On the court, Josh Howard lives and dies by his emotions. That much is certain. His highest peaks are brimming with confidence and joy, and his lowest valleys are shadowed by self-doubt and disinterest. It’s an influence that goes beyond momentum; Howard’s emotions inevitably force him into a series of positive feedback loops, self-sustaining spirals that intensify and reinforce themselves over time.
I’m no Al Gore, but I do play one on a blog; positive feedback loops are one of the main reasons that global warming (which may or may not exist, ha) is so damning. Regardless of efforts to control and limit humanity’s impact on climate change, such loops cause huge complications because they exacerbate events that have already occurred. I think what I’m trying to say is that Josh Howard’s propensity to fall into feedback loops is a direct cause of global climate phenomena.
Don’t worry, I’m not here to preach…or talk about anything that’s not related to up-and-down Maverick swingmen. Howard’s ‘heart on his sleeve’ approach to the game makes him incredibly susceptible to positive feedback. He is in a constant state of building upon the foundation of his success or crumbling under the weight of a tremendous burden. It’s a problem that has lingered on the minds of Mavs fans for a long time, but there is one interesting note: the inciting forces of Howard’s career have largely been external:
It’s not as if Josh’s career has consisted of one giant cycle of behavior. His early career was characterized by nightly demonstrations of athleticism, hustle, and energy, a culmination of the rage of a man denied what he deemed rightfully his: a spot in the 2003 Draft lottery. It should come as no surprise that Howard’s determined play earned him consistent minutes and a concrete role on the team, which only fueled his confidence and provided him a bigger soapbox to voice the world’s transgressions against him. Howard thrived and, in turn, the Mavericks thrived.
Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Howard had earned a reputation as a premier defender, but that status faded as he became more of an offensive threat. Defense is the work of peasants, and obviously something that emerging stars simply cannot be bothered with. Next came the jumpshots: crossover pull-ups, turnaround fadeaways, and contested jumpers in transition. Becoming an All-Star talent meant taking All-Star shots, degree of difficulty be damned. Lovely.
All of that was manageable, but then a mini-slump was amplified by the death of Josh Howard’s mentor/father-figure and college coach at Wake Forest, Skip Prosser, his god-grandmother, and his great-grandmother. Then, with the grieving Howard at his most vulnerable, the Mavs traded his closest friend on the team (Devin Harris) to the New Jersey Nets. So much for support structure.
The 2008 calendar year was about injuries and bad press for Howard. His on-court troubles were trumped by his inability to keep his name out of the headlines, but injuries hobbled the Mavericks’ “most important player” and rendered him almost completely ineffective as he struggled to return to form.
Enter 2009, where a rejuvenated Josh Howard is finally finding himself. Howard’s recovery from his various ailments still had Howard tentative in his approach, an issue that wasn’t resolved until…the Mavericks brought on Darrell Armstrong as an assistant coach. Does it make a lot of sense? No, not really, but maybe all Howard needed was a familiar face and veteran influence to adjust his basketball compass.
Howard’s post-Armstrong stats may not blow your mind. They are, in effect, only marginal upgrades over his early season performances. But his scoring is up, and his shot attempts are down. His free throw attempts are back up, and his turnovers are back down. He’s posting season-highs in February for steals and blocks. More importantly, he looks like he actually wants to be here. Late last season, Josh Howard played basketball like it was his job. He went through the motions, got his paycheck, and went home. Considering the circumstances, I don’t blame him. What matters going forward is that Josh is finding joy in the game, and anyone watching the Mavericks lately can see that spring in his step once again.
It’s strange that Howard’s rise and fall are due to events that have very little to do with basketball: his own reputation, deaths to those closest to him, the distancing of a good friend, and reuniting with an old mentor. Upon further inspection, though, should it really surprise us that an emotional, sensitive, and aware player is so affected by events outside his control?
With Josh’s confidence booming, his offensive mentality less passive, and his defensive intensity higher than I’ve seen from Josh in the last two years, I’d say things are looking up. One can only hope that unlike all things Mavericks these days, Josh’s return is more than a mirage. If so, a vintage Josh Howard coupled with a fully-recovered Jason Terry only makes this team that much more formidable and that much more interesting.