At first glance, Caron Butler's season-ending knee injury is a devastating blow to the Dallas Mavericks.
Butler is a two-time NBA All-Star with a $10 million salary who averages 15.0 points per game.
Yet according to some of the more advanced metrics, Butler is eminently replaceable. Butler has a 14.3 PER (15.0 is league average) and .074 Win Shares/per 48 minutes (.10 is the league average).
So what's going on? What are the advanced statistics telling us about a player almost universally beloved around the league?
When evaluating basketball players, it's important to remember the importance of two things: reputations and context.
If this was the Caron Butler of 2007-2008, the 27-year-old All-Star who averaged 18.4 points on 46.6 percent shooting with 6.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists...this injury would be a big deal.
But he's just not that guy anymore.
Listed (generously) at 6'7", 220-lbs., Butler has never been one of the most sculpted athletes in the NBA. For years, he carried a lot of extra weight on his frame. As a result, his knees have worn out quicker than usual. And at the age of 30, he no longer has the foot-speed of his younger days in Washington and Miami.
He's still a smart and skilled player, but he no longer has the athleticism to be a difference maker on either side of the ball.
Perimeter All-Stars are almost always guys who can create their own shot. Butler can still do that, but he can no longer get into the paint.
In 2007-2008, 19 percent of his shots were in the paint (and he was assisted on only 42 percent of them) and 6 percent were dunks (assisted on 62 percent of them). This season, only 15 percent of his shots were in the paint (and he was assisted on 57 percent of them) while only 2 percent were dunks—not a single one of which did not come off an assist.
The only shots he can create with any regularity anymore are step-back, mid-range jumpers—one of the least efficient shots in the game.
Most NBA swingmen can do the things he does well—spotting up off Dirk, Terry and Kidd and moving the ball crisply around the perimeter. And his unique skill—the ability to create inefficient jumpers—isn't of much value on a team with the most efficient shot-creator in the league.
Defensively, he is an average-sized small forward with an average wingspan and average to below-average foot-speed; he gets by on veteran savvy and shuttling faster wings into the Mavs' bevy of shot-blockers. He's not really hurting the team on that side of the ball, but his contributions aren't exactly irreplaceable.
Enter Mavericks rookie Dominique Jones out of South Florida.
Forget their respective reputations and just look at their physical profiles. Jones is a 22-year-old rookie with a chiseled 6'4", 215-lbs. frame and an exceptional 6'9" wingspan. He will be a better defensive player than Butler.
In college, Jones was one of the most skilled shot-creators in the country. He was the second-leading scorer in the Big East (at 21.4 points per game) and averaged a respectable 3.6 assists a game, impressive considering the paucity of talent around him.
The biggest hole in his game is a shaky outside jumper, which won't be a huge problem in Dallas, where he would be surrounded by some of the best long-range shooters in the NBA. He will add an element of athleticism this aging Dallas team is missing, playing better defense on the perimeter and getting to the rim on offense.
Which isn't to say that Jones will fix the Mavs problems. He won't.
Dallas still needs the Caron Butler of 2007-2008 if they want to seriously contend for an NBA title. The Mavs offense is far too reliant on Dirk Nowitzki, the only player who can consistently create his own shot. Ever since Dirk sprained his knee in Oklahoma City last week, Dallas has been on a 2-3 slump, the lowlight being an embarrassing 76-point performance against Toronto, the 27th-rated defense in the NBA.
This current team is not effectively utilizing Dirk's ability to space the floor and create driving lanes toward the basket by dragging the other team's 4 out to the perimeter.
Plan A was promising second-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois, but with every week that his broken foot is no closer to being healed, his prognosis for this season seems more dubious.
Dallas needs to make a trade, and the Mavericks have the pieces to make that happen—two talented young players (Beaubois and Jones), two expiring contracts totaling nearly $15 million (Butler and DeShawn Stevenson) as well as spare draft picks and Marc Cuban's bottomless pockets.
** In an odd twist, Stevenson (a salary cap throw-in) has been the most effective player Dallas picked up (not Butler or Brendan Haywood) in their mid-season trade with the Wizards last year. He's been an effective role player—playing tough defense on perimeter scorers and knocking down open threes. His success in Dallas proves the adage that a team can always afford one knucklehead in the locker room. It's two bad apples that spoil the bunch. **
Some combination of those assets should be able to net them one of the following players:
The dream scenario for Dallas. The Mavericks can't match the package New Jersey could send Denver, but they would be willing to trade for him without an extension while the Nets would not. The game of chicken being played by the Nuggets front office (who have to trade him before he walks in free agency) and 'Melo (who has to sign an extension before the new CBA significantly reduces the value of max contracts) will have significant ramifications throughout the league.
Maybe the best "fit" for the Mavericks out there. Iguodala's 76ers are a capped-out team going nowhere, and AI is blocking the development of No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner, who is most effective with the ball in his hands. At 6'6" and 207 pounds, Iguodala is one of the most explosive players in the league and has the defensive versatility (as he proved in the 2010 World Championships) to guard almost every type of perimeter scorer while still averaging nearly 16 points and five assists for his career.
Detroit has three athletic shooting guards on their roster combining to make almost $25 million between them. Any of the three—Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon or Rip Hamilton—would be a good fit in Dallas.
It may sound harsh, but if Butler's injury prompts the Mavericks to trade for one of these players, than it will end up helping, not hurting, Dallas.