SAN ANTONIO – Caron Butler will lineup against the Spurs in the opening Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals tonight.
But there was a time — maybe an hour — last December when it seemed likely that Butler was going to join the Spurs.
“As a free agent, I was extremely close to coming here,” Butler said. “This is a great franchise, a great city. I cancelled my flight (to San Antonio) and then I had to buy another one. It was really close.
“It was a great situation for me in L.A., even before the Chris Paul situation. It was a great for me to get a lot of playing time and for me to get back out there playing. I didn’t know what my role would be coming here to this organization. But I knew that I would have a role in their system. I was eager to be a part of that transition of making the Clippers a respectable organization.”
Ultimately, Butler chose the Clippers for 24 million reasons, the number of guaranteed dollars in his three-year contract, more than San Antonio’s offer. But not before he’d visited the Spurs and been impressed by coach Gregg Popovich.
“They made a great pitch,” Butler said. “Just the winning culture, that’s something I’d become accustomed to after leaving Washington and coming to the Dallas Mavericks. That’s something that’s contagious. That winning culture you want to be a part of it. Pop off the court, he is unbelievable. He is a great guy in the time I spent with him and the other people in the organization. It was a great experience.”
Though they were disappointed at not signing Butler, the Spurs might have benefitted in the long run. If they had signed him, the plan was to “amnesty” Richard Jefferson to get rid of his $30-plus-million that was counting against their salary cap for three seasons. But in keeping Jefferson for half the season, they were eventually able to ship him to Golden State at the trade deadline for a key reserve in Stephen Jackson. They also saved the money they would still have had to pay on Jefferson’s contract under the amnesty provision.
After starting 63 games for the Clippers this season, Butler suffered a fracture in left hand in Game 1 against Memphis and had instant flashbacks to a year ago when a knee injury prematurely ended his season in Dallas, forcing him to miss out on the Mavs’ run to the NBA championship. He was originally pronounced done for the playoffs, but talked his way back into the lineup after missing just one game.
“That couldn’t happen again,” Butler said. “For 48 hours it was just a whirlwind, being told that you couldn’t play and out 4-6 weeks and flying back and going to the gym and shooting with it on my own and understanding that it wasn’t so bad and giving it a shot.
“I pretty much did it. I said I pretty much want to be out there. I went to management and I went to the trainers and I understood that I would probably have to go through surgery if something was to happen. I was cool with that.”
But he had to convinced coach Vinny Del Negro.
“Like any coach, he was like, ‘I definitely want you back, but I want you to be fine for the long haul and at the same time can you be effective out there with a broken hand?’ ” Butler said. “I just try to defend and play as hard as I can and do all the little things and it ended up working out for us.”
Now back in the starting lineup, he’s playing 27 minutes a game, averaging 9.3 points and will match up in this series against Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard. But even though limited in what he could do, Butler says he’s ready to keep moving on.
“It affects it a lot because you can’t hold the ball and do some of the things that you want to do,” he said. “As much as you try to protect it and try to play cautiously, you just can’t get around it in a physical series like the one we just played. You’ll continue to get hit on it and have minor setbacks here and there, but winning is always rewarding and takes the pain away.”