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Butler Serves Lakers Well

One of the few beacons of light in this dreary finishing stretch for the Lakers has been the play of Caron Butler.

He averaged 24.1 points in a nine-game stretch before the Lakers played the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, including three of his four 30-point games of the season. Even though Butler’s shot was off in the Lakers’ 114-112 loss, he still managed to score 10 points, his 17th consecutive game in double figures.

With Lamar Odom sidelined for the final five weeks of the season because of a strained left shoulder and Brian Grant bothered all season by creaky knees, Butler will end up as the most productive scorer of the three players the Lakers received from Miami in the Shaquille O’Neal trade, with an average of 15.6 points. (Of course, that’s 7.4 below O’Neal, but that’s another story).

Ordinarily a 25-year-old playing some of the best ball of his career would be a promising sign for a team’s future. That’s not the case with the Desperate Franchise. At 6 feet 7, Butler is in the middle of a cluster of six Laker players between 6-6 and 6-8.

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The smallest of the group -- the 6-6 Kobe Bryant -- also happens to be the most valuable, leaving the rest in limbo, a bunch of interchangeable or replaceable parts.

Butler has one season left on his contract. If the Lakers don’t sign him to an extension by October, he will become a restricted free agent after next season.

Keeping Butler around long-term would cost the Lakers some of the precious salary cap room they hope to clear by 2007, when Grant’s contract comes off the books and the Lakers have a chance to be players in the free-agent market.

“Hopefully I’ll be here,” Butler said. “I really want to be here. I feel like it’s a great situation. We’ll see what happens. But I definitely want to be here.”

He also realizes that a player in the last year of his contract becomes a more valuable commodity in a trade because it can help another team get under the salary cap.

“Anybody can get traded in this game,” Butler said. “I saw Shaq get traded, saw Michael Jordan get fired [from the Washington Wizards’ front office], I saw a lot of crazy things in this game. So anything can happen. But what I want to do is just continue to play hard and leave it all out there. We’ll see what happens.”

He has developed his routine here, found his spots on the Westside, from strolling the Santa Monica Pier to eating wings at Hooters.

And he has a full appreciation of what it means to be a Laker. He heard the stories from former Lakers Pat Riley and Bob McAdoo, the team president and assistant coach in Miami. Then he got here and experienced it himself.

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“Once you see Magic [Johnson] and [James] Worthy and all those guys come around, you really understand what you’re a part of,” Butler said.

Losing isn’t part of the deal around here. The citizens of Los Angeles are accustomed to two things: sunny days and Laker trips to the Finals. Any prolonged stretches without either and the populace gets cranky.

(Need we remind you that the Lakers dubbed this season “The Year of the Fan”? It sure wasn’t “The Year of the Playoffs.”)

Even with all of the negativity swirling around, Butler didn’t quit. Some players on losing teams get so inactive you can see the screensaver come on.

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Instead Butler brought his scoring average up by a point and a half over the last 15 games, getting it done when the Lakers were still fighting for the eighth playoff spot and after they were eliminated April 5.

“Just continue to play hard,” Butler said. “We played through a lot of adversity. We just hung together and continued to play hard. Don’t slack on the effort. It’s easy to stop playing so hard when you think you have nothing to play for. We’re still playing for each other, we’re still playing for pride, and the Laker organization and the fans that are coming to see us play.”

For Coach Frank Hamblen, Butler’s still approaching his potential.

“His shot has improved,” Hamblen said. “I think his shot selection also has improved. One thing I want to do or tell him is that when he comes back next year, I want him to become a defensive stopper, because I think he has that ability. He has quick hands on the ball, he’s strong, he’s quick, and off the ball he’s very good at anticipating.

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“I think that this could really help his game become even more full. I’d like to put that in his mind. Over the summer, you work on becoming a defensive stopper. So we throw you out there and say, you stop this guy tonight.

“A lot of it’s mind-set. I just want to put that in his mind, for whoever’s here as a coach, the coaching staff, I think it would help him and help them.”

Hamblen looked weary and a little sad, the effects of a long season mixing with the realization that he might not be around next year. It was almost as if he wanted to leave a parting gift.

That’s what Butler’s recent play felt like in this lottery-bound season. A consolation prize.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Butler Does It

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Laker forward Caron Butler has scored in double digits in 17 consecutive games. He has started all 76 games he has played, missing four because of injury or suspension:

*--* Last 17 Average First 59 39.8 Minutes 34.6 21.1 Points 13.7 2.8 Assists 1.6 7.1 Rebounds 5.7

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