There was a time when Caron Butler was an All-Star and one of the top small forwards in the NBA.
It seems like a long time ago, but in reality, it’s only been a few years. As a 32-year-old with a suspect injury history, though, he’s nowhere near the caliber he used to be. Regardless, it’s somewhat of surprise that he’s seemingly been disregarded when discussing the Clippers and their potential success, even though he will undoubtedly play a critical role in the outcome of L.A.’s season.
Besides the palpable significance of the performances of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford (the four main rotation players who will likely log crunch time minutes), Butler may very well be the fifth-most important contributor – if given the permanent advantage as the Clippers’ fifth and closing cog.
That doesn’t mean he’s the team’s fifth-best player, because he’s not. It’s unclear where he ranks in the Clipper hierarchy of value and production, but one would be smart to label him as the team’s sixth- or seventh-best player (behind Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Eric Bledsoe, Crawford and possibly Matt Barnes).
This, of course, is before we know what Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups are fully capable of if/when healthy. And who knows, maybe one of the aforementioned players steals Butler’s playing time. On paper, Jordan-Griffin-Butler-Crawford-Paul makes the most sense (but Jordan never plays in late game situations), and it’s the type of lineup Vinny Del Negro prefers to use (except with a different big beside Griffin; maybe even some small ball with Barnes as a 4). Billups and Barnes are the two most likely guys to surpass Butler in the late game rotation, but for now he has the benefit of the doubt.
Because of his supposed large role, Butler’s ability to alter a game may be more important than say Bledsoe. Though Bledsoe will come in an terrorize the opposing team’s point guard and turn the pace of the game upside down and inside out (among the laundry list of amazing things he does each night), he can only have so much of an impact given his playing time restraints. That’s the reason so many people are clamoring for Bledsoe to play more; his effect is diminished if not in congruence with the proper lineups and in-game moments.
So while Bledsoe affects the game more when he’s on the floor than Butler does – this isn’t even a question – Butler is a bit more influential because he’ll likely be playing around 10+ minutes more than Mini LeBron. As Lamar Odom’s production, or lack thereof, has consistently shown this season, playing time matters, especially for the Clippers. Simply put, the guys who play more have more sway over the final score.
Which explains why it was so encouraging to see Butler’s 33-point shooting display against the Hornets. Sure, he hasn’t scored that many points in a game since 2009, and likely won’t approach anywhere near 30 points again this season, but it’s a sign of his potential within the framework of the Clippers’ offense. He’s going to be spotting up a lot, and shooting a bevy of open 3-pointers, so it’s a positive indication if he’s making them at a respectable clip (which he has done in L.A.).
The success of the barrage of 3s against the Hornets wasn’t predicted, but the action itself was premeditated upon studying how defense were guarding the Clippers’ starters:
“It was just one of those things where I saw the game in Oklahoma and I saw the opportunities that were presented from the wing replacement guy always filing in the slot,” Butler said after Tuesday’s practice.
“Against Brooklyn and Atlanta those opportunities were there, and like I said I talked to Madelyn [Burke] earlier, I felt I came back a game or so a little bit too soon from the shoulder [injury].”
Butler further implied that he decided before the game to shoot, if open, no matter what:
“After getting back here and getting some treatment it felt a lot better. Prior to the game I was just like, ‘Let it fly’” said Butler.
“I had some great opportunities and all the credit goes to my teammates, finding me in rhythm and Blake drawing two defenders every time he dives, leaving me naked up top… literally.”
When he was traded to Dallas midway through the 2009-10 season, Butler went through a career-altering transformation as a player. He saw his field goal attempts drop, and as a result, his scoring average. Instead of creating off the dribble, he began spotting up. His usage rate dipped and his % assisted – a stat that measures how many of his baskets were assisted by other players – skyrocketed.
His metamorphosis didn’t come full circle until he arrived in L.A., as they didn’t need a fringe second option the way Dallas did before Butler went down with a season-ending injury during the 2010-11 season. By that point, he had accepted who he had become; the Clippers’ third-option, at best, most nights and a guy who was supposed to bring maturity, leadership and toughness to a group in need of a keen veteran presence (this, of course, was before Billups or Paul were acquired).
Remember, Butler was the first veteran player of respected stature to commit to the Clippers long-term. After that came the Billups amnesty claim and the eventual CP3 trade. But Butler, in a way, gave the Clippers their first injection of legitimacy.
That’s been his M.O. in Clipper Land. He quietly chugs along, rarely ever getting the credit he deserves. Heck, even Willie Green is garnering more attention than Butler (for his poor play and sapping of Bledsoe’s minutes, nonetheless). Sometimes Butler has a big night, other times he doesn’t. Yet there’s something calming, and almost stabilizing, about knowing what you’re going to get out of a guy each game.
Butler’s game has a consistent aspect to it that rarely leaves you guessing what he’s going to do next. He seldom attacks the rim or shoots from the short midrange; practically all of his shots come from beyond 16 feet. He has severe flaws in his game – like his recent inability to play any coherent defense whatsoever – but much of that can be chalked up to age, injury and basic regression.
He isn’t as active as Barnes on either end of the floor, but he gives the Clippers elite 3-point shooting (44.1 percent on 3s), which is a role Barnes can’t replicate (23.8 percent on 3s). The Clippers’ starting unit needs spot-up shooters and floor spacers to allow Paul and Griffin to have as much room to operate as possible, so Butler is undeniably the better fit.
People often misplace credit and blame when assessing the factors that determine wins and losses. Every player that plays, and thus those who don’t play, affects the game in some way. The Clippers hope Butler can be their silent source of offense when Paul and Griffin are struggling.
He doesn’t mind it, though. He’s already come to terms with his limitations at this juncture of his career. In a league where a considerable amount of non-superstars try and play out of their capacity, it’s refreshing to know some players still accept their role.