Commentary

Best time to move Howard might be later

If Mavs can't get deal now that makes total sense, they should hold out until offseason

Updated: February 3, 2010, 11:37 AM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

Maybe someday Dallas-Fort Worth basketball fans will look back fondly on the Josh Howard era. Just don't hold your breath.

For the moment, it's far easier to look ahead and imagine that in saying goodbye, Howard may finally do something to help the Mavs win.

Nor does it take a telescope, a psychic or even a particularly astute sports writer to see that farewell looming ever closer.

[+] EnlargeJosh Howard
Danny Bollinger/NBAE/Getty ImagesJosh Howard is averaging 11.8 points in 26.2 minutes per game, both his lowest marks since his rookie season.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a Mavs future beyond this season with Josh still in it. If he's not dealt by the Feb. 18 trade deadline, he'll almost certainly be packaged, perhaps with Erick Dampier, in an offseason deal that allows the Mavs to go after one of the premier free agents such as Chris Bosh or -- be still my beating heart -- even LeBron James.

Before your eyebrows scrape the ceiling, remember this: Never underestimate Mark Cuban's passion to win.

The question before the house is whether Cuban can rein in his frustration and his inclination to spend his biggest chip now in an effort to make his team better -- knowing it won't be enough to overtake the Lakers but might take the Mavs deeper into the playoffs -- or hold onto it in hopes of an even bigger, better payoff this summer.

If it's an NBA title that Cuban wants, he needs to hold his cards close and play for the jackpot this summer. Dirk doesn't just need any old sidekick; he needs another superstar partner.

Oh, did I mistakenly say "era" in relation to His Joshness? That's being overly generous, of course. What was supposed to be an era, a time when Howard would pair up with Dirk to lead the Mavs to multiple NBA titles, has instead faded away into lost hopes and distant dreams.

The knee-jerk reflex is to bash the Mavs for holding onto Howard too long and not getting rid of him long before now, or for giving him that four-year, $42 million extension in October 2006 in the first place. A couple of facts keep getting in the way of my indignation, though.

First, he averaged just under 19 points a game for the next three seasons after the contract extension. Yes, you can legitimately ask how many of those points were scored in the fourth quarter, but 19 a game is still 19 a game. Second, the Mavs were astute enough to structure the deal with an option year and are in position to take advantage of his expiring contract at the perfect time, when a number of superstar players are about to become free agents.

Or as one NBA source said, "It's having your cake and eating it, too."

The Mavs can offer a team a 29-year-old former All-Star who might return to form with a change of scenery, and if that doesn't work out, then there's the potential financial savings with the expiring contract.

Just watch out for the sugar rush.

"Our focus is not taking a step back this year," general manager Donnie Nelson said.

So the Mavs will weigh their options carefully as the deadline approaches.

We've all heard the names that are out there. Some are legit, some aren't. Forget about Kevin Martin at Sacramento and Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala. They are both good, young players, but they are on rebuilding teams who aren't likely to trade either of them.

Washington's Caron Butler makes some sense, and the Mavs have interest there. Butler, who'll turn 30 in March, and Howard are -- were -- comparable players, both in age and size, and that's important to the Mavs.

If they trade Howard, they need an athletic, rangy, 6-foot-7 type back. If they trade Dampier, they'd better get a center in return. They're not going far into the playoffs with just Drew Gooden playing center.

But that brings me back to my original argument. If Butler isn't going to push this team over the top, doesn't it make more sense to hold onto Howard and Dampier in hopes of hitting the ball out of the park with one big swing this summer?

Does anyone really think this Mavs team, which Cuban claims is just "bored," is going much of anywhere this postseason?

You could make the argument, in fact, that holding onto Howard in hopes that, now that he's finally healthy, he may once again become the second option in the Mavs' eternal quest to find someone besides Dirk they can count on. Note that I said you could make that argument, because I won't.

What the Mavs have learned, painfully, is that Josh Howard is a very complicated individual. And not in a good way.

Howard is like a finely tuned Ferrari. When everything's perfectly tuned, he'll hum along just fine. The flip side is that any little thing can put him off his game. Injury, perceived insult, hurt feelings, too many seeds in his Mary Jane, you name it, it doesn't take much to put him in a snit.

Fact is, he's been in almost a permanent snit since he found himself under scrutiny and facing criticism for his off-hand remarks about his pot-smoking habits on radio in April of 2008, followed by his disappointing dissing of the national anthem, caught on cell phone video, the following September. Insiders privately refer to those incidents as Josh's "summer of discontent."

Unfortunately for the Mavs, it's turned out to be something of an endless summer.

There's an end in sight, however. For all his talent, all his ability and all their faith in him, the Mavs have learned that, more often than not, Howard simply isn't there when they need him most.

So they will carefully dissect all offers -- yes, the phones are ringing -- and study their hole cards carefully. If the right offer comes in -- a player who can help them get deeper into the playoffs this year with the kind of talent that might be useful in a future trade -- they won't hesitate.

But they must also keep their eye on the bigger prize. Their Kevin Garnett, their Pau Gasol, might be just around the corner this summer if they can stay patient and flexible.

They've waited this long. Now is not the time to trade their prized cow for a handful of beans.

Jim Reeves is a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and will be a frequent contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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