PHOENIX – Caron Butler finds himself in what seems — based on self-assessment, anyway — to be the right place.
“I love challenges,” the 11-year NBA veteran said in an interview conducted about six weeks before the opening of training camp for a team that finished last in the Western Conference last season.
And with the Phoenix Suns going full speed into the rebuilding process, quite a few national experts are predicting little change in their spot in the standings this season. For Butler, who played for a divisional champion last season, this dovetails perfectly with his history.
“Throughout my life, I’ve always been through a lot of adversity — particularly off the court,” the Suns’ small forward – acquired in July from the Los Angeles Clippers in the big deal that also brought Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix – said following a fashion show to unveil the team’s new uniforms. “Basketball is a reflection of life for me.”
At the age of 15, Butler was a kid on the wrong path. Growing up in Racine, Wis., making the wrong choices resulted in 15 arrests and time served in detention. That’s where he developed a love for hoops.
After going to a prep school, Butler became a star at Connecticut and was selected by the Miami Heat with the 10th pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. Now, after 11 seasons, he’s respected enough to have been chosen to participate in an NBA leadership conference conducted during the summer league in Las Vegas.
As the oldest player on the Phoenix roster, Butler now faces the greatest leadership responsibilities of his career.
“The adversities I went through earlier in life helped prepare me for this role where I can talk to the younger guys,” he said. “You know, if you have a bad game — if you went 0 for this — or if you didn’t get the right call …
“I’ve been around enough basketball and enough coaches and enough great players to have learned some things.”
The first thing he hopes to impart in discussions with his new, impressionable teammates is the ability to ignore outside distractions. An example of such a distraction is a recent ranking of NBA teams that predicts the Suns will hit bottom in the Western Conference for a second consecutive season. While some draft-motivated Suns fans wouldn’t mind if that occurred, those involved with the actual on-court operation refuse to surrender to such notions.
Butler welcomes the provocation potential inherent in negative predictions.
“I use any and everything to motivate me,” said Butler, who averaged 10.4 points and about three rebounds in 24 minutes per game for the Clippers last season. “But, you know, other people’s opinions don’t really matter.
“I think it’s the pulse of the locker room and how we feel about each other, and as long as we function on one accord, play hard and play together with a lot of effort, good things will happen. That’s what it’s all about.”
As the rare Suns player with the capacity to help space the floor – he knocked in 39 percent of his 3-pointers last season – Butler certainly has a function beyond locker-room sage. His new teammates include a couple of perimeter-based orbital types with little history of success as deep shooters. Bledsoe showed signs of improvement in limited attempts last season, and rookie two guard Archie Goodwin shot much better in seven summer league games than he did from the shorter line as a freshman at Kentucky.
The Suns do return a player with realistic small forward chops in defensive stopper P.J. Tucker, but their roster also features a couple of forwards with little evidence of competence as long-range shooters or off-the-bounce defenders. So, with an expiring contract and enough gusto remaining to boost another team’s playoff push, Butler has value here — and elsewhere around the league.
Whatever happens, he sounds prepared to keep moving forward … and further away from the kid who found so much trouble back in Racine.
“It goes like this,” Butler said, snapping his fingers to represent how quickly he’s progressed from NBA rookie to cagey veteran. “I just saw Amar’e (Stoudemire) the other day … wow, it seems like yesterday we were rookies in the 2002 draft class.
“You know, it’s a blessing. I’m in a good season in my life. I’m in a great place. I look forward to the challenge.”