 feet in good form. He wound up shooting 8-for-14 and 12-for-16 from the line (9-for-11 in the fourth), and got some big love from teammates.

“We always tell him to take more [shots], but it’s going to be up to him to break that seal,” Rose said. “Thank God that he’s catching his rhythm right now and he’s building his confidence. He’s another threat offensively.”

Not last year, he wasn’t. But Thibodeau played Butler long minutes anyway, for his defense, out of need and in spite of distractions coming at the wing player from Marquette. Butler battled injuries early, played only eight games with Rose before the point guard went down again, then had his role tweaked after the Bulls traded veteran small forward Luol Deng in January.

“Jimmy has grown,” Thibodeau said Thursday night. “He’s more a scorer than to characterize him as a straight shooter. He’s an all-around scorer. He’ll find ways to put the ball in the basket.”

Butler, though you’d wonder where it came from, is said to have arrived at camp 10 pounds lighter. He looks more athletic and clearly has been more aggressive, leading Chicago after five October games with 18.6 points, 60.4 field-goal shooting, 43 free throw attempts and 144 total minutes.

“All summer I worked on my game. The biggest thing is confidence, taking shots I know I can make,” he said.

So, salary drive? Butler has two weeks left to land, per NBA rookie-scale rules, the contract extension available to players heading into their fourth seasons. Two years ago, Bulls forward Taj Gibson felt preseason pressure while his talks played out, and though he got his deal (four years, $33 million), the episode seemed to bleed into a subpar season. Butler has some folks wondering if he might go the other way if he gets paid – throttling back – or be adversely affected if he doesn’t get the extension done.

He said Thursday it hasn’t been a distraction. “Nope. Not at all,” Butler said. “I just try to play the game the right way. The whole contract situation is up to my agent (Happy Walters) and the Bulls organization. I just want to win games. Then the contract will take care of itself, whenever.”

And however much. The market for Butler figures to be as hot as it is fluid. Chicago reportedly would like to sign him now for what’s becoming called “Taj money,” close to Gibson’s 2012 extension. Butler might be anchored more by the three-year, $30 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer the Bulls put in front of Deng before trading him.

Then there’s the unpredictable marketplace of free agency, even with restrictions, should Butler get that far. Gordon Hayward landed his four-year, $63 million max deal that way – offer sheet from Charlotte, matched by Utah – and Chandler Parsons scored a three-year, $46 million contract with Dallas. And if Butler, who will make $2 million this season, were to play this out twice on a year-by-year basis, he would hit the unrestricted marked in 2016 as the new bonanza of TV rights cash officially kicks in.

Bulls VP of basketball John Paxson and GM Gar Forman, who will already have $50 million committed to four players next season (Rose, Gibson, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol), won’t have Thibodeau at the bargaining table, that’s for sure. The coach who has leaned hard on Butler for two years will look to him even more.

Chicago added shooters over the summer but after Rose, Butler is the best choice to put real pressure on opponents, getting to the rim, getting to the line, throwing himself around to wreak havoc and create energy on nights when there’s none, like Thursday. With Deng’s departure, he is the defender who will draw the toughest assignments, the only one Thibodeau trusts to check other guys’ most potent scorers.

Butler was drafted last in the first round in 2011 and still sounds like an absolute underdog. “I’m from Tomball, [Texas],” he said earlier this week. “I’m not even supposed to be in the NBA, let alone be a star player. I just want to be wanted. I just want to play hard. I just want to help [us] win. End of story. Star player, role player, bench player, whatever it takes. Just let me win.”

Oh, Butler definitely is going to win, either with the Bulls or someone else. In this case, the victory will be noted not by a ‘W’ or an * but by a bunch of $’s.