Josh Howard used to be many things to many people: a draft snub, an energetic scorer, a solid shooter, an athletic defender, a problem child, a diva, a falling star, a trade chip. But the nearly unanimous sentiment in the Dallas media and fan base now regards him as a universal scapegoat, and the one man that stands between the Mavs and true contention.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Josh Howard is on his way out of Dallas. In one form or another, Josh will likely find himself playing in other colors next season. It’s just a reality constructed by the state of the franchise (and the economic times), Josh’s poor play, and the Mavs’ personnel and opportunities. But the great irony of it all is this: If Josh Howard’s career in Dallas has been marked by one thematic constant, it’s been his immaturity, and yet Josh is dealing with the trade rumors and his fluctuating role on the team like an absolute professional.
When I talk about Josh’s immaturity, don’t misunderstand my meaning. For instance, in his rookie season, it’s Josh’s game that was immature. He had no jumpshot to speak of, his defense relied on length and athleticism rather than technique (which isn’t a bad thing really, just less “sophisticated”), and his offense was based purely on slashes to the rim and put-backs.
In the second stage of his career, Josh stumbled into a few pitfalls. His on-court approach had changed entirely behind a new and improved jumper, but he soon grew complacent on both ends of the court. Being named an All-Star in 2007 was, in many ways, one of the worst things that could’ve happened for Josh’s career; his lone AS appearance won’t influence his legacy in any kind of meaningful way, but there seemed to be pretty demonstrative effects on his play. After all, one of the league’s best and brightest can’t be troubled with hustling on defense when scoring output is what caused the Cult of Howard to grow. The people want to see the ball go through the basket, not good and proper defense, and it’s that kind of populist mindset that guided Josh Howard’s adolescent career. Oh, and that’s saying nothing of the drug admission, the drag racing, the off-color (on-color?) comments on the national anthem.
But now, there’s an entirely new Josh. On the court, he’s been awful. The game against Golden State offers the slightest light, but it’s hardly enough to lead the way. Howard’s days as a Maverick centerpiece and a cherished son of Dallas are essentially over, and based on what we know and have seen of Josh over the last six and a half years, you’d almost expect something other than what he’s offering: complete and utter professionalism. Josh Howard has grown up right before our very eyes, and though he’s having the roughest on-court stretch of his entire career, this is the mature Josh that Mavs fans have always demanded.
“I never said I don’t want to be here,” Howard told NBA.com. “It’s as much a shock to me. I’ve only played  games. I haven’t even got to two months [worth of games] yet. I don’t know why everybody is ganging up on me.”
“I’m just doing whatever the coaches want me to do,” Howard said. “They didn’t give me a reason why they ain’t starting me, so I don’t know. I ain’t been cussing, I ain’t been fussing, I ain’t been tripping.”
“I don’t know what [the team's] plans were for me,” Howard said. “All I did was buy into whatever they had for me. I came back earlier than what I should have, then I had to sit down. I rehabbed and did everything they wanted to do, and came back to the bench and did what I was supposed to do. I started again and then they came to me and told me to sit on the bench again. It ain’t me. I know it ain’t me.”
Mark Cuban, who’s never been shy in speaking his mind, was unequivocally positive in his praise of Howard’s attitude. Josh, despite some serious baiting, refuses to bite on trade rumor talk. He’s had just about every opportunity imaginable to voice all kinds of displeasure (whether it be frustration with his role, the rumors, or his own play), but Josh is playing it cool. Maybe it’s just the eerie calm of a man lying on his deathbed, but it’s an admirable calm nonetheless.
It’s impossible to pin down what the future holds for Josh Howard and the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs are left with plenty of questions following their struggles in January, and trading Josh may be the answer. But even if Howard’s days as a Maverick are numbered, the circumstances of his departure will certainly be unique; Dallas won’t be shipping out Josh Howard for admitting to using marijuana, or planning a birthday bash during the playoffs, or even for taking one too many pull up jumpers in transition. They’ll be trading him because the Mavs need to do something, and despite the maturity Josh has shown of late, they may not be in a position to wait for him to turn it around.