ClipperBlog is running a series called “Summer Reading” – tidbits, advice and (ideally) reading material for each member of the Los Angeles Clippers. The hope being that players return next season armed with newfound knowledge, improvements to their skills and emboldened by their summer studies. Because knowing is half the battle.
Reading Material: The Godfather by Mario Puzo
“I was about to go back in the game, and got the X-ray results,” Butler said. “I told Coach I was ready, and he was about to throw me back in the fire.”
Sometimes reality has all of the characteristics of a fictional story, contrived to emphasize admirable qualities at the expense of the malignant, overlooking systemic shortcomings in favor of a romanticized vision. These narratives may be imposed by interested third-parties, ultimately verifying the phenomenon of the quixotic. But in the case of Caron Butler, the story is genuine—as authentic as the throbbing pain he felt in his left hand during the third quarter of Game 1 in Memphis.
The first indication that this season might be different for the Clippers was the signing of Caron Butler in December. The recently crowned NBA champ decided to take his talents to Los Angeles in the hopes of being the veteran presence on a rising contender. We know today that the acquisition of Butler wasn’t the culminating moment for the front office, but a step toward Neil Olshey’s most consequential move of the offseason (Chris Paul made clear that the presence of the proven vet made the Clippers a more desirable landing spot).
Caron’s season started out strong. A staple of Lob City during its nascent days was Butler carrying the offensive load in the first quarter, using his length and heft to smoothly operate in the mid-range. With the defense’s attention focused on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, offensive opportunities abounded for Butler, particularly when he shared the court with Chauncey Billups. Mr. Big Shot’s offensive repertoire of long-range shooting and an ability to drive and kick gave Butler an outsized amount of space to operate.
When Billups went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Butler’s numbers suffered. Combined with the abnormally straining lockout schedule (and an unbelievably grueling March consisting of 20 games and multiple back-to-backs), Caron’s age and injury history seemed to catch up to him. The lift from his surgically repaired knees seemed to diminish, encroaching on both his offensive effectiveness and his ability to defend opposing small forwards, the league’s most consistently athletic position.
Thus we arrive at the summer reading: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. There isn’t a whole lot Butler could do to improve his character as a team leader, one who sets his own ethic as a standard for the team, and I wouldn’t presume to explain how Butler could improve his game (other than a trip to Germany). But what Caron can learn from The Godfather is more a macro vision of what an impenetrable phalanx looks like.
If someone is going to use a Godfather analogy about an athlete whose nickname is “Tough Juice”, you’d probably expect his parallel character to be Sonny or Luca Brasi–but Caron’s a dead ringer for Tom Hagen. Initially an outsider lacking an Italian heritage, Hagen was a utility man, doing whatever needed to be done to ensure the longevity of the Corleone family. He was acting consigliere for much of the story and is best known for orchestrating the infamous horse decapitation stunt. Butler doesn’t have the same ruthlessness required of the top-level mob boss, but he does have a similar sense of loyalty born out of a chip on his shoulder.
Caron didn’t perform to the level expected of player receiving $8 million per year, but his hard-nosed loyalty and sense of connection to his teammates led him to be what can only be construed as inspirational. The Clippers were laughably shallow at small forward this season, so when the starting 3-man went down in Game 1 with a fractured left hand, the series seemed all but doomed. Then the incredible happened–with Butler dapperly dressed in a three-piece suit, the Clippers launched the most unimaginable comeback in NBA postseason history. Butler experienced the level of heart on this team, in this series, against this opponent. Ultimately, he didn’t have the heart to stay off the floor for Game 3, though the injury was supposed to have him sidelined for more than a month.
He didn’t perform particularly well during those final five games of the series, but that’s beside the point. He became Tough Juice. Caron Butler ceased to exist, and a soldier whose only thought was “win” took his place. Tom Hagen is forced to forget himself for the sake of the family. He forgets about his health, he forgets about his German-Irish origins, and he forgets that he is not a Corleone. During the first round of the playoffs, Caron embodied that fighting spirit the Clippers displayed in Game 1 and kept it alive until the last tick of Game 7 in Memphis. Tom Hagen had to prove himself more than anybody in the Corleone family by virtue of his outsider-status, but that led him to exemplify the Italian ethic even more so than the Sicilians themselves. Even though Butler may no longer be the athlete he used to be, he’s still Tough Juice. His competitive will infected the team in Round 1 and will need to be palpable throughout the 2012-2013 campaign in what is shaping up to be an incredibly competitive Western Conference.