Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Washington Wizards learned the real value of Caron Butler on April 16.

The Wizards had lost four straight games and seemingly weren’t playing with much toughness or heart. That coincided with a thumb injury that kept Butler out of five games.

When the forward returned against Cleveland, the team’s swagger returned with him. Washington won its final three games, securing a playoff berth for the second consecutive season.

“We really got a chance to see what he brings during that stretch last season,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “We found out what we didn’t have for those [four] games, and we came back and won three with him.”

Now, after a 2004-05 season in which he established career highs in points (17.6), rebounds (6.2) and field goal percentage (.455), Butler looks even better. His averages of 18.7 points, 8.4 rebounds (a team high) and 47.0 percent shooting this season all are, once again, career highs, earning him serious All-Star consideration.

Jordan feels that consideration is well deserved and that Butler should be among the league’s brightest stars in February’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas.

“He’s one of the best forwards in the East, and I don’t see him getting a lot of votes,” Jordan said. “But as long as he keeps playing well for us … the difference between him this year and last year is like night and day.”

In the first voting announced last week, neither Butler nor teammate Antawn Jamison was among the top vote-getters in the Eastern Conference. Guard Gilbert Arenas ranked fourth among guards with 225,923 votes.

But Butler’s resume got a huge boost last week. Against Denver on Wednesday, he scored a season-high 26 points and tied a season high with seven assists. Against Miami two nights later, he again set a career high with 30 points and his nine rebounds left him one shy of his 10th double-double this season. The Wizards won 106-95, ending a 16-game losing streak against the Heat.

For now, Butler is not concerned about the All-Star team. He knows if the Wizards keep winning, he’ll get the recognition so many are saying he deserves.

“I think that’s the main thing, just staying focused,” Butler said. “We played well at home, and now the momentum is in our favor and hopefully we can carry that on the West Coast trip. As far as the recognition, if we continue to win, I think that everyone will be recognized in the manner that they should.”

Butler has been instrumental in getting the Wizards (11-11) back to .500 less than a month after sitting five games under the mark. The team heads west tonight to face the Los Angeles Lakers, a team Butler spent one season with after being traded — along with Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and a first-round draft pick — for Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 2004.

A year later, the Wizards fleeced the Lakers, shipping them former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown for Butler and guard Chucky Atkins. Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld was so convinced Butler was the perfect fit at small forward he didn’t hesitate to reward Butler with a five-year, $46 million contract at the beginning of last season.

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