- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS –- The backdoor cut is Josh Howard's best move these days.
He executed it Tuesday night, fleeing the locker room the moment the doors opened to the media, picking up the pace when a reporter asked to chat. He used a similar exit strategy after Wednesday afternoon's film session, blowing off a team PR staffer who informed Howard the media wanted to speak with him for a few minutes.
Maybe Howard just doesn't feel like dealing with a media crew he feels wronged him during his run of remarkable off-court stupidity a couple of years ago. Maybe the moody swingman is bristling about returning to a reserve role or being the subject of trade rumors.
Then again, it isn't as if Howard's performance this season has been worth talking about.
Howard's seventh pro season has been the worst of his career. His scoring average (12.2 points per game) is the lowest since his rookie season. His rebounding average (3.6) and shooting percentage (.386) are well below his previous career lows. When interested in playing defense, he's done that well, but that comes and goes.
The Mavs hoped a healthy Howard would be the piece that made a good team great. The record indicates the reality: He's made minimal impact. Dallas is 16-8 with Howard and 14-7 without him.
At this point, it appears Howard could help the Mavs most as a trade chip, and that has little to do with the former All-Star's talent. He's a $10.9 million expiring contract (team option for next season), making him attractive to financially strapped franchises.
"You have your teammates that are counting on you to do your job," point guard Jason Kidd said of dealing with trade rumors. "The big thing for us veteran guys who have been through it is to make sure that he's on board and that he's focused on doing his job."
Howard's job description has changed since the beginning of the season. He's not the starting shooting guard anymore. Coach Rick Carlisle refers to Howard as the sixth man, which sounds much more important than backup small forward.
There are a couple of legitimate excuses for Howard's struggles. He has missed almost half the Mavs' games while rehabbing after offseason ankle surgery. The transition from small forward to shooting guard to make room for Shawn Marion didn't go smoothly.
And as sixth man, Howard's arrow isn't pointing up. His January production (10.7 points per game on 36 percent shooting) has been horrible.
Yet Carlisle continues to refer to him as a "terrific player." Carlisle compliments Howard's all-around ability and praises his unselfishness.
"Coming off the bench would be something that a lot of guys would not be crazy about, but we've asked him to roll with this, at least for now," Carlisle said. "He's been more than willing to do it. That's big for us."
Carlisle's comments about Howard have to be treated with a degree of skepticism. After their relationship got off to a rocky start, Carlisle has coddled Howard for the last season and a half, going out of his way to avoid saying anything that might bruise the swingman's fragile psyche.
Actions speak louder than words. Howard has averaged 20 minutes in three games as a reserve since a brief stint back in the starting lineup. He watched crunch time from the end of the bench during Tuesday night's win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
He's a player with a diminished role whose days in Dallas are numbered. Whether he'll go out quietly is the question.
As production and playing time dwindle, Josh Howard's time may be running out.