By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; D03
This was a season in which Caron Butler had to accept some abrupt endings, the latest coming when the Dallas Mavericks, a team purportedly built for a championship run, became the first No. 2 seed to lose a seven-game series in the first round. But the first one came when his tenure with the Washington Wizards came to an end after 4 1/2 years with the team.
Butler struggled to find a home in the NBA early in his career, as he was traded twice in his first three seasons. But he quickly attached himself to Washington, purchasing a home in Virginia even before President Ernie Grunfeld handed him a five-year, $50 million contract extension in October 2005.
He made two all-star teams and three playoff appearances in his time with the Wizards. But he realized that change was bound to come on Jan. 6 in Cleveland, when NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended Gilbert Arenas indefinitely after he brought guns into the Wizards' locker room -- which effectively ended any chance of turning around an already miserable campaign.
"I knew it was over that day," Butler said recently, pausing to reflect on the Wizards' lost season while his primary focus was attempting to help the Mavericks defeat the San Antonio Spurs.
Six weeks after that game in Cleveland, Butler was dealt to Dallas in a trade that marked the end of the franchise's investment in the all-star trio of Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison, who was shipped to Cleveland four days later.
Butler didn't want to leave but said he felt that there was nothing that he could've done to change the outcome.
"I think that was a long time coming," he said. "I just think it was going to eventually happen. It was a team where the expectations were severely high and we obviously underachieved. It just didn't work out right. It's nobody's fault."
His final few months with the Wizards were unremarkable for Butler, as he had a public spat with Arenas, who claimed that he wasn't on the same page as the rest of his teammates. He stubbornly failed to adjust to Coach Flip Saunders's point guard-centered offense after thriving under Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense, which requires more playmaking from forwards.
And he appeared to sulk after failing to receive a contract extension before the season began.
With Butler's contract set to expire after the 2010-11 season, Grunfeld didn't want to tie up more money in a group that lost three first-round series against the Cavaliers, especially after committing about $161 million in contracts to Arenas and Jamison in the summer or 2008.
"I wasn't upset about it, but I worked my tail off the last couple of years when Gilbert was injured," Butler said of the extension. "Obviously, he's the cornerstone and the franchise guy for that organization, you know, without a doubt. He'll go down as one of the best players to ever play the game if he comes back [healthy]. But when he was out, you've got to give credit where credit was due. I was at the helm, helping lead that ballclub to the playoffs and things of that nature. I obviously got injured and wasn't able to make the push at the butt end of the seasons. But that was me and Antawn, being the leaders and controlling the atmosphere and everything around there. You should be compensated and rewarded. I understand it's a business, you put it aside and get prepared for the season but it was tough. You expect certain things."
Butler was also expecting to have a more prominent role in the offense, which led to him breaking off and freestyling from time to time. He famously went against a play Saunders called for Randy Foye and missed a game-winning attempt against Dallas on Jan. 26. According to team insiders, he sometimes complained about not getting enough shots.
After averaging at least 20 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in 2007-08 and 2008-09, Butler averaged just 16.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and shot just 43 percent this season, his worst production since leaving Los Angeles.
"We was trying to force players to be certain things instead of coming in and letting players be who they are and adapting to the players, not making players adapt to a new scheme. It was just tough," Butler said.
When asked if he thought Saunders knew how to utilize him, Butler said: "Flip is a great person and he's a good coach. I think Flip was trying. I don't know what he was really doing, but I know he had good intentions. I just think things could've been managed better and maybe it could've worked out. Flip's not a confrontational guy. He just tried to do the right thing. I respect him. I respect everybody on the coaching staff. It just ended up not working.
"You had a certain way we was used to playing for a couple of years. Then you had your franchise guy, a guy you needed to be everything he needed to be, coming back, trying to prove a point, show that he was back in a major way. It was just like everybody was on different pages. We was trying to pull it together and frustration and adversity reveals character and you had people speaking out of turn. Basically, it was chaos over there. Now, looking back at it. That was a crazy situation. That was a crazy environment to come to play basketball and keep your head and keep your morale up. Being a guy that's an emotional force on the court and off the court, that was real frustrating and once [Abe] Pollin passed away, it was open season. I was like, all right, anything can happen."
Butler said his rift with Arenas never went beyond the one incident in late November, when Arenas called him out and Butler called Arenas to discuss the situation.
"We had a great relationship, and wherever it went wrong, for that brief moment, we still have a strong alliance," Butler said. "It's all love. I wish him the best. I don't got no grudges or vendettas toward anybody. It's just frustrating to think about what we could've been for so many years. We all are still in the prime of our careers and we're young, so it's frustrating and now we have to deal with this and take this while you have the opportunity. I still text Gilbert. I talk to Gilbert and I was one of his biggest supporters going down the stretch, telling him to keep his head up."
Butler has moved on in Dallas, where he finished with 60 combined points in the last two games against the Spurs. But with his contract expiring, there is speculation that the Mavericks will look to move him and rework the roster after losing in the first round for the third time in four seasons.
Before the series ended, Butler said he planned to move his family to Dallas next season. But no matter where he is, Butler said that he will always have an affinity for Washington.
"Home is where the heart is," Butler said. "There is still a lot of love for D.C."