This is the 13th of our Clips Nation "exit interviews" of the 2012Los Angeles Clippers, an overview and analysis, player by player, of all 15 Clippers who finished the 2011-2012 season on the roster. In this edition, small forward Caron Butler.
Contract Status: Signed through 2014 at the same $8M salary.
In a Nutshell
The Clippers very busy, abbreviated off-season officially started on December 9, when they signed free agent Caron Butler to a three year, $24M contract. After limping through the prior season with a combination of Ryan Gomes, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jamario Moon starting at small forward, it was obvious that the position had to be shored up, and Butler was given the job. The options available on the market were similar to Butler: veterans who were clearly better than anything the Clippers had last season, but were just as clearly on the downside of their NBA careers -- guys like Tayshaun Prince and Shane Battier. With San Antonio also pursuing Butler, the Clippers got their man by spending more on a per yer basis, but managed to keep the years relatively short at three.
The bar for small forward production was ridiculously low -- the three spot for the Clippers was among the least productive positions in the entire league in 2010-2011. So there was never much doubt that Butler could do better. How much better was the question. Complicating matters was the fact that the 31 year old Butler was returning from knee surgery that had kept him off a NBA court for nearly a year including the lockout. How much would the combined affects of age and injury diminish the two-time All Star? There was also the fact that Butler had his best seasons as a featured scorer -- with the Clippers he would need to be more of a role player.
After his first season in L.A. the results are somewhat mixed, but generally positive. He provided a significant upgrade at the three, but as mentioned, that wasn't particularly difficult to do. He fit in well, providing a third scoring option without dominating the ball. Unfortunately, he was almost two different players over the course of the season -- the Clippers would gladly take his pre-All Star break numbers of 14.3 points per game on 43% from the field and 36% from deep. Moreover, when the season began he was like clockwork -- you could pencil him in for between 10 and 20 points every game (in his first 25 games as a Clipper, he scored in double figures 22 times). After the All Star break was a different story: 9.9 points, 38% shooting. If you drill down deeper to February and March specifically, it gets even worse. It's no mystery really what happened -- the Clippers early season schedule was the lightest in the league, but they paid for that in the middle of the season, and the ridiculous pace of games took a toll on the veteran Butler.
Whatever struggles Butler had during the second half of the season, he bought himself a lot of good will among Clipper fans in the playoffs. He suffered a broken hand in Game 1 of the opening round series against Memphis and was expected to miss about six weeks. Instead, he sat out one game and then returned to the court with a padded brace on his hand, postponing surgery until after the playoffs. He started the last nine playoff games for L.A. and played admirably. The grit and determination he exhibited in playing through his injury will not soon be forgotten by Clipper fans, nor by Butler's teammates.
Listing strengths and weaknesses for Butler this season is a bit of a misnomer. He didn't do anything particularly well, nor did he do anything particularly poorly. One thing is certain -- the guy is a pro. He played through a broken hand during the playoffs and he was always a positive influence in the locker room, even though he could easily have complained about being on the bench during crunch time in favor of Nick Young or Randy Foye on many occasions.
On a team with Chris Paul driving into the lane to draw multiple defenders and Blake Griffin commanding double teams in the post, the Clippers needed Butler to hit perimeter shots, which he did at a reasonable clip (36% on the season). It was his best season shooting the three, as he set personal bests both for threes taken (257) and for threes made (97), all in a shortened season. Extrapolated out over a full 82 games, he would have been in the top 10 in threes made all time for the franchise -- so all in all, he definitely exceeded expectations shooting the ball. Importantly, he made many more threes, while shooting a higher percentage, than either Battier or Prince, making him look like a good choice on a team that needed perimeter shooting.
He also showed that he still had the ability to finish at the rim, going hard to the basket for one handed slams from time to time, though those forays were relatively rare for him at this stage of his career. And clearly his toughness, competitiveness and attitude are all major strengths for the guy they call Tuff Juice.
While there are few aspects of his game that one would characterize as major strengths, happily there are also few that are glaring weaknesses. One of those was rebounding, where he was pretty anemic at fewer than 4 per game. On a per minute basis, he was the eighth worst rebounder from the forward position in the league, though Battier was worse and Prince only slightly better. It was the worst rebounding season of his career, especially on the offensive end (where, to be fair, he spent a lot of time shooting jump shots which limits offensive rebounding opportunities).
He was near his career low in shooting percentage which isn't good, but is also explained by all the long jumpers. More than one third of his field goal attempts were three pointers (257 out of 705) which is always going to hurt the overall shooting percentage. In fact, while his shooting percentage was well below his career average, his effective field goal percentage (factoring in the additional points from made threes) was actually above his career average.
But there's a third way to score as well, and that one benefits from driving to the basket rather than taking perimeter jump shots. It was his role in the Clipper offense to a large extent, but Butler was the king not only of the three pointer, but also of the long, contested two this season. He seemed to have a particular knack for passing up the open three to dribble into a long contested two, the worst shot in basketball. And one consequence of all those jump shots was that he rarely got to the free throw line -- just 2.1 times per 36 minutes, literally half of his career rate. The Clippers were the second worst free throw shooting team in the league, partly because the bad free throw shooters took so many of the free throws while the good free throw shooters like Butler rarely went to the line (with the exception of Paul and Chauncey Billups).
Defensively, Butler was neither particularly good nor particularly bad. He's certainly not what you would consider a defensive stopper, but he can hold his own in most matchups. Unfortunately, he's definitely not the guy to shut down the myriad high-scoring wings in the NBA, a guy the Clippers desperately need.
Future with the Clippers
Butler is signed for two more seasons and safe in his starting small forward role for the time being. He accomplished at least one thing, in that the three is no longer the problem position for the team -- a distinction that has passed to shooting guard. He's 32 now, an age when NBA players tend to decline pretty rapidly. It would be great if he were able to have an even better second season with the Clippers than he did his first year. That might not be wishful thinking, given his obvious drop in productivity as the workload decreased. With the ineffective Gomes second on the depth chart for much of the season, there weren't many good options behind Butler (Bobby Simmons arrived from the D-League to take the back up minutes for the first half of March, but it really wasn't until the arrival of Young after the trade deadline that coach Vinny Del Negro had a reliable passable small forward off the bench. As the schedule got busy, Butler disappeared this season -- so maybe if his workload can be monitored more closely next season, his per minute productivity can remain high.
The Clippers need at least one more good season from Butler -- season after next, he becomes an expiring contract and could be useful in trades, but next season he needs to play well. He has to be a viable third or fourth option on offense, a solid defender, and hopefully a more reliable rebounder. As of now, his signing as a free agent is looking like a base hit, but a solid second season could make it a home run.