As Chris Paul and Blake Griffin garner MVP consideration, DeAndre Jordan serves as the Clippers’ human eraser, and Chauncey Billups remains the cool, calm and collected veteran presence of the Clippers, Caron Butler stands in the shadows.
Many people forget the significance of Butler’s decision — making the unprecedented move of signing with the Clippers as a marquee free agent without much incentive. For all his faults, Butler is a former All-Star and looked like the clear-cut second-best player on last season’s Mavericks squad before going down with a season-ending injury on New Year’s Day 2011. He’s also a big reason why the Clippers were able to land Billups (and not have him begrudgingly join the team) and Paul.
When Billups came to L.A., he had no choice — the Clippers outbid an unknown team for his rights after he was amnestied by New York. Paul, in lieu of a rejected trade to the Lakers, agreed to play for the Clippers after they addressed their small forward need and signed his “big brother.” Butler, however, turned down more money from New Jersey and a better situation in San Antonio (or so it appeared pre-CP3) to join the Clippers.
On paper he wasn’t exactly the best fit for the Clippers, but there’s no denying his palpable talent. If anything, his greatest weakness — other than his health — is being a ball-stopper and having questionable shot selection, which is fixable under the right leadership and surrounding talent (Paul and Billups fit the bill). Even last year, albeit in a small sample size, he showed he could spot-up and drain 3-pointers consistently, a role he’s played decently so far with L.A.
All it took was a home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler’s hometown and the same team he suffered his season-ending injury against last season, for Butler to heat up offensively (scoring 14 points in the third quarter) and show the potential damage he can do against elite defenses. After such an awesome game, it’s not a matter of if Butler can have impressive performances, but a matter of how often he can produce them.
After his injury, he fell off the map, so to speak. Currently, Butler may be the fifth-most prominent Clipper. Griffin, Paul, Billups and Jordan are each on the All-Star ballot and have their own characteristics that make them relevant. Going from being one of the top-2 offensive options for basically your whole career to being the fourth or fifth option at times is a huge adjustment. For a player with Butler’s ego and talent it’s not easy, and deservedly so.
But so far in this short season, Butler has yet to disappoint. Sure, he’s taken his fair share of head-scratching shots, over dribbled (thus stagnating the offense a bit), and played spotty defense. For the most part, though, he’s been better than most people expected. His 3-point attempts are through the roof, and his accuracy (30 percent 3-point shooting) isn’t backing up that decision, but that’s the role any small forward the Clippers signed would play. We knew this already.
Due to his new role — primarily limited to spot-up shooting and creating offense at the end of the shot clock off of secondary action — Butler has taken almost no midrange shots, relying on a bevy of long-range twos and 3s instead. His attempts at the rim are down, but his efficiency is up, as he’s getting open looks off of swings and kick outs. As a whole, his numbers look the same, other than a major dip in usage rate (25.19 to 19.51), an increase in percent of shots assisted (70.6 to 87.9) and an uptick in PER (14.26 to 16.20).
We know what to expect from this team on most nights — the other four starters are usually consistent with their numbers and production. Besides Mo Williams’ morale and the back-up big man situation, Butler is the Clippers’ x-factor.
He can tilt things for or against the Clippers. He can score anywhere between 6 points to 22 points on any given night. He can lock down his opponent, or let Kevin Durant go off for 45 points in a playoff game. He can play within the offense or single-handley shut it down for periods of time. Come playoff time, Paul and Griffin will have the Clippers competing in every game. How they fare may be up to if Butler helps or hurts the team on that given night. The Clippers are a good team with him giving average contributions; anything more and they can be great.
Discounting the Houston game, because it was a blowout, Butler’s two worst games were the Clippers’ two losses to San Antonio and Chicago. That’s not a coincidence. Lob City might get all the attention, but when it comes down to it, the Clippers’ championship hopes may reside with an unlikely choice.