This Fracture's a Heartbreaker
In locker rooms across the NBA this season, conversations about the Washington Wizards have had roughly the same tenor. Gilbert Arenas, players agreed without hesitation, was Washington's best player, the one who could win a game all by himself, the guy who on any particular night could match Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.
But very quickly players would say that Caron Butler had become the heart and soul of the Wizards. NBA players believe Butler to be the team's most consistent player, its toughest-minded player, the player most likely to make it possible for the Wizards to get through the first round of the playoffs.
So this news that Butler is going to miss the playoffs because of a fracture to his right hand is a killer. It's not just a season-ending injury; it's season-ruining in all probability. Nobody seriously contends without its second-best player. The Wizards weren't even competitive without Butler last night in a 20-point loss to the bottom-feeding Bobcats in Charlotte.
Dallas would no longer be the favorite if Josh Howard went down. The Spurs without Tony Parker are a lot less scary. We've seen Miami without Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers without Lamar Odom, and it wasn't pretty. The Rockets are no threat without Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady. And Detroit, playing in the less formidable Eastern Conference, would be very vulnerable even in the first round if Chauncey Billups and the Pistons had to play without Richard Hamilton.
Yes, Butler is that valuable to the Wizards. He's gotten better all season, better at nearly everything, which is how he became an all-star. His minutes are up four per game from his career average. His shooting percentage, 43.6 for his career, is up to 46.3 this season. His foul shooting percentage is up from 84.2 to 86.3 percent. His rebounding is up from 5.8 to 7.4 per game. His steals are up from 1.61 to 2.13. His assists are up from 2.5 to 3.7. And his scoring average is up from 15.3 to 19.1 per game. He has found a way -- and this is a very difficult thing to do -- to comfortably and effectively play off a superstar who takes a ton of shots.
When the Wizards beat the Suns in Phoenix in December, Butler had 34 points and 10 rebounds. When the Wizards were trying to stop a three-game losing streak last week, it was Butler who came back after missing six games with a knee injury to put up 21 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in a victory over Philly. Oh, and he played 40 minutes that first night back.
Getting the Lakers to take Kwame Brown while getting Caron Butler in return qualifies as the NBA steal of the decade. Phil Jackson has acknowledged walking past Brown and purring "Meooooooooow" into the ear of his 7-foot, 275-pound center. You can figure out on your own what Jackson is saying to and about his big kitty-cat with that one editorial comment.
Butler, on the other hand, needs no such humiliating tactic to give the best he's got every night. His absence is going to put pressure on Arenas to do more, which hasn't worked for the Wizards since the all-star break. With Butler back in the lineup -- and the Wizards getting reasonable contributions from Darius Songaila, Andray Blatche and Jarvis Hayes -- it looked possible they had at least a shot to hold off Miami, win the Southeast Division and earn a No. 3 or No. 4 seed which would have at least given them home-court advantage in a series against Miami or Chicago.
Eddie Jordan, to his credit, is saying what a coach ought to say: that he'll call on his bench players to take up the slack. "Everybody in the league has had some devastating injuries. Miami with Wade," Jordan said. "We've got a capable bench . . . if we can collectively do things at a high level, we should win our share of games and move on to the playoffs. . . . With Antawn, Darius and Jarvis we should have a combination of perimeter play, post defense . . . and we have flexibility."
Arenas, before last night's game in Charlotte, told The Post' s Ivan Carter, "It hurts but we can't use excuses anymore."
While that's exactly what you want to hear from your star player, truth is it's hard to see the Wizards, without Butler, doing anything more than getting to the playoffs. Late last season Butler missed five games and the Wizards lost all five. It's like a trip back to Kornheiser's Curse o' lez Boulez days. The irony of the defensively challenged Wizards' toughest skilled player fracturing his hand trying to make a defensive play is inescapable.
What the Wizards needed in order to take a postseason step forward was to have Arenas, Butler and Jamison at their best, then get supporting performances from Antonio Daniels, Blatche, Songaila and Hayes plus the bigs. That might have given the Wizards enough to get past the Bulls or Cavaliers in a first-round series.
But there's simply no way to replace Butler's 19 points, 7 rebounds, nearly 40 minutes per game and overall toughness on a team lacking in toughness to begin with. At least Butler can neutralize the other team's best forward. Without him last night, Charlotte's Gerald Wallace hammered the Wizards for 34 points and 14 rebounds. The Wizards get another dose of Wallace tonight at Verizon Center, then Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao of the Cavaliers, then Richard Jefferson of the Nets for consecutive games, Miami's James Posey, then Chicago's Luol Deng. Turns out it was a mini-miracle to get Butler from the Lakers. Now it's going to take something just that dramatic to make any kind of noise in the playoffs without him.