After the Washington Wizards lost to Boston last weekend, small forward Jerry Stackhouse suggested it might better for him and the team if he came off the bench because of his sore knees and ankles.
Stackhouse, still recovering from knee surgery, surmised that seldom-used reserve Mitchell Butler would have been better defending against Boston’s Paul Pierce, who took advantage of Stackhouse’s limitations to lead the Celtics on a decisive 14-0 run in the fourth quarter.
Since then, Butler has been the starter in an overtime loss to New York and Wednesday’s upset of Western Conference power Sacramento. And even though the Wizards expect to get relatively healthy versions of Juan Dixon and Jarvis Hayes for tonight’s game against Atlanta at MCI Center, don’t expect either to displace Butler.
“Right now he’s moved himself up in the rotation,” coach Eddie Jordan said following practice yesterday. “Until someone plays better, he’s going to remain as a starter.”
Kwame Brown contributed career highs in points (30) and rebounds (19) against Sacramento, but that didn’t diminish Butler’s contribution. Making his second start of the season, Butler played 44 minutes, scored 13 points and handed out a career-high eight assists.
“The biggest hat has to go off to Mitchell,” Stackhouse said after the Wizards ended their seven-game losing streak by beating the team with the best record in the Western Conference.
“He’s the guy that has really stepped up. We have a guy who can really lock into guys defensively. He played [Peja] Stojakovic pretty much all night. Kwame should get the game ball, but Mitchell deserves one, too.”
Jordan has admired Butler’s professionalism since training camp, so much so that he made him an honorary captain when Stackhouse had early-season knee surgery that forced him to miss 45 games. Recognizing that he had a very young team, Jordan valued Butler because he demonstrated good work habits and never slacked off.
Butler, a 33-year-old veteran of seven NBA seasons, has been a positive influence on the Wizards. A reason for that could be his tenure with the CBA champion Yakima Sun Kings last season taught him that playing in the NBA is a privilege.
“Any guy that tells you that they deserve it, there are 10,000 guys out on the street that any NBA team can walk up to and put in a uniform,” Butler said. “And if you give the guy enough minutes on the floor, he’ll play. Trust me. Every minute that you get to play on that floor, you get to play in front of a crowd is amazing. It’s something you have to cherish.”
Butler knows it won’t be long before he returns to the bench — especially because Larry Hughes, out more than a month with a broken wrist, is expected to rejoin the team perhaps as soon as Sunday. But this won’t keep Butler — who has a one-year deal earning $876,179 — from showing up and being prepared.
“Obviously, I would love to play, but I understand my role and my situation on this team,” Butler said. “But I’m going to stay ready. Whether I’m starting, coming off the bench or not playing, mentally I’m always into it.”
Notes — Hughes participated in a full practice yesterday for the first time. Stackhouse (knees) and Christian Laettner (back) both took treatment. Stackhouse will play tonight, but Laettner’s status is uncertain.