The Sidekick Who Wasn't

Editor's Note: Front paged because everything jonthefon writes is worthy of your time.


Bad, Caron...


While the lockout remains ongoing, we'll have no idea about what Caron Butler's NBA future holds. The combination of CBA uncertainties (mostly the part which will affect the value of contracts earned in free agency) and Butler's personal status as a 31 year old returning from a serious knee injury, will make it quite difficult for anyone to forecast the type of contract he may end up receiving - anything from a one year show-me offer from a team with temporary cap space, to a multi-year deal from a team gambling on his health allowing for sufficient return on investment.

However, what I want to talk about here regards how Mavs fans will consider Caron Butler's time with the team, whether or not he returns to Dallas. Of course, there were countless impacts stemming from the Mavs finally climbing the championship mountaintop. For me, the most major impact was the dramatic change in how I perceive everything now - not only in now looking forward to the future without having to uncomfortably consider the ticking clock, but also in perceiving the effect of past events. Nowadays, I don't look back at past playoff failures with such pain; nor do I look back in anger at questionable (non)-moves made; now, I don't really care at all that Shawn Bradley was paid handsomely to dawdle around the court in a Mavs uniform. Somehow I now construe (and yes, maybe I'm irrationally construing) all these hiccups and self-immolations to merely be representing a part - a necessary part - of the strenuous process required to make the final triumph possible.

One particular topic which constantly tortured (or at least pecked away painfully at) the psyches of many Mavs fans, was the supposed criminal failure/inability by the front office to procure a worthy counterpart to Dirk Nowitzki's considerable talents. Ultimately, every roster move made after 2004 came with the specific goal of finding Dirk the complementary help he needed to win the franchise a championship. Someone could more simplistically define these moves to have been made because of an intention to improve the team in a general sense - yet it simply didn't quite work that way. 

The fact was that after a meek first round exit in 2004, the first of its kind in the Don Nelson era, the Mavericks were at a crossroads. Steve Nash and Michael Finley, two of Dallas' purported Big Three, were 30 and 31 respectively, with the former entering free agency and looking for a big contract. Antoine Walker was useless but nevertheless had some trade value based off good reputation. Antawn Jamison was a great guy, a very good player in his prime, yet just wasn't quite a fit for the Mavs in his existing role as an off-the-bench scorer with limited defensive utility. And there was Dirk, 25 going on 26, a brilliant but flawed scorer and a terrible defender, a player who at the time, despite being a excellent performer, was no guarantee to be dependable as a franchise cornerstone and future Hall of Famer.

All throughout that 2004 offseason, Shaquille O'Neal was on the market and the Mavs were considered frontrunners to land one of the greatest players ever, a player still with a handful of dominant seasons left in him. With the Lakers firmly refusing to shift from their "Nowitzki-or-bust" position (despite the Mavs' attempts to bring a trade through using a package which included players such as Walker, Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels, and later also included the return from the Jamison trade: of Christian Laettner's expiring contract and the #5 overall pick), Dallas had to make a choice - and it was a choice so significant that its effects would have been felt not only within the franchise, but also across the entire league. They could have made the trade, sending Dirk-plus-picks-plus-Howard/Daniels to Los Angeles for Shaq, and then traded Walker for complementing role players, re-signed Nash and proceeded with a fairly fearsome core of Shaq/Nash/Finley/Jamison. That would have provided them with three or so seasons as genuine title contenders, even title favourites, but it also would've probably meant a sudden decline back into obscurity once Shaq grew past it.

Instead, they took the other option - to put their faith in and build around the 26 year old Dirk Nowitzki: to make him the centre of attention, to make it so that moves would be made with the intention of surrounding him with the appropriate players. Only by designating him as the main guy, could Dirk be allowed the freedom to possibly make the jump to elite level. One could ask in 2004 - did he have that next level? Well, the Mavs didn't know back then either, and so it was a huge gamble, a gamble which would've given the team a franchise cornerstone for the next decade if it paid off (rather than a short-lived Shaq era). We all know what happened next.

So during that ensuing season when Dirk did become the elite player the Mavs gambled on, in boosting his scoring average up by four points with little to no damage on his efficiency, suddenly the proposed shift in philosophy had come into effect. No longer was it just a matter of making the right moves, but it was now a matter of making the moves so they would sufficiently complement Dirk Nowitzki's skills. Dirk had become the Golden God, and he needed a sidekick.


And so, with each coming season, both new and familiar candidates for this coveted position were brought up by the masses: Michael Redd, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Martin, Al Jefferson, Deron Williams, Elton Brand, Emeka Okafor, Vince Carter, Danny Granger, Chris Paul (I admit responsibility for starting most of those Chris Paul-to-Dallas rumours), LeBron James (heh), Kobe Bryant (hey, a package consisting of Josh Howard, Devin Harris, two first round draft picks and a bag of stale rape jokes would've gotten it done in the summer of 2007!) - the list piled up.  Naturally, as one would expect with most rosterbating activities (unless you were one of the few Miami Heat fans in existence before July 2010 and even then, those people may not have wished for Chris Bosh), nothing materialized from all this muppetry, and as punishment for our sins, we got to watch luminaries such as Tyronn Lue, Ryan Hollins, Alan Henderson, Austin Croshere and long-past-use-by-versions of Doug Christie and Juwan Howard.

Maybe part of this increased frustration over the lack of a prominent acquisition was due to heightened (i.e. unrealistic) expectations of the occurrence of yearly blockbuster trades, induced by the constant wheeling-and-dealing of the early 2000s. From 2000 until the start of the ‘Dirk Nowitzki, Golden God' era, I count six trades which brought noteworthy player(s) to the Mavericks (Juwan Howard, Van Exel, Jamison, Walker, Terry, Stackhouse+Harris). But then, after 2004 and up to the date of Caron Butler's acquisition, only the Jason Kidd trade - unless you consider the pickup of Anthony Johnson to be a big deal - could have been considered a deal which generated significant interest around the league; over this period, the Mavs mostly stuck with the core they had established with Dirk, Jason Terry, Josh Howard and Erick Dampier as mainstays, and good rotation players such as Devin Harris, Jerry Stackhouse and DeSagana Diop and later Jason Kidd and J.J. Barea actually being kept around to contribute for prolonged periods of time, rather than being dealt away once they became familiar and no longer possessed new-player sheen.

Thus one could see the trade between the Wizards and the Mavericks in January 2010 as going against the grain - in terms of apparently deviating from the philosophy of roster stability which was aspired to in the post-Nellieball era.  And in getting Caron Butler, many Mavs fans believed that here was "The Guy" - a tough, physical gamer who would ably complement Dirk with consistent scoring and perhaps some swagger. There was plenty of excitement at the time over his perceived skills: as an all-round player with skins on the wall defensively, good rebounding and assist numbers and perhaps most importantly, his apparent willingness to finish emphatically inside rather than settle for jumpshots. Of course there existed plenty of skeptics, who wondered about the dip in his performance in the first half of the 2009-2010 season compared to previous; about the fact that he was coming from a pretty shambolic situation in Washington; about the reports by Washington fans alleging that he had become an increasingly polarizing locker room presence in his final couple of seasons as a Wizard.

Nevertheless, the consensus reached among pretty much all Mavs fans was at the very least, Caron Butler would have some kind of positive tangible impact upon the team - that even if he wasn't going to be a major catalyst of an extended postseason run, he would be providing quality, needed depth at the 2 and 3 spots. Most importantly of all, he wasn't Josh Howard - and after the two incredibly frustrating injury-plagued seasons which Howard had put up, perhaps that would be enough for some Mavs fans to appreciate Caron Butler.


When Butler finally did set foot on court for the Mavs, he hardly sent shivers of excitement through the collective pulse of Mavs fans, especially considering how electrifying Rodrigue Beaubois had been at times during the first half of the regular season. Sure, Caron's initial play on the defensive end was fairly good; but his proficiency on offense turned out to be rather disappointing: there was the preference for long mid-range jump shots, there was the overdribbling, there was the ball-stopping which meant a lack of cohesion with the systematic ball-movement-reliant Mavs half-court offense. Still, these initial troubles could be reasonably attributed to the fact that he was probably still finding his way trying to integrate his not entirely adaptable skill-set within Dallas' relatively complex offense - and really, at times, he did show the flashes as a reliable scorer people hoped for, with stretches where his jumper worked and where he made contested shots at the rim with regularity. The fact that the Mavs broke off a twelve game winning streak shortly after the trade meant that he was allowed some time to bed in without immediate pressure to step up into a prominent role. And in the end, his raw numbers post-trade were satisfactory when considering his new setup: 15.2/5.4/1.8 steals and a reasonable .464 eFG% over 27 games - really, a pretty decent look for a guy who was supposed to complement one of the best players in the league.

Of course, it was never his regular season performance which would come under scrutiny. Game 1 of the 2010 first round playoff series between the Mavs and the Spurs saw Dirk make the headlines with a typically incredible playoff performance, managing 36 points on just 14 shots. On that night, Butler's performance was perfectly satisfactory: 22 points on 8-of-19 shooting, six rebounds, three steals and five turnovers - not the most efficient performance, but he could afford to be a little inefficient on a night where Dirk's efficiency was unrivalled.

Only as it turned out, that game was as good as it got for the Mavs in terms of their championship hopes. They lost the next three games to the Spurs, one at home and the other two by small margins. During those games, Caron Butler averaged 12 points on just 36.8% shooting. And that wasn't the only problem with his performance over those three games either, when looking at the context of each game separately. In Game 2, Dirk managed just 9-for-24 shooting; Caron only managed 6-for-17 on his own, and the Mavs were comfortably defeated. In Game 3, with Dirk brilliant in scoring 35 points on 23 shots, Caron only needed to contribute a little bit of substance - yet he performed poorly enough in the first half to end up getting benched for most of the second half, resulting in the Mavs blowing a fourth-quarter lead, and his finishing with just two points in fifteen minutes of play was something horrific.  In Game 4, with Dirk swarmed out of the game by persistent double teams, it was time once again up for Caron to step things up, especially during a horrific third quarter where the Spurs erased an 11 point halftime deficit; he didn't, shooting 7-for-18 for a second ineffectual 17-point performance of the series, which were never going to be enough. To be fair, there are a lot of other factors to consider: maybe he was being swarmed by help defense every time he tried to force the issue; maybe it was unreasonable to expect him to play at a level which would have been enough to win the Mavs Game 2; maybe his benching in Game 3 affected his rhythm, as well as hurting his overall line; and it must be said that even though he was meant to be the main support player, much was also expected from other players (such as both Jasons), and those players hadn't performed either, making it a crippling failure on the account of the entire supporting cast. Again.

Yet here were three situations where on each occasion, the Mavs could have used a strong performance by Butler; and in none of these situations did he really come through. Sure, he would finish the season with two strong performances in the elimination games which followed - ending up with a terrific 35/11 stat-line in a Game 5 blowout in Dallas, and then a pretty decent showing in scoring 25 points in San Antonio for Game 6. But as Mavs fans were left to ponder a third first-round exit in four seasons, there seemed to be an unquestionable conclusion to be made about Caron Butler: he, like others before him, was not the idealized sidekick that Dirk needed. No, he was just another guy - another useful, above-average addition to the motley crew of experienced players which the Mavs had accumulated, but once again, an addition which would not be enough to push the team to the championship it so desired.


And so the search resumed in the summer of 2010 - and boy were there some options available, with Erick Dampier's non-guaranteed contract paving the way to entire new avenues for dreams.

Yet as we all know, nothing appeared to come out of that summer - or at least that's what most of us thought upon seeing the hyped Dampier contract eventually be swapped for the expiring contract of an injury-prone center, a player who had impressed no Mavs fans with his histrionics during his previous tenure within the division as a New Orleans Hornet. But let us look past what this seemingly unspectacular return ended up producing, and go back to what this meant for Caron Butler.

Once again, he was considered to be the second most important player on the Mavs roster. Yet this second placing was merely by default - as mentioned above, he had been largely written off, consigned by Mavs to being just another guy. Plenty of people did optimistically project an improvement in his performance and efficiency, based off the reasonable logic that a full training camp would help Butler with the complexities of the Mavs system on both ends. But very few expected such an improvement to be so that by April, he could possibly be a name worth devoting extended time towards in the playoff previews of bloggers.

As it turned out, things only got worse as the new season began - the first month would prove to be the trough in Caron Butler's tenure as a Maverick. In those first thirty days of the season, despite another decent start by the team, Butler's personal performance couldn't be described as anything except for abysmal; the continued failure to fit within the workings of the offense remained frustrating, but the shooting slump which personified Caron Butler's early 2010-2011 season was both mystifying and terrifying in its awfulness. In that month, everything useful about his offensive game disappeared: not only was he unable to make contested jumpers (as he used to do reasonably well), but his dribbling actually appeared to get worse; and also, he completely lost his ability to use his physicality to score effectively at the rim (again, Josh Bowe in his earlier Caron Butler story, linked back to something he wrote back in November 2010, pointing out that Caron in the first few weeks of the season, had managed a deplorable sub-50 FG% at the rim).

The worst in this entire month of worsts probably came on November 19th, in a tight 88-83 loss to Chicago at the American Airlines Center. I remember this game as personifying everything wrong with the Mavs: giving up 20 offensive rebounds, shooting 5-of-20 from the three-point line, managing a mediocre 18-of-25 from the free-throw line, Dirk being forced to go solo in finishing with 36 points on 15-for-26 shooting; while the rest of the team pooped up the bed in going 15-for-49 from the field. Butler was one of the few to top double figures in scoring in this game, but again, it took another poor shooting performance to get him those points. The Mavs ended this game 7-4 and another season of 50 or so wins followed by a first or second round playoffs exit looked inevitable, with or without Caron Butler.

But then, both Caron and the team turned it around on the whole. The performance against Chicago wasn't Caron's worst: four games later in San Antonio (which Dallas did manage to win, extending their win streak to four games), he would bumble his way to a 4-for-11 shooting performance while turning the ball over four times, resulting in the ignominy of receiving a negative Game Score on Basketball Reference. But right after that, the Miami Heat and their purported Big Three came into town, and the game which ensued would prove to be a turning point in Butler's tenure with the Mavs, in both a narrative and statistical sense.

Caron Butler scored 23 points against Miami, leading the Mavs, requiring just 15 shots to do so. He made all three of his three pointers, and 19 of those points came in the second half where the Mavs made a run which pulled them away from the Heat. Including that game and the four wins preceding it, the Mavs would go through a stretch where they won 17 of 18 games. And through that stretch, the team showed the traits which would come to define them later on - although of course, any optimism created within fans came cautiously considering how many times false hope had previously been encountered. It was a defensively-stellar team, anchored by Tyson Chandler, the supposedly underwhelming return for the Dampier contract. Dirk Nowitzki shot incredibly well during that stretch, even for his high standards. The half-court offense was operating nicely, consistently playing to the roster's strengths by producing good looks for jumpshots and avoiding turnovers, as was its purpose. Most notably, the Mavs showed serious panache in crunch-time - simply because they were able to run their offense and get the ball to Dirk in his spots. In short, they looked like a team capable of playing into early June - and in the middle (or at least close to front-and-centre) of this was Caron Butler.

It's easy to paper over bad process if the results which ensue from such process turn out to be useful - and this did seem to be the case with Caron, who, despite maintaining his tendency to break from offensive flow in order to try his hand at isolation scenarios, started to look in-sync as he dragged his shooting percentages back towards his career norms: showing both the continued ability to make mid-range jumpshots (45% from 16-23 feet, per Hoopdata), as well as a career-best performance of 43.1% from three-point land. Elsewhere, things were a little less palatable: his rebounding percentage was at its lowest since his rookie season; the fact that he didn't need to create off the dribble as often as he did in Washington meant that his assist rate fell off the cliff; his trips to the free-throw line became more and more infrequent. During those 29 games played in the 2010-2011 season, Caron Butler was a jumpshot-inclined wing providing limited substance elsewhere - his PER supported such a notion, with a 14.2 figure personifying his status as essentially an average player. He wasn't the fringe All-Star candidate he had been in Washington; he wasn't proficient enough to be even fleetingly considered for such a spot. Yet Mavs fans were content with his role as a steady and relatively impactful rotation cog; and so finally, it appeared that Butler had finally found his niche as a Dallas Maverick.

Yet when Butler blew out his knee in Milwaukee on New Year's Day 2011, all that positive sentiment evaporated in an instance. The injury seemed to serve as a tragi(comic) final chapter of what appeared to be yet another book of what-ifs, not only in apparently ending Butler's tenure for the team, but for the Dallas Mavericks. On a team which was so dependent on its depth to overcome its relative lack (compared to other contenders) of major-impact types, the loss of the thirty minutes of solid two-way production provided at shooting guard and small forward by Butler looked liked a crippling reduction to that strength - of course, inflicted upon the franchise which had suffered so many of those blows previously. Once again, their best would not be good enough.


Then those two magical months starting in mid-April occurred and all those lingering wounds were swept away.

The major point I wanted to get at (and yes, it took me over 3000 words to reach this point) was that the 2011 Dallas Mavericks won sixteen postseason games by defying an apparently irrefutable truism: the truism being that only teams with multiple ‘star players' were supposed to be capable of winning NBA championships. When considering the team's circumstances, it was unsurprising to find that up until the night of June 12 2011, the seemingly unquestionable truth of this adage had managed to ceaselessly trouble Mavs fans for years. Yet they managed to overcome it, managed to overcome what appeared to be sixty years of strong evidence. How? They were certainly assisted by some unique characterizations: the uniqueness of Dirk's legendary skillset; the uniqueness of having an owner who could couple his relentless desire to win with necessary financial means and ruthless pragmatism to make such an achievement possible - two strengths which are much better explained by Rob Mahoney over at The Two Man Game

But for me, at least in a narrative sense, the story of Caron Butler's time as a Dallas Maverick personified just how much the Mavs evolved, in making the necessary changes in philosophy which eventually rendered them as champions (let's ignore the fact that this ‘change' had nearly succeeded five years previously, if not for unforeseen circumstances). Caron Butler linked two eras. His failure as a purported sidekick to Dirk personified the failings of the previous era. But Caron Butler's recovery as a dependable rotation player contributing to a very good basketball team ushered in a new era, showing that the Mavs didn't have to follow the path set by previous champions. They could be different. And they were different.

And no matter if Caron Butler re-signs with this team or not after the lockout ends, I will see him, and think back to two eras. Two eras which ended so differently, yet are so intrinsically interlinked.

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