The On-Court Downturns of Caron Butler & Josh Howard, An Insider’s Perspective
I’ve written about Caron Butler and Josh Howard being different players off the court. But what about on the court? To get the best perspective, I turned to Rob Mahoney of the ESPN TrueHoop Network Dallas Mavericks blog, The Two Man Game. In addition to his Mavs blog, Rob does great work all over the internet, including his contributions to Hardwood Paroxysm and NBC’s Pro Basketball Talk.
Below is the question I asked Rob about Howard and his answer, and then my response to his question about Butler.
Tell me about Josh Howard. I know about all of his off-court stuff. I know about some of his “can’t control what the ball do” statements regarding on-court stuff. I know about a debate between you and Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com over whether Cuban and the Mavs were coddling/babying Howard too much. Any other reasons why Howard fell so far from grace in Dallas? Did you get any indication that he was a disturbance in the locker room? Or can his down year mostly be attributed to injury issues? The Wizards likely see J-Ho as just an expiring contract, but he certainly will play. How healthy is he now? How motivated do you think he will be to contribute to his new, yet very, very bad, team?
Howard’s decline has been truly bizarre. From 2005-2007, Josh was a rock; he ignited the Mavs’ offense in the first quarter, played solid perimeter defense, and showed tremendous versatility in terms of scoring the ball. It looked as though Dallas had come away with a complete steal with the 29th pick in the 2003 draft, and Josh was named an All-Star in ’07 to commemorate his rise. But Howard was injured virtually throughout the ’07-’08 season, and even when he returned to action for the Mavs, he was visibly limited.
That I understand; there’s a lot of pressure to return from injury early, a fact made even more clear when Howard attempted to do it earlier this season only to be pulled from the rotation again a few days later for rest, rehab, and treatment. These are limitations that make sense for a player.
But when Josh finally returned to action for good in early December, his play didn’t seem visibly altered by the injury. He seemed to be moving well, was putting in the effort, and looked to be — at the time, at least — to be shaking off a bit of rust. He airballed some jumpers, turned the ball over, and took every mid-range jumper he could find. But again, this made sense for a guy recovering from injury. Every move is made a bit more tentatively, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Except it didn’t go away. Josh just continued to slump and slump, putting up some truly awful shooting nights in what was likely the worst stretch of his Maverick career. He looks healthy and he insists that he’s healthy, so what excuse can you really offer a guy who suddenly plummets to the worst shooting percentages of his career? Who starts drifting on defense, and sacrifices the end of the floor where he could have (at least partially) redeemed himself? The most infuriating thing about Josh’s decline is that it really does seem random; part of it is shot selection and part of it is effort level, but so much of Howard’s woes have simply been based on execution.
To Josh’s credit, he’s been a true professional through the entire ordeal. He hasn’t pouted or made demands, didn’t say a peep when he was moved to the bench, and kept his concerns about himself and the team in-house. Howard has finally grown up (many can recall some news-worthy PR disasters that reeked of immaturity), and though his game hasn’t been what it was in seasons past, I think that’s a good sign. I’d expect Howard to arrive with something to prove, for sure; the guy has a long history of playing with a chip on his shoulder, and off-court events like this have typically triggered an on-court response from Howard. But the intent to prove his point and actually doing it are two very different things.
One of the things Josh has struggled with a bit this season is producing at the 2…which seems particularly relevant now that the Mavs intend to put Butler in a similar situation. I know Caron has played a lot of minutes at the 2 and 3 both this season and previously — is he demonstratively more effective in one spot than another? Does Butler have trouble keeping up with the quicker wings locked in at the 2?
But beyond that, I’m just as curious about Butler’s drop-off as you are about Howard’s. It’s definitely been a down year by Caron standards, but I haven’t seen any clear indication why. He didn’t seem to mesh well with Gil (in any sense), but he’s struggled even with Arenas out of the lineup. What gives? Is there some mystical secret to Butler’s drop-off that’s hidden in plain view? And do you consider his season an actual regression of his game, or simply a momentary lapse in his otherwise solid career production?
Caron Butler’s struggles this season have been almost as baffling as Howard’s, but after reading what you wrote, there seems to be more evidence I can cite for Butler’s downturn.
With Flip intending for the ball to be in Gilbert Arenas’ hands 80-percent of the time, Butler became dependent on finding his shots within the scripted offense, rather than being able to create more on his own. This didn’t exactly jibe with the way Butler had been conditioned, and it showed.
This season, when he got the ball in his comfort zones of the past, extended wings and deep corners, usually on the left side of the floor, you’d often find Caron using a myriad of jab steps and pump fakes, mostly of an unproductive nature, before seeing him jack a contested shot and missing. This essentially evolved to Butler driving when he should have been shooting the open shot or shooting the ill-advised shot when he should have been driving.
The adjustment began to affect Butler’s confidence. His decision-making got worse, evidenced by what seemed to be a ton more traveling and charge calls, and his ability to create for teammates dropped off significantly. His assists per 36 minutes fell to 2.1 this season after being 4.0 in ’08-09, 4.4 in ’07-08, and 3.4 in ’06-07, the season where Caron last played significant minutes with Arenas before this one.
This season, Arenas wasn’t the player he used to be, as he was trying to re-acclimate himself to NBA basketball in addition to adjusting his game for Flip’s offense. He had a long way to go before being suspended, but his numbers weren’t that bad and he seemed to be trying to adjust. His assist-percentage in the 32 games he played stands at 36.5%, up from 27.2% and 27% in the last two seasons where he saw the court for a significant amount of time (’06-07 and ’05-06 respectively).
Back in late-November, Gilbert said, “There’s about 15 players on the team, 14 get along.” Even though they evidently subsequently kissed and made up, most were able to conclude that Arenas was talking about Butler. An even more telling sign of Butler’s offensive issues also came when Arenas made the “14 get along” comment (and there’s a video of Gil talking about the Wizards’ early-season struggles on offense in the previous link). Arenas said, “I know what to do with Antawn [Jamison], me and him been playing for the longest … pick and roll. Caron, he needs isos. So now I gotta find a way to get him the ball without cutting the other four players out.” The clip got cut off/edited in the link above, but Arenas ended his quote with, “and that’s just been a big problem.” If you really want to see Gil say this, among other things, you can check out around the 3:30 mark in this video highlighting his best home-game quotes from this season … before real guns and finger guns of course.
But enough about the offensive system, what else? Well, there is a Caron’s ego. Most all NBA players have egos to some extent, and this year, I’ve come to find out that this does not preclude good guys like Butler. I’ve now seen how an ego might negatively affect a strong-willed, prideful person like Caron.
I believe that essentially carrying the team, along with Antawn Jamison, for the previous two seasons, and then having to go back to playing second fiddle to Gilbert Arenas (in terms of attention), and to an extent, a second fiddle to the entire team in terms of who dictates the offense, served as a blow to Butler’s ego and his game worsened as a consequence. Some, including players, accused him of aiming to get his 20 point average of the past first and foremost.
Small instances served as indications of Butler’s ego. There was the time in San Antonio in November, after back-to-back blowout losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Spurs, when Brendan Haywood was singing Beyoncé’s ego while Gilbert Arenas spoke of those with “hidden agendas” on the team. The way the story appearing in the Washington Post was written at the time, most inferred that Haywood and Arenas were talking about each other. However, it was later concluded, especially since Haywood and Arenas are supposed to be very good friends, that they both were likely talking/singing about Caron Butler. By the way, Haywood has denied ever singing, but I tend to believe the reporting of the Post’s Michael Lee. In terms of the relationship between Arenas and Butler, the Lee recently wrote, “Arenas and Butler were never on the same page (And that’s sugarcoating it. As one person close to the team told me, “Those guys just flat out didn’t like each other”).” Not good to hear if you’re a Wizards fan.
Another small instance occurred when I was in the Wizards’ locker room before a game late last year. One player commented on my Clark Wallabees, which are currently well worn since I’ve had them since around 2001. Meanwhile, a second player was confusing them with hush-puppies. The first player went on to explain that Clark Wallabees are better and more expensive. The only thing I could really say was that they are damn comfortable shoes and that I’d had them since college. The second player then said to the first player something to the effect of, “Who are you, Caron Butler … talking about the cost of clothing?” The two players then both had a good laugh.
No biggie, but certainly a telling incident of what Butler’s teammates tended to think of him at times, even though they may have liked the guy. It’s also worth mentioning that Butler is very into fashion, hence why I’ve referred to him as a fashionista at times. He and his wife sometimes pick out fabrics and patterns to custom design his clothes and he has also served as a fashion model of sorts. He was the only player on the team who would get dressed in his expensively tailored clothes in the training room, out of sight and access from the media. When he wasn’t quasi-ducking the press, making a beeline from the training room to the locker room exit while others such as Jamison attracted the media scrum, Caron would always look his very best for interviews. The skuttlebutt is that he ripped this method of dressing from Kobe who ripped it from Michael Jordan, but I can’t testify to how authentic that theory may be.
Might any of this perceived “ego” stuff really be meaningless, especially in terms of Butler’s contributions on the basketball court? Yes, it certainly could mean nothing. But does it serve as an interesting look below the surface? Certainly. Gilbert had a pretty big ego himself, being quite the attention whore. Now, he’s sitting at home losing millions.
Finally, I’ll mention Caron’s defense. He claimed before the season that he’d really focus on becoming a better defender. I didn’t really see it. Part of it is that Caron has a bad habit of gambling in the passing lanes, often over-committing himself. The other part is that with his body type, he’s simply not athletic enough and lacks sufficient lateral movement to keep up with most wing players. On the other hand, much of playing good defense involves hustle and hard work, which could take away from Caron’s efforts on the offensive end. The Mavericks might be better served having Shawn Marion guard the opposing team’s two-spot over Butler and have them reverse roles on offense.
I hate to feel like I’m trashing Caron. For a long time, he was my favorite Wizard, consistently filling up the stat sheet with rebounds, assists and steals, in addition to points. I’ll always have good memories of why he was given the nickname “Tuff Juice” by former coach Eddie Jordan in the first place. And while I don’t want to say that everything I’ve described above has tarnished my memory of Butler, it has certainly changed my perspective of him. I wish Caron all the best in Dallas and will be watching very closely to see how he performs in a new environment. If he is able to work with Kidd, Dirk & Co. with success, then I will be very proud of Butler’s ability to adjust, yet somewhat hurt that he couldn’t do it this year in DC.