Caron Butler is the working man’s All-Star who has retained his sense of perspective and commitment, who does not succumb to the cliches of the NBA.
He is not worried about whose team it is. He is not worried about who is taking the highest number of shots. He is not worried about developing a catchy public persona.
Butler is comfortable with who he is, with where he is, with how he has evolved in his three previous seasons with the Wizards.
Butler is a two-time All-Star, and arguably more compelling than that. At least he was before succumbing to a hip injury in late January last season. He was playing at an all-NBA level before the injury and had shown himself to be an efficient, stat-stuffing small forward with some Larry Bird in him.
He recorded three triple-doubles and flirted with several others last season. His on-court vision - the ability to make his teammates better - came from the necessity of Gilbert Arenas being out of the lineup.
“Freedom and rhythm,” Butler said on Tuesday after sitting out the team’s practice to rest. “The coaching staff gave me more confidence, and you grow as a player every season.”
Butler exhibited a number of gifts that few imagined after Ernie Grunfeld orchestrated the heist involving Kwame Brown three years ago.
It was assumed that Butler would be a solid professional, the antithesis of Brown. But it was impossible to know that Butler could be so much more than that, as coach Eddie Jordan noted.
“We knew he was a tough, prototypical No. 3 man,” Jordan said. “But we didn’t know how he would develop. You can’t know with players until you are around them. You can’t know what a player’s psyche is like, what kind of personal baggage he might have in his closet.”
Jordan took an immediate liking to Butler because of his fearlessness and combativeness, two qualities found lacking in the Wizards in the 2005-06 season. Jordan nicknamed Butler “Tough Juice,” and it stuck.
Butler reports to duty with a clear vision of the Wizards.
“When we’re healthy, we’re the best team in the conference, hands down,” Butler said during the team’s media day last week. “That’s just how I feel.”
The 28-year-old Butler has increased his production with remarkable regularity in his six seasons in the NBA. He is coming off a career season in which he averaged 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists. He also shot 90.1 percent from the free throw line - he made 73 consecutive free throws during one stretch of the season - and added the 3-point shot to his repertoire.
Butler, figuring he has three or four prime seasons left in his body, is looking to increase his numbers even further.
Grunfeld echoes that sentiment as well.
“With his work habits, he still can improve as a player,” the team’s president of basketball operations said. “He’s just an outstanding, all-around player who can get his shot in a variety of ways. And he just cares about winning.”
Butler is one of the principal reasons Grunfeld and the coaching staff refuse to be distressed by the latest setback with Arenas.
Grunfeld and Jordan know that Butler, along with Antawn Jamison, will not allow the Wizards to wallow in self-pity. They know that Butler, as long as he stays healthy, will prod his teammates to play in his tenacious image.
Otherwise, Butler is hoping to end the injury questions that have dogged him the last three seasons. He has missed a combined 50 games the last three seasons and played countless other games while in discomfort.
“I think it’s just been bad luck,” Butler said of the injuries. “One time I slap the glass and break my hand. Another time I break a finger.”
Butler took up yoga in the offseason at the urging of his wife to improve his flexibility.
Asked if he wears tights to yoga class, Butler, straight-faced, said, “Yeah.”
A pause. Laughter all around.
Ah, yes. The joy of training camp.