I've had several versions of this post written all season. I tried doing it in January, and just couldn't. I tried getting myself to publish this when Butler was traded, but couldn't find the time. Now, though, after a Game 4 playoff performance that's getting everyone to notice what us Wizards fans saw all season, I have to finish this post.
When the book on the Wizards' disastrous 2009/10 season is written, there will be several different people that will, in essence, be blamed for the debacle. There will, of course, be tons of attention heaped on Gilbert Arenas, both for his erratic play and the whole guns in the locker room thing. There will be a lot of attention given to Ernie Grunfeld, who gave away two former all-stars for Al Thornton and cap relief. There will be attention given to Andray Blatche, both for his pouting at times, his attitude and his emergence after the trades. There will be attention given to Flip Saunders, a successful coach that couldn't reach his players.
Those people will be the villains of the story. Then, there will be the martyrs, who were finally granted their Get Out Of Jail free card to join a contender. The true professionals who didn't deserve to deal with all of the BS of the 2009/10 Wizards. The first two names that'll jump to the forefront of that discussion will be Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Jamison, for all the reasons Kelly Dwyer laid out, deserves to be the tragic hero.
But not Butler. Butler was as much a part of the problem this year as any other player on this team. Part of the issue was that he just wasn't as good as he was in the past. Part of it was the conditions around Butler. But the major issue is the same kind of mentality that caused Butler to launch 10 first-quarter shots the other night. The guy just thought he was a way better player than he actually was this season.
Media Day. With Gilbert Arenas taking most of the spotlight, an overjoyed Butler is milling around the premises. First, he goes on Mike Wise's show and listens to Wise's rap about this year's Wizards. Then, he lounges around, taking longer than anyone to take pictures and mingle with his teammates. Finally, he notices the media scrum standing around, waiting because he's the only guy that has not talked yet. Butler saunters over and immediately converts into his PR persona, talking about how ready he is and how great this season is going to be. He sounded like the Butler of old.
"I'm going in this season feeling better than ever," Butler tells everyone. "I can honestly say this is the best I've felt since my sophomore campaign."
The 20-minute session over, Butler departs. He's the last to leave. Just as he wants it.
It wasn't always like this for Butler. From 2005 to 2008, Butler was the perfect sidekick. He balanced Arenas' antics with steady, solid confidence off the court, and on the court, he knew just which possessions he had to take over so the offense didn't become too Arenas-centric. The two had outstanding on-court chemistry for about a year and a half.
But to understand how that relationship between Arenas and Butler deteriorated this season (and it did, tremendously), we have to go back and see that there were warning signs even during the good times.
Like Arenas, Butler is a self-made pro that has overcome considerable odds to get here. I'm not even talking about his childhood, which has become the story of legends. The arrests. The trips to prison. The coach that took him under his wing and wouldn't allow him to fail. No, I'm talking about his NBA career, where he's been disposed of and counted out several times. The fact that he fell to the 10th pick in the draft. The fact that, one year after being Miami's leading scorer, he was used as a mere a throw-in piece in a trade. The fact that the Lakers gave up on him after one year to get Kwame freakin' Brown. The fact that his Wizards coach didn't trust him enough to be in the starting lineup (over Jarvis Hayes no less!) until midway through his first year here. After all of that, Butler finally emerged in 2008 as a legitimate top option on a playoff team. Don't think he was going to give that status up so easily.
Of course, it goes without saying that Arenas and Butler have completely different approaches. Arenas invents slights and responds to them; Butler just knows he's better than you. Arenas feeds off his own insecurity; Butler is energized by his own security. Whether it's a card game against his college freshman roomate or a locker-room speech imploring his teammates to get serious, Butler is secure in his instincts, knows he's right and knows people will listen. It's just a matter of staying consistent in his message until you get it. Naturally, the two were going to clash, and there was tension even while the team was winning.
According to teammate Calvin Booth, Butler is the one Wizard who will speak up when Arenas is goofing around before a game.
"I say things like, 'Are we going to work today, or are we going to continue to talk?'" says Butler in his deepest baritone voice. "Because sometimes there's too much lollygagging going on. I'm like, 'Hey, do y'all know we got the Pistons out there? Are we going to work today?' Everybody gets real quiet, like, Oh, here he goes. But I get the respect I deserve."
Eventually, Arenas got hurt and Butler starred in 2008 in leading the Wizards to the playoffs. He even had his "I've arrived moment" when he won Game 5 against the Cavs in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Arenas was one of several Wizards engaged in a war of words with the Cavs. Tension!
Don't judge this team by comments, LeBron made a statement: 'these guys are talkers' but unless you hear something from the captains, which would be myself and Antawn, don't label that as the team. I'm the voice of this team and Antawn is the spiritual and emotional leader so unless you hear it from one of us, keep it moving.
That's all a build-up to the summer, when Arenas got his new deal and promptly got hurt. It's around this point where the warning signs got spelled out.
Preseason. The Wizards have just ended practice, and Butler, unlike usual, has made himself available after it. The questions range from the serious to the silly, mostly because Dan Steinberg is around for one of the first times all season. After a Steinberg question about Butler saying Flip Saunders was a great coach, Butler cracks a smile and says "What are you doing, Dan? I ain't going there." He's in a good mood.
But eventually, the subject turns back to Arenas. On this day, Flip Saunders announced that Arenas, along with Butler and Antawn Jamison, will be the team captains this season. It's a first for Gilbert, who had always shied away from a leadership role in the past. Someone asks Butler what he thinks this, and Butler's disposition immediately becomes cloudy.
"I don't know," he says, his voice lowering. "You'll have to ask him."
With no Arenas in 2008/09, Butler's game suffered. Casual fans didn't notice the slip, but Wizards fans did. Butler's turnover rate jumped way up from 12.4% to 14.3%, and his effective field goal percentage, which was over 50% in 2007/08, dropped to 48.2% in 2008/09. Worse, he used nearly 26 percent of the Wizards' possessions that year, and with his efficiency curbed, it hurt the offense. The Wizards went 19-63, even though Butler and Jamison each played in more games than they did in 2007/08.
It's tough to say what caused Butler's funky play. Perhaps it was the start of a decline. Perhaps Butler, seeing Arenas and Jamison get new contracts that paid them far more than Butler, got disgruntled over his own situation and played more selfishly. Perhaps Butler never recovered from the Wizards firing Eddie Jordan. Perhaps it was all of that.
But regardless, Butler dealt with his struggles the same way he always has: with supreme confidence. In this case, it was probably overconfidence. It all came to a head in a midseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Butler had a throwback performance, dominating Danny Granger and hitting a buzzer beater over him to clinch one of the Wizards' 19 wins on the season. Afterwards, he had this to say:
"Like I've said, I know I'm an all-star. Obviously, the record don't prove that and that's why we're in the position we're in, myself and Antawn. But we're going to continue to perform as all-stars and lead this team."
The Wizards had just won their 11th game out of 51 tries, and Butler was yapping about being an all-star. He had reassured us all, or so he figured. He knew he was an all-star in his own head, and now the rest of the world knew because he hit a buzzer beater. Except, for the first time in two years, he wasn't an all-star caliber player and he wasn't playing on a good team.
Fast forward to this summer. Butler showed up to training camp significantly lighter after a furious summer working out. The company line from him was that this was his team's time to win and their failure from the past year drove him all summer. "No time to relax when you finish the season the way we did," he said on media day.
But even through that, Butler felt the need to define his turf, particularly when it came to Arenas. Butler still felt he was, at the very least, a co-star of the team. He may have worked out furiously over the summer because of the team's struggles, but he also worked out because he figured in his own mind that he would be the one lifting them.
"I'm still going to be Caron," he said on media day. "My position don't change. I came here being the sixth man off the bench, and I worked my way up to where I'm at today. My role's not going to change for nobody."
He was also asked about Arenas. In hindsight, his answers reveal a lot.
"It's important for the franchise guy to be very vocal on this team, but I've been a leader my whole life, so I can't change who I am. It's great to see him make strides to become a better leader, and if he needs advice, I'll help him."
Later: "I'm going to continue to play how I've been playing over the past couple of years. I think the biggest adjustments are going to be made by Gilbert. He's a superstar that can make any adjustments that can be done."
Butler's message was clear. While you were figuring out your knee issues in your typical space-cadet way, I was busting my ass to become a superstar. Don't you think you're just going to come in here and things will go back to the way they were.
The only problem is that Butler didn't play like that superstar all season, and he was the last to know.
November 23rd. It's a Wizards off day practice, and everyone is in a weird mood. The team is 3-9 and already pointing fingers. When adversity like this strikes, Gilbert Arenas becomes even loonier. It's how he deals with pain, as we saw so clearly with the guns incident. A few days earlier, Arenas proclaimed the silent treatment he was giving the media was over. Today, after practice, Arenas clearly has something he wants to get off his chest. First, he goes over to the media scrum, which is around Antawn Jamison, and stands there. One reporter is shooting video, and Arenas peers in to look over his shoulder. His head nearly touches the reporters' shoulder for a good two minutes before Sam Cassell finally pulls him away.
Much to everyone's surprise, though, Arenas comes back from the locker room to talk to us. He has a smile on his face so wide that we all know something is up. Finally, Arenas drops the bombshell.
"For the most part, we all get along. There are, what, 15 players on the team? Fourteen do," he says.
14? Arenas won't say who the fifteenth is, but it becomes pretty clear after one reporter asks Arenas who keeps everyone in line.
"Me and Antawn. That's our jobs [as captains]. But at the end of the day, if 15 players don't want to go and it's only 14, you've seen Remember the Titans. It's the same thing, we've just got to play."
The only problem is that there are three captains, not two. Someone asks about Butler. Arenas stutters for a second, nods his head over and over, and finally says, "Oh, yeah, him too." Clearly, he was singling out Caron.
Butler struggles out of the gate, along with most Wizards. He shoots 6-17 in their opening-game win over Dallas, sitting out the key fourth-quarter stretch where the Wizards took control of the game. For the month, he shot just 41 percent and averaged a paltry 1.2 assists per game.
But that doesn't stop Butler from playing "his game," which in this case means shooting contested jumpers, pump faking and not passing. When asked about his 7-20, one assist, two turnover performance in a loss to Phoenix, Butler responded, "I had six layups that I missed. Come on now." When asked later about the team's struggles with Saunders' new offense, he simply said, "The offense has proven to work for Minnesota, Detroit. It's going to work for us."
Even Butler's breakout games rang hollow. From talking to him after the Wizards' 17-point win over Cleveland in November, which included Butler "breaking out" for 19 points on 6-16 shooting, you'd have thought he carried the team. Ric Bucker asked him about the struggles of being an efficient scorer with fewer shot attempts, and Butler responded as follows:
"I can pretty much adapt to any situation. I'm just playing basketball, getting out in transition, making plays, making things happen. My offense will come. Me being out there, coach playing me 35 minutes plus, good things are going to happen to me on the offensive end."
Then, when asked about his early-season struggles, here's what he said.
"Me as a basketball player, I always find my way. Coach knows that, the organization knows that. I score in bunches. Once I get in rhythm, I can put up 10-12 points fast, like I did tonight."
Except he didn't put up 10-12 points fast that night. He put up six points, then kept shooting and missing in his quest to make it 10-12.
Later, in December, Butler had another decent game, scoring 15 points on 10 shots, including 7-10 from the free-throw line, in a win over Milwaukee. Naturally, it was time for Butler to say he was back.
"Now I'm back to myself. Being explosive, getting out in the passing lanes, getting out in transition, just playing the basketball that people know me for."
Except he scored all his points in the half court. But whatever. He later said this when I asked him about why he was able to get to the free throw line so much more that night than any other night.
"It's common sense (to take the ball to the basket) when you see a smaller guy on you ... At the time I was injured, I was settling for jumpers and stuff because I couldn't explode to the basket and do the kinds of things I want to do. But I'm not going to make no excuses. I just go out there and play and don't point no fingers. I just try to do what I can. Sometimes, with a guy like myself, 60 percent is better than somebody else, so I try to do the best I can."
Four months later, and Butler is still jacking contested jumpers and not driving to the basket. It wasn't the injury.
Did Butler's shooting wear on Arenas? No doubt about it, it did. Arenas would drop hints all month about how he was worried about coming back and being himself because it was no longer his team. He said one of the big reasons he was struggling is that he was trying to change his game to better fit what the new team needed. It would be wrong, he would say, for him to come back and impose too much, since the team had changed and succeeded at times without him. It got so bad that Jamison finally had enough, telling assembled media after a practice that Arenas needed to stop listening to everyone, including his coach, and just play his game.
At the time, it sounded like Arenas was saying the right things. Looking back, it may have been Arenas passive-aggressively confronting Butler, as if to say, "your attitude about how I need to adapt to you is causing my issues." We'll never know which of the two scenarios it was, but clearly Arenas was trying to make a point.
Butler's response to Arenas' passive-aggressive "14 get along" comment, by the way? Here's his quote to Mike Jones:
"I don't take my work home with me. I just focus on how I prepare myself to be able to compete at the highest level possible. My resume speaks for itself."
"My resume speaks for itself." Caron clearly hadn't figured out he wasn't the same player anymore.
January 20. By now, Arenas is suspended and the team is trying to fight on without him. They had just lost a close game to Dallas that ended with Butler having his buzzer-beating shot blocked by Shawn Marion. Flip Saunders storms into the press room angry as ever and had something he wanted to get off his chest.
Typically, Saunders comes out really quickly or really slowly. Usually, when he's angry, he comes out quickly because he wants to get the press conference over with. Tonight, he came out so quick that none of the beat reporters are in the room. It's just me and a couple other stragglers that rarely ask questions. Finally, I stutter and say to Flip, "So, about that last play."
"That wasn't the play we were supposed to run," Saunders said.
Bewildered, I asked the obvious follow-up question. "What play were you supposed to run."
"That wasn't the play we were supposed to run.
In the locker room, Butler is breaking his postgame routine, much like he broke the last play. Typically, Butler gets changed in the training room, taking his sweet time before coming out in his suit. He borrowed the act from former teammate Kobe Bryant as a way of presenting himself well. This season, however, he had been slower than usual on most nights, waiting so long that all the beat reporters have often left the locker room by the time he comes out.
On this night, though, he knows he has to face the music, so he comes out quickly.
"It was drawn up either to get myself the ball up top or get somebody coming to the corner. Obviously, I wanted the ball. I kind of had my mind made up of what I was going to do already, and I just mistimed it. Good defense."
"Unfortunately, it is what it is."
Someone else revealed that the play was supposed to be for Randy Foye.
So what's the theme of Caron Butler's season? It's very hard to function when you're dogged by resentment and dreams of personal success. Butler has moved on to Dallas, where he's now shooting more than Dirk Nowitzki and generally wasting possessions like he did in DC. His game has declined with age, sure, much like other 29-year olds who have been as injury-prone as him.
But this is not your typical decline. Much like Kevin Garnett, Butler has declined while kicking and screaming about the wonder days that were. He's the last person to accept the fact that he isn't the player he once was. He never figured it out in DC and he doesn't appear to have figured it out in Dallas. Worse, his decline was accelerated by lingering resentment of his co-star that only grew when that co-star started missing games. That co-star is now on a different team, but Butler still stubbornly pushes on, trying to show he deserved his past status.
And really, this is a story about how precious one's state of mind is in this game. Butler went from being one of the league's most unselfish and professional players to one with too big an opinion of himself that resented his teammates. It was a dramatic shift and it couldn't have happened to a more unexpected guy. If it can happen to Butler, it can happen to anyone.
But there's no denying it happened and that it helped torpedo a season that was supposed to be promising. There are lots of people who deserve blame this season. Caron Butler should be one of them.