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With Wizards sliding, more Butler could be the answer

Veteran forward has provided a spark when given the minutes

POSTED: Feb 3, 2015 12:18 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Veteran Rasual Butler, 33, has led the Wizards in scoring five times and topped 20 points four times.

The Washington Wizards have a fever, and the only prescription is more Rasual Butler.

Hey, you practice your medicine without a license and I'll practice mine. The Wizards, losers of three straight and six of their past 10, claim to have a variety of issues, from John Wall's migraine-like headaches and sprained right ankle to Marcin Gortat's drop in production to an alleged and way-premature sense of entitlement in their work ethic.

In losing to Charlotte Monday, coach Randy Wittman charged that the Wizards "don't play hard anymore" and have resorted to pointing fingers. Gortat signaled a fresh start for himself by shaving off his Mohawk, only to react like a shorn Samson (four points, minus-11, only two fourth-quarter minutes).

But one of the unsung heroes during Washington's 18-7 run from before Thanksgiving through Jan. 14 was Butler, the team's 35-year-old small backup forward. For those seven weeks, the career 7.9 point-scorer was playing some of his best basketball in half a decade, averaging 10.3 points, and shooting 44.9 percent in 25 minutes a game.

Everybody's journey is different.

– Rasual Butler

Over the past 10 games, though, Butler's numbers have dropped to 4.7 points and 35.8 percent in 16.4 minutes. There might be some chicken-or-egg debate over which is driving which -- is Butler's decline a cause or a result of the Wizards' speed bumps? -- but the way he seized opportunity for most of the season's first half suggests more former than latter.

Butler's story isn't typical, whether judged by its start or now so deep into his career. The 52nd pick overall out of LaSalle in 2002, Butler ranks eighth in appearances, 10th in minutes and 12th in points from that solid draft class. Of the 51 players selected ahead of him, only nine still are active in the NBA. And none has had the resurgence of late that Butler has, built from work, perseverance and opportunism.

Three years ago, the Toronto Raptors signed Butler for what eventually looked more like a pulse check than a heat check and he flatlined: 30.8 percent shooting and a 4.8 PER in 34 appearances, in the shortest minutes (13.3) of his career. He was released in March and not invited back -- and none of the other 29 teams picked up the phone that offseason, either.

At age 33, Butler could have taken that as a not-so-subtle retirement hint. Instead, with bruised feelings fueling some renewed determination, Butler pushed himself through workouts in Los Angeles with trainer Joe Abunassar. Six days a week. But the 2012-13 season was lost to him, in NBA terms.

"I felt like I still could play," Butler said recently on a stop in Chicago, right before the Wizards' current 10-game slump. "Not having a job, after not having such a great year in Toronto -- but it was just one year. I was kind of surprised to find myself out of the league. But the Lord above was telling me to continue to work and that things were happening for a reason. So I stuck with it."

He's a guy you could start and he'd be fine.

– Bulls' Tom Thibodeau

Butler, after 11 seasons with five different teams, signed with Oklahoma City to play in the NBA D-League and logged 31 games with the Tulsa 66ers. But there was no call-up and at age 34, he wound up going to the Las Vegas Summer League to show someone, anyone, what he still had left.

The Indiana Pacers bit, signing him largely as insurance. Butler played less than 10 minutes in 37 of his 50 appearances and scored 10 points or more in just three games. He did carve out a role as an "old head," as they say in the NBA, in the Pacers' locker room, standing with team leader David West to help address chemistry hiccups involving Lance Stephenson, Paul George and Roy Hibbert.

But being mostly a mascot wasn't how Butler wanted to head toward his NBA pension, either. Having seen the Wizards up close during the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring, Butler signed on without a guaranteed deal but swiftly worked himself into a rotation spot. He has led the club in scoring five times and topped 20 four times, including the 22 points he scored all in the second half against Boston and the night he got 18 of his 23 in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.

"The last couple years, he's kind of been relegated at the end [of the bench]," Wittman said. "We had some injuries here and he stepped up and took full advantage for us. He's got the ability to space the floor, which is a big factor for us. On our wings to have guys who can space the floor when John's pushing the ball the way he's been.

"And he's another presence of a guy who's been on good teams and been in situations like we're striving to get to."

Chicago's Tom Thibodeau, who had Butler for part of the 2010-11 season, called him "pretty amazing." "He's a guy you could start and he'd be fine," the Bulls coach said. "You could bring him off the bench. You could not have him in the rotation and then all of a sudden you need him for five games, and he stays ready."

One pragmatic explanation for Butler's late-career impact might be all the sitting he'd done in recent years -- it kept tread on his tires. Wearing that tread down, though, is better.

It's what all players want to do," Butler said. "Obviously, if you're not playing, you want to find other ways to contribute. But we all want to be on the floor and be in the war and be in the mix with our teammates. It's two different worlds. It's a totally different feeling."

That's why, if a dip in hard work is a reason for Washington going sideways lately, more Butler, not less, might be the way to go.

"Everybody's journey is different," Butler said. "You just have to be willing to do whatever you have to do, to continue doing what you love to do."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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