Player to Watch: Caron Butler
Last fall, I sang the hymn of fandom. Caron Butler's Wizards responded with their worst season in a while, a true wire-to-wire disaster of incontinence, misfortuned struggle and self-imposed blurriness. Butler still had a Butler-like season: 21 points, six rebounds, four assists, 1.5 steals -- but there's no self-promoting allowed when there are only 19 wins in the ledger.
So the song remains the same: Butler is one of the most bizarrely solid players this league has, worthy of our attention and appreciation. Luckily, as the Wizards around him improve -- through addition of the previously injured (Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood) and previously exiled in Minnesota (Mike Miller, Randy Foye) -- we'll get to see Butler's glow more frequently.
There is no prototype for the New Small Forward. Scottie Pippen would have created a mold if he weren't so good. Actually, LeBron James has become the new unrepeatable megastar small forward, subjugating the Tracy McGrady era to the footnotes. Someday, scholars will trace the lineage of the then-modern small forward position straight from Bird (killer rebounder and defender, unstoppable scoring shooting) to Pippen (world-changing defender, excellent distributor) to LeBron (whose stat line has no integers, only a series of exclamation marks). Paul Pierce falls under the Bird tree; McGrady is shrunken as a pathfinder for the LeBron prototype. Fellows like Jason Kapono will someday be considered shallow experimental types, unworthy of deep study.
Where does a guy like Butler fit in here? Is it fair to Butler (or to LeBron) to place Caron on the sub-LBJ path? Butler is basically almost everything LeBron is, but refined and less superlative. Butler can score mightily -- that's now two straight seasons over 20 ppg, all fairly efficient shooting -- and has the peripheral stats in excess of average. You can take LeBron's line, subtract a certain percentage across the board, and you'd basically have Butler, who does it all, just like King James. But an inextractable quality of LeBron, of course, is that there is so much volume to his game. It overfills the court -- any Cavaliers game is immediately different because of his presence. This isn't religious overstatement; it's a matter of properly defining the essence of LeBron in order to properly judge the benefit of Butler (though I have no doubt Wiz fans will be duly peeved at so much Bron talk in what is a Wiz post).
If you have LeBron, but you take away some of his volume, you get Butler. But by removing volume, the character of the player you're left with is completely changed. So while Butler may be something like "LeBron x 85 percent," just by decreasing the volume you're almost removing LeBron from the equation. It's a null result. So let's think of it another way: instead of Butler as 85 percent of LeBron, let's make LeBron a "Butler x 115 percent + !!!."
And so here, Butler becomes the archetype for the modern small forward, the mascot for the lineage through the late Aughts. Gerald Wallace's recipe is "Butler - 10 percent + suicide bomber style." John Salmons is "Butler - 10 percent - style + beard + indecisiveness." Hedo Turkoglu is "Butler - 20 percent + size + the benefit of New Eastern European Romanticism." Even Ron Artest becomes a Caron Butler mutation ("Butler + crazy pills").
As the Wizards vault up the standings this season, there's no need to prepare for an onslaught of Caron Butler profiles. No weepy John Thompson interviews, or fuzzy clips of Butler shooting hoops at some rundown schoolyard in Racine where he'd pretend it was the fourth quarter of Game 7. If/when this team succeeds, Butler ain't getting the shine. But we know that some day, when researchers happen upon his box scores, it will all come together and Caron Butler will get the bronze statue he deserves.