Street Clothes to Starter: Butler Completes Impressive Turnaround
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

March 13, 2009

When national media members cast their votes for the NBAs 2008-09 Most Improved Player award this spring, recognizable names such as New Orleans native Danny Granger and fellow Eastern Conference All-Star Devin Harris will appear on many ballots. Most likely, Hornets guard Rasual Butler will be a complete afterthought in the discussion. Perhaps he shouldnt be.

Although his individual statistics obviously wont be as impressive as those produced by Granger (the leagues sixth-leading scorer), Harris (23 points, 7 assists per game) or several of the other candidates, no player in the NBA has seen his importance to his team change as drastically as Butlers has this season. A year after experiencing the low point of his professional career, the 6-foot-7 Philadelphia native has gone from street clothes to starter.

To appreciate how far Butler has come during this turnaround season, you first must go back to 2007-08. While the Hornets were enjoying their finest season ever highlighted by the franchises first-ever division title Butler was agonizing through his worst season. After several lengthy stretches of inconsistent and ineffective play, the 205-pounder was benched by Byron Scott in early March. As New Orleans postseason run extended into mid-May, Butler never appeared in another game the rest of the way, spending the final 2 1/2 months at the end of the bench wearing a suit and tie, as an inactive player. For a proud athlete whod started a total of 64 games during his first three seasons with New Orleans, the inactive duty represented a significant descent. After sporadically being a part of the Hornets starting five, Butler wasnt performing well enough to even be among their top 12 players. He finished the season with career lows in scoring average (4.9 points) and field-goal percentage (35.0).

An unwavering supporter of Butler since the player joined the Hornets in an August 2005 trade, Scott was puzzled by the decline in play. The two men held a meeting after the 2008 playoffs, a talk that may have marked a turning point in Butlers career.

It was a very in-depth, personal, healthy conversation, Butler remembers. (Scott) told me that he knew I wasnt myself. He was trying to figure out what was wrong and what was going on. He told me to just put (last season) behind me and look forward. I told him that I was going to work really hard in the summer. When I came back (in fall 2008) for preseason, he knew that I had kept my word.

Determined to make amends for his disappointing season, the 29-year-old had drawn up an extensive summer workout plan that included extensive basketball drills, Pilates and yoga.

I wouldnt leave the gym until I made 500 jump shots, Butler says. I worked out six days a week and lifted weights six days a week. The only day I took during the offseason was Sunday. I also worked a lot on my core and my flexibility.

Scott: After our meeting when the season was over, the one thing he said was that he was going to come back determined to not only play, but also play a major role in what we were doing as a team. He was going to be much more focused.

His work ethic has been unbelievable. (Media members) always want to say that Rasual was in my doghouse, but he just wasnt performing. And other players stepped up. But now hes turned the tables and come back with a vengeance.

As of mid-March, Butler was posting career-highs in scoring average, rebounding, blocks and steals. Perhaps just as important to the teams success and that of the starting unit, his field-goal percentage and three-point percentage were both the second-highest rates of his career. With Chris Paul and David West drawing considerable defensive attention, Butler has been an effective safety valve all season, making opponents pay for double-teaming the Hornets All-Stars. Hes also consistently delivered clutch fourth-quarter perimeter baskets, a potentially overlooked factor behind New Orleans starting this season 8-1 in games decided by three points or less.

At the other end of the floor, Butler has often drawn difficult defensive assignments, facing the leagues premier scoring threats at the shooting guard and small forward spots. Scott believes Butler has come much closer to fulfilling his potential in that category of the game as well.

We always believed that Sual is one of our most athletic guys, Scott says. So we felt like there was no reason why he couldnt be better on the defensive end. It was just a matter of him becoming more determined.

There was also no reason why he should be shooting 40 percent from the floor, because hes such a better shooter than that.

Butler: I knew this year I needed to be one of the (teams) better defenders on the wing. I knew (James) Posey was going to be the sixth man coming off the bench. I didnt want all of the pressure to be on him to stop guys.

So I made defense my focus this year. Ive always been a pretty good scorer. I just really focused on the defensive end. By doing that, it helped me be on the floor, because I was given a lot of the tough defensive assignments. Then I started getting more opportunity on the offensive end, as a result of being on the floor more.

Although hes a longshot in the aforementioned Most Improved Player race, if Butler finishes in the top 10 of the vote, it will mark the sixth consecutive year that a Hornet has done so. For his part, Butler isnt preoccupied with the award, seeming to have not even thought about it prior to a New Orleans TV reporter mentioning it to him in early March.

I will let the media and fans decide that type of thing, Butler says. Im not focusing on it. I just want to be a guy the team can depend on night in and night out. Our ultimate goal is to win a championship, and thats what Im focusing on.

He definitely needs to be in the discussion, Scott assesses. I always thought he could play a major role for us. Hes elevated his game in ways I knew he could, but I just didnt know if he would. So Im very proud of the way hes been able to play this season.

When you start talking about guys for the Most Improved Player award, you have to mention his name.

New Orleans has placed at least one player in the top 10 of the NBAs Most Improved Player voting in each of the past five seasons, the only club in the league to do so. In fact, the second-longest active streak of a team having a top-10 MIP finisher is Bostons two years.

Here are the previous Hornets whove garned recognition for the award, along with where they placed (first-place finisher in parentheses):
2003-04: Jamaal Magloire, seventh (Zach Randolph, Portland)
2004-05: Dan Dickau, fifth (Bobby Simmons, L.A. Clippers)
2005-06: David West, second (Boris Diaw, Phoenix)
2006-07: Tyson Chandler, fourth (Monta Ellis, Golden State)
2007-08: Chris Paul, eighth; David West, 10th (Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando)

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