It looks like it’s been quite an enjoyable offseason for Tuff Juice and the fam.
After missing more than 50 games with a devastating knee injury a year before, he appears to have emerged from a grueling, lockout-shortened first season with the Clippers relatively healthy, spry and refreshed — presumably thanks to a steady regimen consisting of no-nonsense blacktop hoops against his wife and kids and Twister. Best of all, the broken wrist he suffered in the Memphis series doesn’t appear to have hampered his Thumb War game.
But as he enters Year 2 of a three-year, $24 million contract, it’s time to check in. So much has happened in Clipperland since the end of the best season in franchise history, that you could be excused for losing track of the starting small forward — who also happens to be an integral part of the team’s hopes for taking the next step.
Or, in Butler’s case, the first step.
If it occurred to you that Butler had a disproportionate amount of success early in games, you were right. We all know that Chris Paul starts games with the intent to get his teammates going, and Butler was often the beneficiary. He took 40 percent of his shots this past season in the first quarter, and converted 45 percent of them. Like many NBA starters, Butler typically took his rest during the 2nd quarter, but for the rest of the game, he shot only 38 percent from the floor.
This became his thing. If Paul is the Clippers’ closer and Blake Griffin is their middle-of-the-order power hitter, 32-year old Caron Butler established himself as their dependable, veteran starting pitcher.
What’s the explanation for a player performing so well to start games, and having so little impact the rest of the way? And could this be part of a viable strategy for success going forward?
For reference, we need look no further than his performance in the Spurs series. Butler came out hot in Game 1, making six of 13 shots, including three of seven from downtown, for 15 points. But in Games 2, 3, and 4 combined, he shot six for 19, and ultimately lost minutes to smaller, three-guard lineups. As teams made adjustments and Paul’s probing led to more looks for himself, Butler would generally fade out of the picture.
This was the template for the 2012 Clippers. Caron Butler provides an initial boost, Blake Griffin batters away at the opponent, and Chris Paul closes it out, with a sprinkling of shooters mixed in. Wash, rinse, repeat.
And the formula worked — the degree to which it worked just depends on your view of success.
Teams came out looking to stop Paul and Griffin, and quite often, they found Butler on the weak side. The Clippers run an overwhelming amount of Paul-Griffin pick-and-rolls, and whether it was Paul breaking down the defense off the dribble or Griffin using his vision to move the ball off of quick hits to the high post or pick-and-pop, Butler enjoyed a a fair amount of open looks early. It’s no coincidence that the two stars combined to dish out a whopping 69 percent of Butler’s assists.
But can it continue?
If you can look past that arrogant smirk of Father Time — who happens to remain undefeated — the signs are certainly encouraging. While he is not likely to ever regain the quickness that made him one of the league’s best two-way wings, he has adapted his game to fit into what was one of the league’s most efficient offenses last year.
Even Cy Young winners tend to lose a couple miles per hour off their fastball as they age past 30, but they continue to succeed by adding new wrinkles. For Butler, this has meant surreptitiously becoming a knockdown three-point shooter. Over the past two seasons (consisting of 92 regular season games), he is a 37 percent shooter from behind the arc. This is the same player who never shot above 34 percent in any previous season.
Last year alone, he shot almost 50 more three-pointers than he ever had before, despite the condensed schedule. Whether he can keep it up remains to be seen, but we do know that shooting is a skill that players can improve significantly over time.
It’s also clear that, despite his relative success this past season, he should benefit from a few fundamental differences this year. For one, he’ll be another year removed from knee surgery. And unlike last year, he’ll also have a viable backup in Grant Hill. But most importantly, he’ll enjoy more frequent rest that comes with a return to the traditional NBA schedule. (Who ever thought we’d be able to call an NBA season “restful?”)
The Clippers played 20 games last March, with Butler appearing in all but one. That’s five more games than he played in any other month last year, and the workload clearly took its toll. He shot only 36 percent from the floor and 31 percent from three for the month, and, despite the increased opportunities, he got to the free throw line fewer times (21) than he had in January (36) or February (27). We see his production wane over the course of games and the course of a season, but that is to be expected for a player his age, with his injury history. All the Clippers need him to do is continue to bring it early on.
One of the more underappreciated aspects of the Clippers’ attack last season was the cavalry of shooters that aided Butler in stretching the floor. If they are going to replicate their offensive success, Butler will need to play at his 2012, non-March level for the whole year. He no longer gets to the line — he averaged a measly 1.7 free throw attempts per game — and without Mo Williams, Randy Foye or Nick Young, there will be even less room for the low-percentage, long twos that teams like the Spurs were ultimately able to bait Butler into taking.
But assuming the same basic script — and why fix it if it isn’t broken? — and assuming that Butler’s body holds up like it did for the majority of last season, it’s not unreasonable to expect even slight improvement over his 2012 campaign. The Clippers added slick-passing Lamar Odom and capable point-forward Grant Hill to the mix, and in place of the sweet-shooting but creatively-challenged trio of departed wings, we can expect more minutes from Eric Bledsoe and Chauncey Billups to contribute to Butler’s cause.
This should all help, to the point where even if his decline phase continues to manifest itself in some struggles on the defensive end, he has a chance to play a major role in another top-5 offense. Which, when you think about it, is not too shabby for the guy who’s been happily dancing to “Call Me Maybe” while we were busy worrying about everything else.