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Butler’s beast is no burden

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The 33-21 record of the Wizards with Caron Butler in the starting lineup last season is the confidence-building nourishment of the team that does not resonate beyond Fun Street.

The NBA chattering class crunches the 42-40 record of the Wizards and the six-game, mind-bending exercise with the Cavaliers and equates the team to a hamster on a wheel, consigned to stay in place this season.

That assumption devalues the All-Star performance of Butler in the second half of the season and suggests Gilbert Arenas is tapped out in his evolution.

It also trivializes the offseason work of Ernie Grunfeld, who added two complementary pieces to the roster while calibrating the return of the nearly forgotten Jarvis Hayes.

It amounts to three new additions in the manner of Antonio Daniels, who, like Butler, was significantly more effective once he completed the assimilation process to a new team last season.

The addition by subtraction of Jared Jeffries is certain to result in fewer misses around the basket as well, which is always a good thing.

Grunfeld preached the importance of preserving the team's continuity the last few months and endeavored not to jar the core group entrusted with eventually leading the Wizards deep into the playoffs.

Butler is a far worthier player than anyone originally imagined, and his acquisition from the Lakers in exchange for Kwame Brown rises to the level of a heist.

Grunfeld is inclined to downplay the characterization, if only because he and Mitch Kupchak are old friends from their days as Olympic teammates in 1976.

Butler plays with a fire in his belly that sometimes prompts the statistical aberration of 20 rebounds in Game 6 against the Cavaliers.

Butler is a small forward, or big guard, but mostly a player with some beast in him.

Being a beast was a subplot to the trade, as Brown vowed to become just that with the Lakers.

Brown talked it, while Butler walked it, in other words, which came as no surprise to those familiar with both players.

Butler has an edge to him that works well on a team that is sometimes perceived as being too nice.

Not that nice guys do not finish first in the NBA, whether the nice guy is Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal.

Butler and the Wizards recognize their defensive limitations, just as they have the last few seasons.

"We have great chemistry now and a good feel for each other," Butler says. "So we're going to take a lot of pride in not only stopping our man, but helping each other out. I don't want to get beat, but if I do, I know that someone else is coming. I'll take care of their guy the next time. It's a team thing."

Team defense is essential in a league stuffed with rules that champion the best scorers.

It might lead to a couple of more stops late in a close game, which would be more than enough for a team that developed an unsettling relationship with the last-second loss last season.

Arenas professes to want the assignment of defending the opposition's leading scorer on the perimeter. Defense is where he sees a need for personal growth.

Arenas also must attempt to shave his 3.71 turnover average, too often the product of the long baseball pass or the slow-velocity toss to the wing.

The Wizards are obligated to show measurable strides in the regular season, notably a push to reach the 50-win mark and secure homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"We have to be a defensive team," Arenas says. "We can't be a top-three scoring team and a last-place defensive team. There were so many games last year that we lost because we couldn't get a stop at the end. We easily could have been a 50-win team, and we know that."

That is the right spirit.

The Wizards have nearly a month before their opener in Cleveland to transfer the spirit to the floor.