Butler passed on contenders to help SVG transform Pistons

Caron Butler broke into the NBA with Miami when Stan Van Gundy was an assistant coach there.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

When Caron Butler took a buyout from the Milwaukee Bucks last winter, the teams that pursued him weren’t just playoff teams but title contenders: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Miami. When he hit free agency in July, the same suspects were reported to have made their pitches. So did Chicago, which belongs in that class with a healthy Derrick Rose on his way back.

Even though the Pistons aren’t yet in their company, Stan Van Gundy valued Butler for the very reasons those title hopefuls did. It was as much about what Butler would add to team chemistry as he would to the offensive dynamic for a group that had a gaping need for the type of 3-point shooting Butler can provide.

Think about the pretty brief list of necessary ingredients Van Gundy ticked off when he went shopping for free agents. He prioritized toughness, smarts and shooting ability – but beyond that, he said, his foremost desire was for high-character, highly competitive, unselfish players. Van Gundy wants to change the mind-set of the Pistons and has a history with Butler, who broke in with Miami when Van Gundy was an assistant to Pat Riley.

“When you’re looking to create change, it’s important that you bring in different people and that you change the group and you change the collective mentality of the group,” Pistons general manager Jeff Bower told me recently.

“When we add the new players to this team, it’ll have a significantly different dynamic of individuals and everybody will bring their past with them. The key is that we can blend the history and blend the lessons they’ve learned to create an environment and a team that is capable of going beyond where they’ve gone in the past. That’s the challenge of building a team and building a group of men together and forming a bond that is all about sacrifice and commitment and doing things they haven’t done before.”

Butler, 34, might have valued the opportunity for greater playing time in Detroit than he could have gotten with one or more of the contenders who pursued him, though Kyle Singler surely will offer stiff competition for minutes at small forward. But he made it clear when he signed with the Pistons that his fondness and respect for Van Gundy was the primary draw.

“I see the potential and with coach Van Gundy at the helm of things now and what he’s going to insert on the defensive end and the offensive end and with a little more consistency, we can shock a lot of people,” Butler said. “We can do something extremely special and we can build on that.”

In some respects, Butler is coming in to fill for Van Gundy the role the Pistons envisioned a year ago for Chauncey Billups – the widely respected veteran whose daily example of conduct will resonate throughout the locker room. Injuries stripped Billups of the chance to make the type of impact anticipated, but Butler comes in younger and fresh off an impressive postseason run with the Thunder that ended with him in their starting lineup.

“I think he has a competitive nature to him that drives him at this point,” Bower said. “He’s been on good teams. He’s seen and experienced what they’re all about. He sees this as an opportunity to compete, as an opportunity to play a role of significance within a team that has the potential to grow and to create change. Obviously, his familiarity and comfort level in playing with Stan and knowing the approach Stan would have is something that Caron wanted to be a part of again. I think that’s the ultimate compliment to both Caron and Stan.”

When the Pistons contacted Butler early in free agency, they were curious to gauge his interest level in joining a team in the building phase as opposed to jumping on the opportunities they knew Butler had to join forces with a contender.

“As we started talking, the approach we took was to explain the role and the thought process we had,” Bower said. “We talked about the value we placed on the things he could add and then listened to what he was looking for and hoping to accomplish. It all matched up.”

Tomorrow, I’ll take a similar look at how the Pistons approached D.J. Augustin in free agency.