Why is Rasual Butler starting?
I've heard that question from so many Raptors fans since the season started that I thought it would be easier to codify my thoughts on the matter rather than try and articulate elsewhere for the umpteenth time. Especially since there is a simple (and justifiable) reason for it and a greater context that people are ignoring.
The easiest answer as to why he's starting is because he plays defence. No, he's not a stopper or a shot blocker, but he plays solid team defence. When Dwane Casey began implementing the new defensive structure that the Raptors were going to employ this season, he needed guys that could just run it without the inconsistencies that a fresh learning curve tends to provide. That's why guys like Jamaal Magloire, Anthony Carter and Butler were brought in this season - to provide the defensive neophytes with some low-mistake veterans to play off of. Butler knows where to be on defence, he knows where to rotate to, how to cover pick-and-rolls, how to handle back screens and how much pressure to apply to a ball handler. If you want an easy comparison to the values of what he brings, watch him play defence and then watch DeMar DeRozan play defence - while DeRozan is working hard to understand what is expected of him, he still makes tons of mistakes. Butler goes unnoticed for the most part because he simply moves to where he needs to be, so the fact that no one notices his play at that end actually speaks well of his performance at that end of the court.
There is another, more situational reason that he's starting right now, too. Until Linas Kleiza gets healthy enough to play consistently, the team has just two small forwards to work with: Butler and James Johnson. Many fans are calling for Johnson to start, but what would that do to the team's bench? In the NBA you need to balance your units so that the drop-off when a coach goes to his second unit doesn't destroy any positive momentum that the starters earned in their time on the court. Obviously Thaddeus Young is a better player right now than Elton Brand, but Philadelphia's second unit needs what Young brings more than the starters do, so he comes off of the bench.
Ditto the Raptors with JJ. Johnson is a sparkplug off of the bench, a guy that uses his energy and hustle to invigorate an otherwise moribund second unit. Leandro Barbosa is shooting worse than he ever has in his career, Ed Davis is struggling to find himself in Casey's system, Anthony Carter and Jamaal Magloire are being overextended relative to what they have left to offer a team and the less said about Gary Forbes at this point the better. If you take Johnson out of that unit and replace him with Butler you have just about the most ineffectual bench in the NBA. The starting lineup can withstand Butler's shortcomings, the bench cannot.
Now, when the Raptors start to get healthy again things will probably change. When Kleiza returns to full strength, he'll probably take on all of Butler's 20 minutes per game. Whether or not he starts or Johnson starts is a question that will take time to answer as Casey will need time to evaluate Kleiza's play, but suffice it to say that the team's sizable three-year investment in Kleiza trumps their meager one-year investment in Butler. Also, when Jerryd Bayless and Aaron Gray return to full strength, the team's second unit won't be quite as ineffectual as it is today, which may allow for the team to insert Johnson into the starting five (that is assuming that those guys prove useful upon their return).
Remember, even a shortened NBA season is a long trek. What makes sense on day one (and starting Butler made sense on day one) won't necessarily make sense on day thirty or day sixty-six. When the season tipped off Johnson was playing aggressive but unsound defence for Casey, which would not have worked in the starting five. Defence is about more than hustle, it's about intelligence. It's about knowing how to read a situation, which is something that Johnson is learning to do but has a ways to go to fully understand. Remember, it took Amir Jonson until right around this year (year seven of his career) to learn how to balance his energy and activity with sound defensive principles. It's wasn't about curbing his enthusiasm on the court, it was about directing it in the most useful way possible.
The same goes for James Johnson. He's all piss and vinegar right now, which is helping him accrue tons of steals and blocks, but it's also contributing to his five fouls per 36 minutes. Johnson needs to pattern his game after guys like Gerald Wallace and Shawn Marion (a player Casey worked with for two years in Dallas), guys who have all of the disruptive talents that he has but also understand the subtler points of defence. They know when to max out their physical gifts but also know when a simple step to the left or right achieves the same effect. Casey is the perfect coach to help him find that balance, and Casey's going to be patient with him while he finds it.
So that's the story of Rasual Butler starting, which is really the story of why Johnson is not starting. This is a developmental year for the Raptors, don't forget, and there are bigger plans for the squad dictating certain decisions behind the scenes. Casey has very particular goals and expectations for what he wants this team to be not only this year but years down the road. Butler is a placeholder in that scheme. He plays the kind of low-mistake defence that the team needs in the starting five and the team lives with his shortcomings in that role (like his belief that he can still hit shots like it was 2009) for the time being. If Johnson continues to work while picking up the nuances of NBA defence then he could be an invaluable piece to Toronto's future, but for now the steadier defensive hand of Butler - shooting woes and all - make more sense in Toronto's starting five.