Don't count Caron Butler out of playoffs
Mavs forward doing everything he can to return from knee injury ahead of schedule
DALLAS -- As a reclined Caron Butler was being slid into the cylindrical hyperbaric chamber like a tray of cookies into an oven -- a scene the science fiction-inclined mind might have imagined as Butler being eased into a smoke-filled compartment to be cryogenically frozen for a generation -- the flat screen attached to the top of the clear, sterile tube flashed on an episode of "Friday Night Lights."
"I've watched everything from 'Friday Night Lights' to '[Beverly Hills] 90210,'" said the Dallas Mavericks small forward, outfitted in medical scrubs while entering the $170,000 chamber that would soon become pressurized as if having plunged him 35 feet under the sea.
Last week's visit was Butler's 27th voyage inside the mystical healing machine since a Jan. 4 surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee. He sustained the devastating injury on New Year's Day in front of family and friends during a game at Milwaukee, a stone's throw from his hometown of Racine, Wis.
Butler comes to the Texas Sports Medicine facility -- where team doctor T.O. Souryal performed the surgery -- to spend an hour and 15 minutes sequestered with his videos inside the oxygen-rich chamber. It is said to accelerate the healing process by one-third to one-half.
"It's helped me tremendously. I went from not being able to walk to getting into the water and being real mobile around here," Butler said at a recent Mavs practice. "I think a lot of that contributes to the hyperbaric chamber. When I come out, I feel looser. I feel like I can play."
But he can't. Not yet. Not for some time.
"They tell me to be patient," Butler said. "Just be patient."
It's hard, very hard, especially when he feels this good, this pain-free after such a short period of time. Hours after the surgery, the Mavs issued a news release saying that Butler is expected to miss the rest of the season. Because of the severity of the injury and the four- to six-month recovery period associated with it, most interpreted "rest of the season" to mean Butler would not be in uniform during the regular season or postseason.
Butler is not most. Now seven weeks into a recovery and rehab that Mavs head athletic trainer Casey Smith describes as progressing in the "best-case scenario" -- meaning he has hit every timetable with exemplary results -- Butler is even more confident that he will return for the playoffs.
When a reporter projected a possible return date to be around mid-May and surmised that he could be ready for a potential Western Conference finals series, Butler, churning away on a stationary bike, nearly stopped pedaling.
"West finals?" Butler blurted, so incredulously that you could almost hear him follow up with an "Are you crazy?"
Instead, Butler restrained his enthusiasm and said "I'm trying to get back sooner."
The Mavs' medical staff doesn't attempt to dial back Butler's goal, but they have to take a more measured and cautionary stance with his rehab. They don't deny that he could possibly make it back for the start of the playoffs or for any part of the playoffs, but they aren't making any guarantees either.
"All we can do is take each step and assess how he's doing at that step," Smith said. "To say that in 4½ months he's going to be doing this, that's not fair to him or the doc or us because he has to do it gradually up until then. It's great motivation. Positive attitude goes such a long way. His attitude is unbelievable, and it's not manufactured. That's the biggest thing that I've seen that he has a big advantage."
Butler has been a fixture in and around the Mavs' locker room on game days as well as off days. He works out with Mavs trainers Monday through Friday, grinding through a variety of strength-building exercises and cardio workouts, such as the stationary bike.
Last week provided a milestone as he entered Phase 3 of six in his rehab process by taking his first stroll on the underwater treadmill.
"His muscle tone is pretty good, considering everything he's been through," said Smith, who has spent multiple offseasons as a member of the Team USA medical staff. "He's at the point now where he feels so good he wants to do more. But our job now is he still has to protect what Dr. Souryal repaired. So there are still timetables. He's doing as much as he can within those confines."
During pregame warm-ups before Wednesday's home game, Butler was pounding away on the stationary bike, lost inside the sounds emanating from his Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. He was oblivious to the media presence circling Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who was getting in his usual pregame workout on the stair-stepper some 20 yards away.
"Caron is a rehab beast," Cuban said later. "His progress has been amazing."
But on this night it was just as well that Butler was pedaling inside a soundproof bubble, because the topic was Thursday's 2 p.m. CT trade deadline. Butler said he believes he will remain with the Mavs, and even re-sign when he becomes a free agent, but he knows his $10.8 million expiring contract is Cuban's top asset if the owner wants to trade it in for immediate help.
"It's a nice, sizable expiring contract," Butler said. "But to get a guy that's definitely coming back healthy -- that's not an issue -- an All-Star-caliber player, it's tough all the way around. They've got to look at everything, but I think it [staying in Dallas] is the perfect fit for me."
Cuban didn't make any declarative statements one way or the other regarding Butler's immediate future, but it is clear that Butler likes it in Dallas. And the Mavs -- from Cuban to coach Rick Carlisle to Dirk Nowitzki -- have come to appreciate Butler's edgy style, his work ethic and his all-in attitude.
Butler said all contract talk is in the back of his mind.
Getting back on the floor for the start of the playoffs -- for the Mavs or whomever -- is at the forefront. As he slides into the hyperbaric chamber, that's all he knows.
"That's my goal," Butler said. "It was a realistic goal, and it still is."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.