Top 50: Caron Butler, no. 28
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
All you need to know about James Caron Butler is his nickname “Tough Juice,” given to him by his former Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. He is tough, a product of a difficult childhood, bouncing in and out of the prison system on many occasions before his 15th birthday. In contrast to his problematic youth, Butler’s game is solid and well rounded, the result of having been a post player in high school before he slimmed down to play wing.
You won’t read much about Butler in the media, other than his predilection for chewing McDonald’s and Burger King straws (and the odd Cheesecake Factory straw). And he isn’t the sort of player that is celebrated because some quantitative analyst from MIT has found data to suggest that he is much better than he would appear.
Butler is one of those players who fly under the radar and get the job done. You want 20, 6 and 4? Done, done and done. The Butler did it along with very few else but don’t expect basketball fans around the world to discuss his merits all that often.
He is in what you might call the BMW class of NBA players. Very high performance results but not particularly flashy. Butler can throw down spectacular dunks, some of which live posthumously on YouTube and are worth checking out again or for the first time. He can cross over guys on the perimeter and beat defenders off the dribble, the basketball equivalent of a decent 0-60 mph acceleration.
Similar to a BMW, this class of player is so consistently good that they are almost boring. Better to get an Italian roadster that looks special, sort of like a 7-1 former ballerina from Tbilisi, Georgia named Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who was drafted five spots ahead of Butler in 2002. Nice eye for talent there, Kiki Vandeweghe.
Enough automotive talk.
One of the more underrated post-season teams was the 2003-2004 Miami Heat. This team had no business being a playoff contender, only showing signs of life at the end of the season when they won 17 of their final 21 games. For a brief time, they played like they belonged with the best in the League. Butler showed up in Game Seven of the first round series, giving his team 23 and 9 to beat the New Orleans Hornets. This team had heart, a trait that seems to be a part of every team Butler plays on.
And who can forget Butler’s 2006 performance in against the Cleveland Cavaliers. His 20 rebounds in Game 6 almost put the Wizards over the top, if only his last second trifecta had gone down. Let us not forget that Cleveland won the series by the slimmest of margins, squeaking out three victories by one point in the best-of-seven set.
In 2008, with Gilbert Arenas out, Butler defined the expression “man up.” He willed the Wizards into a Game Six before the Cavs prevailed.
It appears as though Butler has all the intangibles. I’ll have to ask Gil the next time I bump into him on the street somewhere. Butler’s teammates enjoy playing with him. He inspires their loyalty. He is the guy who gets rebounds and doesn’t force the ball on offense. Some might suggest that he doesn’t shoot the ball enough, which makes Butler a perfect teammate for Agent Zero.
These aforementioned qualities would have made Butler the perfect running mate for Kobe Bryant. Unfortunately, Lakers’ resident personnel guru Mitch Kupchak thought Kwame Brown was a better bet, sending Butler to the Wizards in 2005.
That trade is worth dwelling on for a beat. The Lakers shipped away a wing player who can defend, rebound, shoot, and defer to the team’s main scorer. Weren’t they looking for one for several years until Trevor Ariza showed up?
Not insignificantly, Kobe loved him some Tough Juice, but even the mighty Black Mamba or whatever couldn’t keep Butler around. And we wonder why the best basketball player of all time to be named after a variety of beef was so ticked off at the Lakers management?
Perhaps the pride of Racine, WI is given more credit than he deserves and thus the decent ranking on this here SLAMonline list. If anything, it seems hard to find anyone who has a negative opinion of Butler. The story that circulated sometime back of Butler showing up at some suburban teen’s birthday party is one for the ages.
Explaining the decision to attend Anthony Fadel’s birthday party, Butler said: “I am not anti-social. It is good to be around fans.” While unrelated to his talents on the court, Butler gets “it”. His reputation has been built by being one of us mortals. He has remained an everyday guy, even though the basketball system has given him ample opportunity to be some rich snot that disconnects from his fans and reality in general. For that, maybe he earns more praise than he should.
Butler is also often injured. He hasn’t played more than 75 games since he was an L.A. Laker in ‘03-04. Perhaps as a result of injuries, Butler doesn’t get to the free throw line as much as he could even though he shoots a stellar 85% from the stripe.
Reports are that this off-season he stopped drinking soda, switching to water and homemade juices from his juicer. Is he taking a page out of the aged fitness guru Jack Lalanne?
Maybe these juices put the tough back in the “Tough Juice.”
I can’t think of any other worthy criticism. Butler is a talented player that any team would want. If he figures out how to stay healthy, expect Butler to crack SLAMonline’s top 25, well into the next decade.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.