But with both Thabo Sefolosha (calf) and Kendrick Perkins (groin) sidelined for at least the next four weeks, Butler has suddenly gone from luxurious bench-bound afterthought to a potentially crucial cog on a championship contender.
A few months later, without having so much as suited up for a single game with the Clippers—a testament to just how dispensable the former University of Connecticut standout had become—Butler was dealt again, this time to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that played a scant 40 miles from where Butler grew up in nearby Racine, Wis.
Butler went so far as to call it a “dream come true” during his introductory press conference back in September (via Yahoo! Sports' Dan Devine):
But after half a season of diffuse roles and mounting losses, Butler and the Bucks agreed to part ways, allowing the sweet-shooting swingman one final chance to add a second NBA ring to his already respected resume.
Enter the Thunder, who, as Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver noted, were eager to follow up the moves made by their rivals with a splash of their own.
Adding Butler helps the Thunder keep up with the Joneses in the Western Conference, as the Clippers (Glen Davis and Danny Granger), Warriors (Steve Blake), Rockets (Jordan Hamilton) and Spurs (Austin Daye) all made moves during the trade and buyout seasons.
Initially, Butler was believed to be little more than an ancillary piece—someone whose floor-spacing and lauded leadership would provide a boost on the margins.
That game plan could change drastically with the absence of Sefolosha, who for years has served as OKC’s chief perimeter defender and one of its more reliable three-point threats—particularly from the corner.
What’s more, Butler could provide head coach Scott Brooks the perfect opportunity to capitalize on a lineup that, thanks to an injury to Russell Westbrook, has thus far been largely neutralized.
Indeed, for a team with the third-best record in the NBA, OKC’s most often-used lineups have been spotty, to say the least.
|Durant, Perkins, Sefolosha, Jackson, Ibaka||525||104.6||98.2||6.4|
|Durant, Perkins, Sefolosha, Ibaka, Westbrook||287||96.7||104.2||-7.5|
|Durant, Adams, Sefolosha, Ibaka, Westbrook||105||105.2||118.8||-13.6|
Now let’s look at some of the Thunder’s most successful lineups, i.e. those that have registered a minimum of 40 minutes and boast a net-positive rating.
|Durant, Ibaka, Sefolosha, Westbrook, Jackson||45||120.6||79.3||41.3|
|Durant, Collison, Fisher, Jackson, Lamb||54||122.6||83.4||39.2|
|Durant, Ibaka, Perkins, Roberson, Westbrook||51||112.3||99.9||12.4|
In all of these cases, it’s easy to imagine Butler being plugged in—either for Sefolosha, Andre Roberson, Nick Collison or Derek Fisher—and OKC not missing a beat.
Even from a replacement perspective, Butler would seem to provide just about everything that Sefolosha does, save for on the defensive end.
|Player||Points per 36||Rebounds per 36||PER||DRtg|
According to The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry, Brooks has already considered that very option.
Scott Brooks says Caron Butler could start at shooting guard in place of injured guard Thabo Sefolosha.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) March 3, 2014
Obviously, Butler still needs to learn the system and adjust to new teammates and surroundings—to say nothing of the weighty expectations of a championship contender.
Though such mysticism might rub raw the more stats-savvy, there’s something to be said for a player of Butler’s caliber and pedigree bringing something beyond the box score to the table.
There’s also a profoundly redemptive quality to Butler’s narrative: On January 4, 2011, Butler suffered a season-ending knee injury while a member of the Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavs, of course, would go on to upset the Miami Heat in the Finals. And while he was rewarded with a ring, the sting of having had to watch from the sidelines is one that will doubtless drive the fiery Butler as the Thunder commence their own climb to the top.
Should the Thunder indeed make good on their very palpable promise, it would be a fitting bookend to four years of strange twists and turns for Butler: from rotational staple to street clothes on a title-winning team; from storybook swansong to one last swing for the sport’s biggest stage.
All Stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 4, unless otherwise noted.