HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Caron Butler still can do it. But can he still do it every night? Or, more realistically at this point, on as many nights as the Milwaukee Bucks seemingly are going to need?
When Butler landed in Milwaukee from Phoenix thanks largely to a “gentlemen’s agreement” trade to deliver him close to his roots in nearby Racine, Wis., it was a feel-good gesture. So good, in fact, that the news conference introducing him was held in his old high school gym.
Nostalgia’s nice; warm-and-fuzzies are better. But the real key for Butler and the Bucks is how much he’s able to plug a hole that – so deep into in his career, owing to the miles and the dings if not the years – looks to be rather sizeable.
New coach Larry Drew was being both complimentary and optimistic when he spoke of a role for Butler far more pivotal than what he had the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. And he still is, considering Butler’s recent injury history (knee surgery in 2011, hand, back and elbow issues since).
“In fact, I’m counting on him having enough in the tank,” Drew said earlier this week in Chicago. “You look at the Clippers, they had a lot of guys they could go to for scoring. We’re counting on him a little different here because we do have a need at that ‘three’ spot and he’s a guy who can provide some scoring and some leadership.”
Drew looks at Butler and sees a relatively healthy body, which is more than the coach could say for a number of Bucks in the preseason. Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia and Ekpe Udoh all have missed time with injuries, and O.J. Mayo was out the other night for personal reasons. Milwaukee was punchless, trailing Chicago by 23 points by halftime while getting abused on the glass (28-10) at intermission.
Drew craves leadership within his locker room of role players and youngsters almost as much as he needs offense. At 33, as a half-duty player the past two seasons, Butler has been merely average (combined PER: 12.1) and he managed to play 78 games thanks in part to averaging a modest 24.1 minutes.
That’s why the 24 points Butler scored two nights later against New York in Green Bay, Wis., sparked skepticism same as his October nights of three, four and two points had; Butler logged 37 minutes against the Knicks, something he won’t be able to do – or at least, something it won’t be wise to ask – on a regular basis in 2013-14.
The injuries prompted Drew to use Butler some at power forward, clearly not home for the 6-foot-7, 217-pounder. That had something to do with the performances that looked off, as did Butler’s veterans prerogative this month while learning new coaches and teammates.
“I’ve been picking and choosing,” he said. “See what guys like doing out there. Some games I come out and I’ll be extremely aggressive and I have my scoring games. Some games I just play position and try to get other guys involved, and see ‘How do they play in certain situations?’
“Playing the ‘four’ position, I was more of a facilitator, swinging the ball from side to side and trying to get the offense to move a little bit, because we get stagnant at times.”
The Bucks need his experience and leadership, same as from fellow veterans Pachulia, Delfino and Luke Ridnour, but Drew will have to balance Butler along that line between too many and too few minutes. Overdo it and he might get hurt again. Under-utilize him and he won’t have the necessary impact. Either way, a veteran’s locker-room voice tends to rise and fall with his production on the floor.
“I feel like I can really help them with scoring,” Butler said, “And the more time out there, I think I’ll be really productive. Right now, playing ‘four’ because guys are down, it’s a little different. But I definitely can fill it up. Rhythm guy, I can score the ball. I’m just waiting for the opportunity.”
The Bucks want to provide it, but in just the right amount.