Caron Butler was standing alone at the top of the key Monday night in Los Angeles when Chris Paul slipped a bounce pass to a cutting Blake Griffin. Griffin elevated toward the basket from a distance that made a dunk seemingly impossible. But Griffin kept rising, undeterred by the presence of Oklahoma City forward Kendrick Perkins, extended his massive forearm and threw the ball into the hoop.
Butler quickly looked over to the fans, placed his hand over his mouth, then slapped hands with Griffin and gave him a huge hug. He had just witnessed another spectacular play from the NBA’s dunking darling and nearly forgot where and who he was.
“I was stuck,” Butler said. “I had to remember I wasn’t a fan. I wanted to yell, ‘Did you see that?’ But everybody saw it.”
Since signing a three-year free agent deal with the Los Angeles Clippers two months ago, Butler has had an opportunity watch Griffin put on remarkable shows in games and practice, and take passes from Paul — whom he calls “a young Jason Kidd” — and another decorated player with championship experience in Chauncey Billups.
But more important, he has had the chance to show people that he’s “healthy and back to my old self” after being sidelined during the Dallas Mavericks’ stunning run to the NBA championship last year. He said he chose the Clippers over San Antonio, Miami and New Jersey because he believed that they would provide him with the best opportunity to actually contribute — through meaningful postseason baskets — to a title.
“That’s the plan,” Butler said. “We got the pieces in place to do it. We got talent. We’ve got experience. We’ve got veteran leadership. We eager and hungry to do it. Let’s see what happens.”
Butler is set to play on Saturday his first game at Verizon Center since the Washington Wizards traded him, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to the Mavericks in the first move that signaled that the team was going to start rebuilding. Butler was initially hurt by the trade, upset that the team failed to give him a contract extension and that he was unable to take the Wizards beyond the first round of the playoffs.
“Yeah, it was hard at the time,” Butler said of the deal. “It was tough, I hated to leave, but it ended up working out fabulous for me.”
Though Butler left the Mavericks with a championship ring, the experience was unsatisfying because he had to watch his teammates win it all as he dealt with a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee.
“I was pushing it for the playoffs last year, but I wasn’t 100 percent and that’s probably why I didn’t play,” he said. “That was frustrating, because you know, the only thing I can do as a player is turn a negative into a positive. It’s numerous guys that have had injuries like this and 10 years ago, people wouldn’t come back like injuries like this. So I used that as motivation.”
The Wizards are in their second full season of a gruesome rebuilding effort that has seen them get off to one of the worst starts in franchise history. Coach Flip Saunders — who was hired in April 2009 to take Butler, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison back to the playoffs — was fired last month after guiding a team with nine players on their rookie contracts to a 2-15 start. “I can’t say I was surprised, because they got off to such a tough start. It’s similar to what happened to Eddie Jordan,” Butler said, recalling how Jordan was fired as coach after a 1-10 start in December 2008. “Flip, his methods have always been good, but I guess they felt they needed new direction.”
Butler is confident that the will eventually turn it around. “I think it’s a development process. Sometimes it happens fast, sometimes it happens at a slower speed,” he said.
In 41 / 2 seasons in Washington, Butler experienced his best individual success, as he earned a nickname (Tuff Juice) and made his only two all-star appearances. But his time with the franchise ended on a sour note, as the Wizards won just 19 games in his last full season, then suffered another disappointing campaign that was clouded by the Arenas gun scandal.
“I don’t dwell on anything negative. It is what it is,” Butler said, admitting that it was difficult to find motivation his last two seasons. “I look at all the positives and I had more good times than I had bad times in D.C. That’s what I remember. It’ll always hold a special place in my heart. It’s still home for me.”
Butler kept his home in Centreville, where his wife, Andrea, and their three daughters, Mia, Gia and Ava, reside while he is in Los Angeles. He didn’t even pack much for the trip, as he planned to pick up some items from his house to take with him on the Clippers’ six-game road trip that begins and ends with his previous two teams.
He isn’t sure what kind of reception he’ll receive when he is announced on Saturday, but “I know I’ve got plenty of love and support.”
Now, he also has the chance to make another deep playoff run. “I’m happy to be in the situation I’m in,” Butler said.