Top 50: Josh Howard, no. 49
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
The classic form of the tragic hero always has one flaw that ultimately brings about his downfall. For Othello it’s his unyielding jealousy, Macbeth succumbed to his blinding ambition and King Lear struggled with his egotism. For Josh Howard, it is his propensity for full disclosure. While these character faults may have led to an eventual tragic ending for the literary lead men mentioned above, the jury is still somewhat out on the Mavericks swingman.
While Howard’s numbers have always been good at every turn of his career, he hasn’t always gotten his due and it’s hard not to think that the off the court issues haven’t had something to do with that. As an elite player coming out of Wake Forest, the former Demon Deacon slipped to the bottom of the first round in 2003 where Dallas was waiting with open arms. Since joining the League, there have been some questionable comments, such as the remarks he made in 2008 in regards to his recreational use of marijuana and the national anthem debacle later that same year. All this has served to do is mask a remarkable basketball player behind the regrettable façade of a troublemaker.
Howard’s constant hustle and effort belie his physical giftedness as an athlete. He offers everything a GM could want in a perimeter player: size, length and quickness. Yet, there he is, just as likely to dive on the floor for a loose ball as he is to sky for a thunderous dunk in transition. Perhaps in that way Howard is less like the tragic heroes of Shakespearian lore, but draws more parallels with the most polarizing of characters from Homer’s The Iliad, the legendary Achilles.
The greatest warrior of his time (we’re told) and said to be the bravest of all men, rarely do Achilles actions reflect his reputation, at least when not fighting away on the field of battle. The reverse would be true for the “reputation” that Howard has earned in the public eye: a tremendously gifted, weed-smoking athlete, who hustles like he’s the 12th man on the bench getting his compensatory two minutes of playing time in a 30-point blowout.
Then there is the inherent value of the mere presence of these individuals. The Greeks believed they would be unsuccessful in their attempts to sack Troy without the help of Achilles, even though their army featured some of the greatest warriors in literary history. The same can be said for the Mavericks, who despite boasting a collection of talented players, including one of the premier offensive weapons the NBA features in Dirk Nowitzki, were only given a strong chance of beating the Spurs in last year’s playoffs with the understanding that Howard would be healthy and ready to perform.
Notice I’m not drawing parallels between Achilles dying as a result of an arrow to his heal and Howard dealing with ankle issues – that would be too easy. But it should be noted that having their sixth year swingman in the lineup did provide Dallas with a tremendous psychological boost against San Antonio. Is it a coincidence that the Mavs won 64 percent off their games with Howard during the regular season versus only 56 percent without? No, not at all, but the difficult thing about Howard is that his intrinsic value can’t necessarily be quantified by looking at the numbers.
Yes he can score in a variety of ways, yes he can rebound well from the perimeter and yes he is a solid defender, but Howard’s place on this list is due more to what Dallas lacks when he isn’t on the floor. Howard helps keep the heat off Dirk by being another scoring threat on the floor. Howard allows Dallas to keep Jason Kidd on the floor even though the aging veteran can’t cover a broomstick, because he can cover the opposition’s elite perimeter player night in and night out. Perhaps most importantly for this year, given the offseason acquisition of Shawn Marion, he presents the necessary versatility to move around in the starting rotation.
Having lined up as the small forward for the majority of his time in Big D, Howard will almost assuredly be relegated to playing the off-guard spot for a significant amount of the time he is on the floor. That doesn’t mean he won’t shift back to the three when Marion is cooling his jets, but The Matrix will have first dibs on that spot. So therein lays one of the potential reasons why it is Howard drops 12 spots in this year’s list. Maybe we’re anticipating some growing pains playing at a new position (even though there isn’t much between the two and the three), maybe there are concerns about how well Howard will recover from offseason ankle surgery. Maybe his simple absence from a good part of last season has made us forget how good he can be.
Regardless of how or why Howard slipped this year, the mere fact of the matter is he belongs on this list because of how much his team’s success is tied to him. There are a plethora of great “secondary” players in the League, but few carry the x-factor label like he does and few have sparked as much controversy. Is Dallas’s most controversial star destined to succumb to his own shortcomings and be remembered for what could have been rather than what was? Hopefully no, but there’s little question that with training camp on the horizon this protagonist will likely be serving another lead role in his own literary drama.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
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