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Quick thoughts on keeping Josh Howard

I was always intrigued by how the Wizards would handle the Josh Howard situation.  In the end, they stuck to the plan and kept him on a one-year contract.  In retrospect, that was a pretty obvious decision based on the way this offseason has played out.  I might want to get that crystal ball fixed.

Anyway, Ernie Grunfeld and company probably made the right move here.  At the end of the day, the investment is minimal and the payoff could be nice.  If you take away last season, when Howard was playing out of position and with one foot out the door in Dallas, here are his career numbers (all per 36 minutes):

  • 17.5 points
  • 7 rebounds
  • 53.2 TS% (okay, that's nothing amazing)
  • 9.2% TO% (that's very good)
  • 17.8 PER
  • 110 Offensive Rating (again, very good)
  • 62 playoff games.
  • Above-average to elite defense (okay, not a stat, just an observation)
Sure, Howard is 30, and sure, he's coming off an injury that could keep him out for the start of the season (though his representative says he's scheduled to be back to full speed by October), but for one year and less than $4 million? That's a steal, on it's face.  If Howard produced at that level this season, how much money he would have gotten this summer?  I'd guess John Salmons money at least.  

(Think about it this way: back last year, would you have rather traded the fifth pick for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, or would you rather have traded it for Josh Howard? Before you answer that, check this thread, because there was some smoke about Dallas moving Josh. I know I would have preferred Josh at the time).

Of course, no roster transaction can properly be evaluated unless it's done with proper context, so while I'm mostly happy about this move, I realize there are complications.  Below the jump, some thoughts on the validity of potential counterarguments to the decision to keep Howard.

In general, I see four potential objections to this move.  

1.  What's the point? Why not make room for younger players?

This is the counterargument I least resonate with.  The Wizards' other small forwards are Al Thornton and (maybe) Cartier Martin.  We're not talking about budding stars being blocked here; we're talking about Al Thornton and Cartier Martin.  As much as the Wizards may like Thornton (and for the record, I like Thornton the person even if I'm not wild about Thornton the player) the fact of the matter is that Thornton is 27 years old and has not shown a ton of improvement since he became a rookie.  Martin, on the other hand, had a good Summer League, but that's it.  (Oh, and I like him too, but those are the facts).  These are not players you worry about blocking; these are players you stick on your roster and hope they surprise you.  

I realize many want to go to a complete youth movement, but neither Thornton nor Martin (who will be 26 in November) are young players.  John Wall is a young player.  Andray Blatche, despite his years in the league, is a young player (he's three years younger than Martin).  JaVale McGee is a young player.  Al Thornton and Cartier Martin are not young players.  So again, who is Howard blocking that has to be given minutes to develop as a future core piece of the team?  Trevor Booker?

2.  Josh Howard isn't the best locker room presence

I realize that Howard doesn't exactly have a squeaky-clean past.  There was that infamous stretch in 2008 when he admitted he smoked marijuana during the playoffs (which is, whatever, but why admit it during the playoffs?), passed out invitations to a birthday party of his in the locker room during the playoffs (same deal), disrespected the national anthem and got arrested for drag racing.  He also reportedly missed a game in Dallas this season because of a hangover (though let me tell you, the timing of that leak was a little too fortuitous for me to believe 100 percent).  

All I'll say is this: in the short stretch where he was healthy, the team played well in part because they responded to his "we're making the playoffs" bravado.  It was probably a bit silly to outsiders, but it was clear the team took after his mentality.  They all played like they had a chip on their shoulder, because Howard himself had a chip on his shoulder.  Now, it's probably a safe bet that wasn't going to continue going forward, but it's still worth noting.  

(And, for what it's worth, John Wall likes the move.  Though that may not be a good thing).

In other words - I get this argument, but it's not my primary concern.  I do get it though, and it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

3.  That cap space could have been put to better use in a BOYD trade at the deadline

Possibly.  The Wizards do still have some cap space (just under $6 million), but having more could potentially have been a huge asset in February, where teams might be dumping a lot of salary.  The flip side is that in Howard and Hinrich, they have two decent guys they can flip to a contender, though that'll likely involve taking back some long-term salary, since I'm guessing most teams won't be too keen on giving up decent young talent for a one-year rental.  

So yeah, I get this argument too.  However, this seems like more of an indictment on the Yi Jianlian trade than anything.  Howard's at least a pretty capable player at a position of need.  Yi, on the other hand, costs more and is significantly worse at a position the team probably doesn't need.  

4.  Howard isn't the best on-court fit

This is the one I worry about most.  The price is too cheap and the potential payoff is too great, but for those talking playoffs right now (and yes, that starting lineup looks good on paper), consider this: who defends (especially on the interior), who rebounds and who hits open perimeter shots on this team? The previous two problems were always going to be there, but now, there is a third problem - the perimeter shooting.  Only one of the Wizards' projected five starters (either Gilbert Arenas or Kirk Hinrich) hits more than 36 percent of his threes over the course of his career.  The long two-pointer stats (16-23 feet) aren't much better either (via HoopData).

  • Arenas: 41 percent
  • Howard (in 2009): 43 percent (actually pretty decent, but a career high)
  • Blatche: 39 percent (a career high)
  • McGee: 14 percent
(Note: Hinrich is consistently in the low 40s, so he's good there).

Howard's clearly got the best pedigree of any small forward on the market, but I think it's an issue when your small forward can't space the floor.  In Gilbert Arenas and John Wall, you have two guards who are potentially among the best in the league at breaking people down off the dribble (Arenas when he was healthy, Wall in Summer League).  It would make sense to sign some spot-up shooters, then, to maximize that skill.  And yet, the other three starters aren't great deep shooters, and the only way for Flip Saunders to really get that floor-spacing unit in there is to go ultra-small and play Arenas, Wall and Hinrich together.  That's why I was clamoring for a younger player like Dorell Wright or Anthony Morrow, because those guys can really open things up for Wall and Arenas (and unlike Mike Miller, they'll actually pull the trigger).

And before you ask, yes, I realize this team should (key word, should) score a bunch in transition, but to do that, they have to rebound and defend, which will both be issues.  That leaves half-court execution, and not having good shooting hurts there.

I'm quibbling though.  At the end of the day, there isn't much risk in keeping Josh Howard, and the reward could be nice.  He's here only for one year, with a contract that probably has a lot of incentives, and he's probably motivated to remind people why he was once one of the better small forwards in basketball.