LOS ANGELES -- Before Chris Paul was even a Los Angeles Clipper -- before the terms of the trade to send him to L.A. from New Orleans were even consummated, back when he could've still become an L.A. Laker -- the seven-year NBA veteran spoke at length by phone with the Clippers' general manager, Neil Olshey.
The two men didn't get into a ton of particulars in their conversation. After all, Paul wasn't a free agent; he was a trade target. The purpose of the talk, from the Clippers' perspective, was to gauge his excitement about the possibility of coming to L.A., nothing more. But, in that time, Olshey and Paul also briefly talked about something else that would prove significant over two weeks that followed: Paul's theoretical wish list, were he to join the Clippers.
Atop that wish list was one player: free-agent forward Caron Butler.
Shortly afterward, on the first day NBA teams could talk to free agents, the Clippers spoke to Butler and scheduled a visit. Three days after that, Butler agreed to a deal with the Clippers. A week after that, the Clippers agreed to a deal with New Orleans for Paul.
So, six games into the 2011-12 season, as the schedule is just about to get tough for the Clippers with Tuesday's game at Portland, this much is clear: Butler is not an afterthought; he's far from it. To outsiders, he might be overshadowed a bit in the team's starting lineup by Paul, Blake Griffin and Chauncey Billups, but, as evidenced by recent contests, he's a key cog in making the team function as structured.
"He's a huge part of our team, a huge part of what makes us go," Griffin said after the Clippers' most recent game, a home win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, in which Butler scored a season-high 20 points. "I think people kind of overlook him a little bit, but not us."
Butler, 31, is averaging 14.8 points through six games, his 12 shots per game ranking behind only Griffin and Billups.
"I'm going to get my fair share of opportunities," Butler said after Sunday's game. "I just have to pick and choose my spots.
"Some nights, it might be a quiet 20. Some nights it might be some intangibles on defense. [But I'm] always doing the little things as a utility guy, trying to be the glue guy."
In 29 games with the Dallas Mavericks last season, he hovered around the same numbers he's putting up this year, scoring 15 points per contest. In fact, all of his numbers so far this year are markedly similar to the stats he recorded with the Mavs before rupturing his patellar tendon in his right knee, ending his season on Jan. 1 of last year -- which makes sense, because the Clippers signed him to do much of the same stuff he did in Dallas.
When he's healthy, Butler has almost always been a consistent scorer. In nine seasons as a pro, he's put up fewer than 15 points per game only once and proved to be a near-elite mid-range jump-shooter.
That role fits him quite well with the current Clippers, who have a 3-point shooter in Billups, a driver in Paul and two low-post options in Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan in their starting lineup.
"You have to guard him," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He is going to make shots."
In the Clippers' first five games, Del Negro barely ran anything for Butler, and the 6-foot-7, 228-pound forward ended up shooting 24 3-pointers. Uncharacteristically for him, he was spotting up in corners and waiting for passes for Paul and Billups.
Then, on Saturday against Milwaukee, the Clippers made a point of calling a few left-wing isolations for him in the first half. Some worked and some didn't.
But Del Negro said he will continue to make a concerted effort early this season to get Butler the ball where he is most comfortable. And, with the Clippers playing Portland on Tuesday in Oregon and Miami and the Lakers later this week in L.A., this week brings the first real test as to whether that will work.
"We have to do a better job getting Caron more involved," Del Negro said. "Caron, in that mid-range, we can run things through him a little bit. We've got to find a way to do a better job of getting him some more touches, because he can put a lot of pressure on the defense."
Milwaukee was an intriguing run-through before the tough matchups begin in earnest this week. Missing three key players, the Bucks were inept offensively in Saturday's game but kept themselves alive with lively defense.
They forced the Clippers past the normal things they went to against Golden State and Houston early on this year and to third and fourth options on given plays. Butler was still spotting up, but he was getting the ball in wide-open situations far more frequently and taking advantage of it.
"Against good defensive teams, teams like Miami and the Lakers, that's when you're going to have to execute every option," forward Ryan Gomes said. "Because they're gonna load up on one side and you've got to get it to the other side to get good scoring opportunities.
"We need to be consistent with that."
Butler is still battling back from the ruptured tendon he suffered last year. He makes frequent reference to the difficulty of the recovery process, and it's clear he still experiences some pain in the knee on a day-to-day basis.
But understanding his role isn't difficult. It's clear, and he's embraced what the Clippers want him to do behind Griffin, Paul and Billups this season: Be the guy they can turn to when they need it.
"I have no problem playing off those guys," Butler said. "If they're getting doubled, I have to make teams pay. Make them make the adjustment."