Butler Earning His Way

Mark Montieth headshot
by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 14, 2013 | 12:45 a.m.

The Pacers weren't exactly holding a spot for Rasual Butler. They already had 13 players on guaranteed contracts, and their payroll was threatening the luxury tax threshold. Most likely, he would just be a warm body for training camp.

Larry Bird had to change his plans, however.

“I was going to keep 13 guys this year,” Bird said on Friday, before Butler made his debut in the Pacers' rotation and helped them rescue a 99-94 victory over Charlotte at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“He made our team. We didn't just keep him. I told him, 'You're the only guy I've had that came in here and I had to keep him, because you were that good.' He was something else in camp. He didn't get to play hardly any in games, but everyday in practice he was wearing these guys out.”

Butler helped wear out the Bobcats, a losing team, but a team on the rise. Playing 23 minutes, 47 seconds – more than anticipated because of Paul George's early foul trouble – he finished with eight points while hitting 2-of-4 three-point shots and added a couple of blocked shots. Just as important, he had just one turnover.

He was a surprise insertion to the rotation, having played just 15 minutes over seven games all season. But something had to be done. Second-year player Orlando Johnson and rookie Solomon Hill were both shooting below 37 percent from the field and below 24 percent from beyond the three-point line, and with Danny Granger's return still on hold – but still imminent – someone was needed to step up and hit a shot now and then.

Enter Butler, the 34-year-old whose NBA career appeared history just a year ago. After playing all 82 games for the Clippers in the 2009-10 season, when he averaged 11.9 points, his career dwindled to nothing last season. He played a total of 47 games for the Clippers and Chicago in 2010-11, then 34 games for Toronto two seasons ago before being released.

Last season, he waited by the phone and worked out to stay sharp. He was led to believe Oklahoma City would add him to its roster for the stretch run, but the Thunder made a trade for Ronnie Brewer instead. So, he did what few players who are the veteran of 637 NBA games could find the humility to do: he jumped into the NBA's Development League. As if a 10-year veteran needed development.

The Tulsa 66ers were 9-10 when he signed on Jan. 16. They went 18-13 the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot. He averaged 17.8 points in 32.7 minutes, and earned the league's Impact Player of the Year award, given to player who joins a D-League team near mid-season and leads a revival.

He was given a spot on the Pacers' Summer League team, but didn't get much of an opportunity in that youth-oriented environment. He wanted to come back to training camp, though, because the trade of Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to Phoenix for Luis Scola had seemingly created an opening for a wing player, and Granger's troubled knee left his status questionable.

But again, he wasn't supposed to make the team, a point coach Frank Vogel reiterated Friday night.

“We thought he'd be one of our camp guys,” Vogel said. “But he played his tail off in September and many days looked like the best player on the court. When we had in training camp, again, he looked like one of the best players.”

Vogel said he's still committed to Johnson and Solomon Hill, but facts are facts. Butler is better than they are at the moment because of his experience and shot-making ability, and this is not a team planning for the future. The young guys will have opportunities again someday, but the Pacers are playing in the present tense. Butler is a career 36 percent three-point shooter, a number dragged down by a hopeless stint in Toronto two seasons ago. He's shot as high as 46 percent with Miami in 2003-04, and he's hit 6-of-10 three-pointers this season.

“I think he's a major plus,” Bird had said earlier in the day. “If he gets in there, he's going to make something happen.”

Butler's stall sits next to that of Lance Stephenson in the corner of the Pacers' locker room. The team's oldest and youngest players have time for a lot of conversation over there, but mostly Butler has led by example.

“I see him working every day,” Stephenson said after scoring 20 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and passing out seven assists against the Bobcats. “I knew he was going to be ready for this game. I tried to get him hyped during shootaround, saying, 'Hey, it's your time! Let's go!' He's just ready at all times.

“He definitely is a great scorer, he's a great leader and he knows how to play the game. He can definitely help us on the second unit.”

David West and Butler were teammates for four seasons in New Orleans, and started dozens of games together. So, West knows what to expect from the old newcomer to the rotation.

“He's going to be solid, and he's not going to hurt you defensively,” West said. “He's not going to go out there and try to be a shot-creator. He's going to get his stuff within the flow of the offense, be in the spot he's supposed to be and run things the way they're supposed to run.”

Whether or not he has a future place in the playing rotation, Butler is just happy to be on a contending NBA team. This is a guy who pours out quotes that appear to have been approved and sanitized by the NBA front office, but you have a strong sense that he means it when he says things like:

“My job is to stay ready to play. Coach Vogel is going to do what's best for this team. We have great leaders in our front office and our coaching staff, so you just have to be ready for whatever decision they make and contribute in any way you can.”

Butler's contract will become guaranteed for the rest of the season on Jan. 7, so the Pacers could cut him loose before then and save some money. But whether Granger returns, whether Johnson and/or Solomon Hill relocate their shots, there's likely going to be a need for a veteran shot-maker who offers the bonus of leadership on the practice court and in the locker room.

It's a long way from the Tulsa 66ers.

“It's a great feeling, man,” he said. “I love the game of basketball. I wasn't going to give up on my dream. It feels really good to be recognized by such a great organization and a great team. Sometimes you go through adversity to become better, to become stronger, to become smarter. Sometimes you have to stick with your journey because you don't know how the story is supposed to end.”