When news broke that Jimmy Butler wanted to sign a one-year deal with the Lakers, it looked to set a tone for this summer's free agency. Players betting on themselves, and taking holdover deals before the salary cap skyrockets in 2017. Yet the Bulls offered Butler a fully guaranteed 5-year qualifying offer. For those of you who haven't memorized the CBA, this means that Butler cannot sign a one-year deal with any team. The shortest deal he could sign with a team other than the Bulls would be a three-year deal fully guaranteed deal. Because of this, we may see Butler take the one-year qualifying offer from the Bulls, which would create a huge precedent for current, and future restricted free agents.
The one-year qualifying offer Butler can take would be worth just $4.4 million, which is nothing compared to what the starting salary would be for a three or five year deal. Butler would make just over $15.8 million in the first season of his five year max deal with the Bulls. While players have made the gamble on the one year qualifying offer in the past (Greg Monroe most recently), Butler would be taking a huge risk, especially considering he hasn't accrued much salary already in his career. He was the 30th pick in the draft, so his earnings on his rookie deal pale in comparison to those of top picks (Monroe was the 6th overall pick).
Butler's best course of action would be to sign a three-year offer sheet from another team. The Bulls will almost certainly match, which would lock up Butler through 2018 season. From here, Butler would be entering free agency after his 7th season, meaning that his max deal jumps from from 25% of a team's cap to 30%. This is a perfect compromise, as Butler would bank roughly $50 million while maintaining flexibility during his prime earning years, and the Bulls would lock up Butler for a significant period of time while he hits his peak.
On the other side of the RFA spectrum is Kawhi Leonard. While nobody questions his talent or potential, he is less likely to gamble on free agency than Jimmy Butler. Kawhi's case shows why short term deals carry such risk, and why its not as simple as rolling over one-year deals year after year. While LeBron may very well do that the rest of his career, he's an exception to the rule. Kawhi has been hamstrung by minor injuries for the past two seasons (missing 34 games total), and like Butler, he has not banked a large deal yet. While one may look at Kawhi and conclude that he ought to sign a three-year deal or even take the qualifying offer, he's unlikely to do so. The fear of serious injury on a short-term deal is enough to scare many players into signing five-year max deals, even if it means giving up the potential for earning even more millions. Not every RFA is Jimmy Butler. Kawhi is almost certainly going to be re-signed by the Spurs, who can afford to pay him a five-year max without giving up their shot in the Aldridge sweepstakes.
Finally, there are the mid-level RFA's, such as Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton (also known as the God of RPM). These guys would never take a one-year qualifying offer, and they show how the idea of maximizing your prime earning years is really a question for the elite. A guy like Butler (or obviously LeBron) can afford to bet on his own talent, because he knows he will almost certainly get the max. For Harris and Middleton, there's no reason to roll over their free agency until the cap goes up. They're going to be paid around $12-14 million per year this summer, and waiting for the salary cap to skyrocket would only pay them around $2 million more per year, and that's if they continue their stellar play. So while it's easy to look at the changing NBA salary cap and say that every player should hold off until the cap spikes, it's not that simple. Once again, we underestimate the appeal of guaranteed money. Outside of Butler, nearly every RFA is going to take the most guaranteed money they can get.