Caron Butler's Injury Is Bad News For The Dallas Mavericks

SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 29: Forward Caron Butler #4 of the Dallas Mavericks takes a shot against Richard Jefferson #24 of the San Antonio Spurs in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 29, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Mavericks will not have Caron Butler for the rest of the season. How big a loss is it? It could be more significant than you think.

UPDATE: Butler will indeed miss the rest of the season with the knee injury, the team announced.

'Tis the season for NBA players to get injured, apparently. Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen Dirk Nowitzki, Gerald Wallace, Andre Iguodala, Caron Butler, Danilo Gallinari, Brandon Roy and Kevin Garnett go down and be forced to miss action. It's a cruel part of basketball that often comes into play at the worst possible time.

Most of those players should be okay by the end of the year, so there isn't much reason for those teams to worry. The two that probably won't be OK are Roy and Butler. Roy's injury issues were well-chronicled by Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer, so I won't rehash them here. Clearly, his debilitating knees have become a major issue for the Trail Blazers.

Butler, on the other hand, is a little bit different. There's a chance he could miss the rest of the season with a torn patella tendon, depending on the results of an MRI. Even if he has simply a partial tear, he's likely to miss a couple months. Dallas is likely going to have to soldier forward for the duration of the season without his contributions. 

Unlike Roy, Butler isn't the face of the Mavericks. He's not a superstar, where you know losing him is going to kill your season. And yet, I really think Dallas is going to have a lot of problems replacing Butler's steady contributions going forward. This could be a bigger loss than people think.

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The thing about Butler is that he isn't that great individually. Dwyer is right here: Butler is an average player. Right now, he gives you 15 points and four rebounds in just under 30 minutes a game, with a 14.6 PER and a middling 52.3-percent true shooting percentage. On the surface, that doesn't seem like production that should be that hard to replace. As Dwyer notes:

Losing Caron hurts, no doubt, but his contributions are quite replaceable. We respect what he's brought to the table, but we're not going to be part of that too-easy chorus that points to his absence any time the Mavericks lose to a better team this season.    

Dwyer's right that the Mavericks will lose some games they'd lose with Butler normally. But here's where I depart from his thinking. Yes, Caron, individually, has been average this season, but you have to consider team dynamics when assessing his impact. There is "average" that helps your team win, and there is "average" that doesn't. 

Last season, Butler fell squarely into the latter category. Nobody was more critical of his 2009/10 season than me. In his final year in Washington, Butler was a ball-stopper that killed offensive flow and jacked contested long two-point jump shots. He feuded with Gilbert Arenas, didn't dedicate himself defensively and stopped driving to the basket. On the whole, he had average individual statistics, but he wasn't helping his team win. As I wrote on Bullets Forever at the time:

Butler has declined while kicking and screaming about the wonder days that were.  He's the last person to accept the fact that he isn't the player he once was.  He never figured it out in DC and he doesn't appear to have figured it out in Dallas.  Worse, his decline was accelerated by lingering resentment of his co-star that only grew when that co-star started missing games.  That co-star is now on a different team, but Butler still stubbornly pushes on, trying to show he deserved his past status.      

The Butler we're seeing this year, though, is not the Butler we saw last season. Instead of killing offensive flow, Butler is contributing to it. His usage rate (i.e. the percentage of possessions he ends with a shot, drawn foul or turnover) remains high (25.4 percent), but it's the way he's ending those possessions that stands out. Instead of trying to do it all on his own, Butler is taking passes from others and shooting in rhythm. That explains why a significantly higher percentage of his shot attempts are assisted, as you see in this chart.

(Via HoopData. Note: blue data is from his Wizards tenure in 2009/10 only)

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Naturally, Butler's shooting percentages from those spots has also (mostly) risen, save for a small dip at the rim.

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Critics will say these percentages are unsustainable, but that's not taking into account just how many more of his shots are assisted. He's shooting in rhythm and with confidence, without hands in his faces, so why shouldn't he hit a higher percentage from the field? 

Throw in improved defense, and Butler simply is making more winning plays than he did in year's past. The numbers bear this out. According to BasketballValue.com, the Mavericks are better on both sides of the ball with Butler in the game.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY (POINTS/100 POSSESSIONS WITH CARON IN: 108.9

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY WITH CARON OUT: 105.7

DIFFERENCE: +3.2

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY (POINTS ALLOWED/100 POSSESSIONS WITH CARON IN: 100.6

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY WITH CARON OUT: 104.8

DIFFERENCE: +4.2

TOTAL DIFFERENCE: +7.4

Shawn Marion, Butler's replacement, at least has the game to replicate Butler's this season, but he's simply not been as good at it. While Butler is improving the team on both ends of the floor, Marion's plus/minus stats indicate he's making them much worse. Sure, Marion has fared better as a small forward than a power forward this season, but that's been in a reserve role. Can Marion duplicate Butler's steady contributions on a nightly basis in the starting lineup? Can Dallas then find someone to replace Marion's ability to swing between both forward spots off the bench? There's a domino effect that I think some people are missing. 

At the end of the day, Butler isn't a superstar, but he was providing steady, winning contributions despite being average individually. Don't underestimate how difficult it is to replace those things.

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Five random questions that are on my mind:

  1. Does Kurt Rambis get any credit for Kevin Love's breakout season? Remember, Rambis was the one that held Love to under 30 minutes a game last year because he wanted Love to be a more complete player. Now that Love has taken a big step forward, doesn't Rambis deserve some credit for coaxing it out of him? Okay, so the answer here is probably not, since Love was always a rebounding per-minute beast, but I'm surprised nobody is asking this.
  2. When will Pau Gasol express his frustration with the Lakers' offense? Tom Ziller raised a good point on Monday: the Lakers' offensive struggles have as much to do with Gasol's lack of aggression than with Kobe Bryant's overaggression. The problem, though, is that the post player isn't supposed to just go ahead and shoot when he first gets the ball. When the Triangle is running correctly, the big man is passing out of the post on one side, then going in motion to receive the ball on the move in the other. Therefore, in a way, Gasol gets his shots only when Bryant is running the Triangle the right way, which isn't happening right now. Last year, Gasol expressed frustration about the Lakers not running their offense. When will he do the same this year?
  3. Why were we so worried about Kevin Durant in November? Durant's December stats: 29.4 points per game, 52 percent from the field, 41 percent on threes. He had a poor-shooting November, but he did last year too and it didn't matter. Good to see that we can put concerns about him to rest.
  4. Why did so many teams sleep on Dorell Wright? After a red-hot shooting week, Wright is averaging nearly 15 points a game on 41 percent shooting from three-point range to go along with good defense for the Warriors. Miami of all teams should have known better. He emerged for them at the end of last year, but instead of getting him back after relinquishing his Bird Rights to clear cap room, they elected to give Mike Miller twice as much money. 
  5. Is closing out on shooters more important than post defense? It used to be that elite post defenders were worth their weight in gold, but in today's NBA, is that really true anymore? Obviously, if you have an elite pick and roll defender, that's ideal, but if you don't, wouldn't you rather have wings that know how to cut off the three-point line than a guy who can shut down a post threat? There's an art to a proper closeout, and not everyone in the league knows how to do it. With teams spreading the floor with guys who camp in the corners and either let it fly or shot fake and drive, you need guys who can get a hand up while simultaneously maintaining balance on the drive. 

Angry Coach Face of the Week

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Alvin Gentry learned what Stan Van Gundy did over the past couple of years: Mickael Pietrus can drive you crazy. Casual fans love Pietrus for the work he did in the Eastern Conference playoffs over the years, but they don't see the maddening things Pietrus does on a daily basis. Like here, when he took a contested stepback three with 16 seconds left that missed by five feet against a lowly Sacramento team. This is Gentry expressing his frustration.

Other screenshots of the week

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Cheer up guys! You're beating the Boston Celtics! You're going to beat them at full strength ... oh, wait, you lost by 12.

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Don't worry, Stan. Craig's reporting can be boring when you don't see his wacky suits on camera.

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This one's blurry, but check out this shot of Tyreke Evans' epic half-court buzzer beater last Wednesday. The top circle is the ball still in the air. The circle to the left is Donte Greene celebrating prematurely. It's a good thing the shot went in.

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Yes, Kobe. When you do everything and decide to stop passing, you sweat a lot.

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You also make Derek Fisher look like this.

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I'm sorry, Josh Smith. I know you have to go against Blake Griffin, but really, it'll be okay.

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Look at the faces of the Hawks' players on Griffin's alleyoop dunk on Sunday. For a split second, they became fans too.

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This is Love's reaction to Rambis' decision to call timeout instead of let Love hit a streaking Wesley Johnson wide open on an outlet pass on what would have been the go-ahead basket against the Celtics on Monday. I'm not exactly sure what Love is doing, but I am sure that Rambis called a play for Luke Ridnour to catch and take three steps, otherwise known as traveling to all non-LeBron James players.

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