Caron Butler’s biggest contributions came when we least expected them.
In the regular season.
Brought in three-quarters through the season after agreeing to a buyout with Milwaukee, Butler was supposed to provide veteran leadership, playoff experience, toughness, defense and 3-point shooting. Some of those things he provided. Just not when the Thunder needed them most.
It made the Caron Butler experiment a failed one.
Butler struggled so much in the postseason that by the time the Thunder faced elimination in Game 6 against San Antonio, he was benched in the biggest game of the year. Butler didn’t play a second.
It was a disappointing end to a signing that initially had seemed so promising.
In 18 postseason games, Butler averaged 6.3 points on 32.4 percent shooting, both career lows.
In 22 regular-season games, Butler averaged 9.7 points on 40.9 percent shooting and enjoyed the most accurate 3-point shooting of his career with a 44.1 percent clip.
Who knows what the difference was?
All we know is that the Thunder didn’t expect Butler to labor through such a brutal stretch at such a pivotal point. He was brought in with an eye toward the playoffs, a piece that could potentially help the Thunder get over the hump in its quest for a championship. Instead, Butler’s minutes shrunk before ultimately disappearing in his final act.
Worst of all was how Butler’s presence stunted the growth of integral pieces for the future.
Perry Jones III went from a spot starter and utility defender to playing spot minutes. Jeremy Lamb went from a valuable sub to a shooter who couldn’t get off the bench.
It was a calculated risk by the Thunder, one that could have paid huge dividends had Butler excelled in his role. But just because he didn’t when it mattered most doesn’t mean OKC is doomed.
Lamb played more than 1,500 minutes in his second season, gaining valuable experience as he readies himself for what is expected to be a much larger role next season. Jones, meanwhile, showed signs of developing into a versatile weapon who improved his shooting range out to the 3-point line. He also figures to be featured more prominently next season.
As for Butler, it seems unlikely that he’ll return.
He turned 34 in March — although a player’s age hasn’t stopped the Thunder before — and the promise of the Thunder’s younger players might now be too much to again pass over. Whether they’re ready or not, it might be time to throw them into the fire and commit to developing them in games.
That doesn’t bode well for Butler.
The way his season ended also didn’t help.