This Bird Has Flown

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 8, 2009 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

Photo by Danny Bollinger.

The Mavs’ playoff hopes are undoubtedly dimmed, but hardly extinguished.  That said, a couple of sore, swollen ankles are hardly the support that a massive comeback needs.

There are plenty of reasons for Mavs fans to be frustrated.  Be frustrated  with the exact timing that brought Chauncey Billups and Josh Howard on a collision course to ANKLE DOOM.  Be frustrated that the Nuggets are not a good matchup for the Mavs, and are playing a completely different level.  Be frustrated that Jason Kidd has swapped brains with your rec league point guard prior to each fourth quarter.

But in spite of all the frustration and disappointment swirling around a team down 0-2, there are essentially two Mavs, in my mind, that get a free pass.  Dirk Nowitzki is one, and for obvious reasons.  The other is Josh Howard.

I’ve seen Josh’s name cursed aplenty, and some of those criticisms have held merit.  But since Howard’s return from injury late in the regular season, I’ve had few problems with his game.  Josh has played far from a perfect stretch, but his rebirth through fire, while still injured, no less, could not possibly have gone any smoother…until this series.

In a lot of ways, Josh hurting his other ankle could actually be worse than aggravating his already existing injury.  At least in that case he’d have one leg on which to stand.  For now, he’s left with two useless stumps that can’t quite plant, a state of limbo that allows him to stand but not move.  He can probably jog up and down the court and do half-effective demonstrations of his normal movements, but asking a player with severely limited lateral movement to keep pace with Carmelo Anthony is just cruel.  Though, it’s worth noting that Carmelo’s narrative seems to unfold in ways similar to Josh’s.  Of course Josh wasn’t birthed into the league with a gold star on his back, he fashioned one of his own to remind the world of what they’re missing.  Both of those stars have been thoroughly challenged by life away from the game and on-court limitations, but Carmelo seems to be genuinely moving into a new phase of his career.

Howard hasn’t evolved (like Melo), he’s merely returned.  I think that’s an important distinction.  Of course, that’s not to say that his return isn’t measured with a certain amount of progress.  Nothing fundamentally Howard has changed, but in demonstrating the willingness to claw out of his scapegoat role, he has demonstrated the very same attributes that made him such a charismatic rookie.  That makes for a pretty significant turnaround from his on-court shift and off-court series of unforunate decisions.  I don’t know if the chip is officially back on Josh Howard’s shoulder, but he sure as hell has been playing like it is.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Josh Howard over his career with the Mavs.  We’ve witnessed his emergence as a defender, a scorer, an All-Star, as a liability, a question mark, and a dilemma.  But the Josh of a year ago is a ghost.  He might still haunt you, but there’s no substance to the specter.  Rather than partying the playoffs away or stirring up controversy, Howard has made absolutely no commotion over his willingness to endure pain, put off surgery, and play hard.  J.J. Barea got his five minutes of fame in the San Antonio series, but make no mistake: the Mavs don’t win that series, and certainly not in five games, if Howard repeats his playoff performance of a year ago.

As basketball fans, we have a tendency to criticize players for what they’re not, rather than appreciate them for what they are.  But this is one of those times where fans on the whole fail to acknowledge either.  Josh isn’t a distraction and he isn’t disgruntled.  He is valuable, productive, and energetic.  Isn’t that enough?  You shouldn’t have expected Josh to grow into LeBron, Wade, or Carmelo.  He’ll just never be as talented or as dynamic as his draftmates.  But right now, he’s doing everything that he can to help this team win games, and that deserves some respect.  His performance and grit have been commendable on their own, but the juxtaposition of the 2008 Josh with the 2009 model makes it that much more impressive.

So I guess what I’m really getting at is this: don’t misconstrue injury for inconsistency or inefficiency.  The mere fact that Josh was on the court when had every reason not to be is a testament to his will and his rebirth.

  • Andytobo

    What annoys me is, first of all, the endlessly hysterical press coverage by the Dallas Morning News sports team, a crew as ready as any in the world to inject bitterness and cynicism into any debate…

    And second of all, the media’s complete inability to notice the intensely obvious fact that the Mavs are a completely different team when Josh Howard doesn’t play at all, or doesn’t play well. It’s not a mystery, or a failure of heart, courage, or imagination when the Mavs can’t beat the second seed in the West without Josh Howard healthier than he is now. It is not being nearly as good a team while playing a really good one. Big shock.

  • Kirk

    I went sour on Josh the moment he declined to participate with the 2008 Olympic team back in 06. He said it was about the kids in his old hometown and wanting to do that camp; I’m sure it was to some extent. But if Josh could’ve been around a group of the best players in the world, spent time with the absolute best and seeing what they do to prepare and make themselves better, I think it would’ve helped him immeasurably in his career. Since 2006, I think we can all agree Josh’s play and off court behavior have ranged from eh to mind numbingly frustrating.

    You make a number of valid points about Josh’s value and importance. That said, I am simply tired of him as a fan. Sure he can be energetic and valuable on the court. But the key word is *can*. His consistency in terms of play and health has worn thin.

    Sure he was never going to be as good as Lebron, but from 03-06 he was an amazing contributer. He gave the team what it needed, someone with grit. 2007 to now he has changed, and become both less effective and less fun to watch. Sure we see the occasional renaissance where he plays D, rebounds, gets his hand on the ball and puts it through the hoop. Too often though we see that terrible shake and bake mid range brick layer who disappears after Q1.

    The team is no where near as good without him. But how do the Mavs improve at all? Is there a peak we haven’t reached? Dirk will be Dirk as his skill set has more to do with his mind and height as opposed to athleticism. Terry knows his role but if anything will only get worse with age. Jkidd is awesome but pricey. Howard is either in his prime or coming off of it.

    We as a fan base have to stop fooling ourselves. This team is one I will support through the hard times, but we’ve got to quit kidding ourselves that there is improvements that can be made without solid draft picks at a decent point in the draft. I love our bench players but JJ and Bass can’t compete with up and comers like Durant and Rose.

    This has turned into a diatribe about the Mavs but Josh is emblematic of our problems. He is good but not great and isn’t going to get better. Just like the Mavs.

  • Kirk

    All of the above I still believe, but his grit tonight has been impressive.