Where It's At: Howard trade scenarios

We’re officially three weeks until the NBA trade deadline and every team will diligently investigate ways to improve their situation by February 18th whether they’re “actively shopping” any of their players or not.

It’s a daily operation. It’s also wildly fascinating for us outsiders to track and speculate about that NBA constant. It’s a little something our ESPN homeboy Marc Stein likes to call “The Transaction Game.”

It was at this time last week when Stein wrote about Dallas’ apparent interest in Sacramento’s Kevin Martin, with Josh Howard and his potentially expiring contract (the club holds an $11.8 million dollar option for the 10-11 season) as the foundation of the offer. Most folks closely tied to those beats, including Stein, don’t think such a deal would actually go down as Sacramento is not likely to part with a guy who can fill it up for mere salary cap relief.

But that’s why the Howard situation is very intriguing when it comes to trade scenarios. This guy is 29 years old and a former All-Star. Isn’t his value to a team more than just “financial relief?” My speculation would be that at his current level of play, Howard is simply not worth the money he’d be owed next season.

He’s still a valuable player for a really good team, and has at times this season been a huge contributor to some really big wins. But the Mavericks need a consistent Howard of two seasons ago. Not a 12 point/3.5 board guy shooting below 40 percent. That kind of play nets you John Salmons money on the open market. Or around half of what Howard is scheduled to make if the club picks up the option in the summer.

So the dilemma, based on the current economic climate of the NBA and other trades that have gone down in the last couple of years, would be that his value as an expiring contract has exceeded his value as a player simply because of the amount of money he’s making. Again, if Josh is making half that, you’re ecstatic to have him as a rotation player even at his current production-level.

But sadly, that’s no longer a reality. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that Josh will revert back to his old self in terms of consistently high production. And that means his trade value couldn’t possibly get any higher than the next three weeks.

If a team acquired him now, he’d have a fresh start and two months to show that he was worthy of coming back and playing out another “contract season” in 10-11 at the $11.8 salary number – something that is highly unlikely to happen here based on what we’ve seen thus far.

Even if his new team didn’t pick up the option for next season, they’d still maintain his Bird rights and could easily do a sign-and-trade deal similar to how the Mavericks acquired Shawn Marion this off-season. Marion received a starting salary a little above the Mid-level Trade Exception amount. I’d imagine that’s what an unrestricted Josh Howard would be looking at this summer.

Then there’s the popular idea that Dallas will keep Howard, presumably pick up his option, and then package him along with Erick Dampier's non-guaranteed contract, picks, cash and maybe even Roddy Beaubois for a blockbuster deal in which Dallas takes back around $25 million of game-changing super-stardom. Then said team simply cuts Damp and is not beholden to his $13 million of '10-11 salary.

But there’s a rub there. No matter what the wild example you come up with to package those guys to get a LeBron James, Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson plus one of that team’s bad contracts, that team will still be paying Howard $11.8 million next year. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you combine it with shipping off your franchise player.

Wild example: Howard, Dampier and Roddy B for LeBron James, Delonte West and Boobie Gibson’s bad contract. Now ask yourself, why exactly do the Cavs want to pay Josh almost $12 million next year to accommodate James? Wouldn’t they just be better off shipping Lebron and Boobie for say Damp, Eduardo Najera (assuming the Mavs don’t waive him before July 1 for around $1 million in savings), Roddy B, picks and cash? They save way more money, actually have way more cap room and still get the only assets they’d truly want out of that deal. If they even wanted Howard they could probably use their cap space to sign him for $6.5 million a year and still have space left over.

Maybe I’m too far out of the loop to get it. Maybe teams can’t wait to get their hands on next year’s expiring contracts this upcoming summer. But I’d imagine that if any of those wildly fantastical scenarios do present themselves this summer, I don’t see Howard being as big an asset to get the deal done as people are suggesting.

You could convince me that package will help you get Bosh and Jose Calderon done, if that opportunity did in fact present itself. But that seems like an extremely specific reason to pick up Howard’s salary for next season. And Joe Johnson? Atlanta doesn’t even have any really bad contracts unless you think the $30 million owed Marvin Williams over the next four seasons is awful enough to take on Howard at almost twice the money for next year.

As Stein astutely pointed out on our hour-long trade roundtable on GameNight last week, the most likely target for the “Dampier” deal probably hasn’t even materialized yet. And that means enjoying the waiting game. Perhaps “enjoy’ is the wrong word.

So let’s go further off the deep end, shall we? Here’s a scenario using widely published salary numbers that we believe to be right in which trading Howard now has absolutely zero impact on whatever your fantasy miracle acquisitions would be this summer. Larry Coon’s tweet that, “Even with Arenas' suspension, Wiz are over tax threshold by $5.07 mil,” got my trade checker heated up in a big way.

Let’s say the speculation about Washington moving any and everybody for the right price is actually true. The reality is we don’t know what Ernie Grunfeld is thinking, but that ruins this portion of the column so let’s ignore all that, aiight?

Would Dallas be willing to add another $10 million to this year’s bottom line in order to swap Howard for Caron Butler - two guys with very similar contracts in amount and length who have both seen better days and could both use fresh starts?

Just workshoppin’ it here, but do you think either team would be down for swapping Howard, Drew Gooden and James Singleton for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson? Then in a separate deal Dallas acquires Fabricio Oberto for the trade exception they received in their deal with Jersey a few weeks back.

Dallas would hate to give up Gooden because he’s been a high energy guy off the bench and a great spot starter whenever Damp can't go. He also has a vastly different game to Damp’s, especially offensively. But Haywood has been very productive in this contract season so they’d get a valuable post player back, even if his game approximates Damp’s as opposed to complements it.

Singleton could shoot the deal down, as he’s in the same Early Bird situation that Devean George was in when he torpedoed the original Jason Kidd deal a few years back. But my dealings with him make me think he just wants to be in a situation where he could get some burn and he’s probably well-aware that he’d be better served to go with the flow on this one. Consider adding Stevenson and Oberto the price of doing business.

This move would be about getting Butler who is currently playing at a substantially higher level than Howard and has a virtually lateral contract with one year remaining at $10.8 million next season. He’s a solid defender and a good passer and the dude gets to the line. There’s also very few summer trade scenarios you could concoct that would involve Howard that you couldn’t just substitute Butler for and make work the same way. In this trade, Dallas acquires nothing but good defenders as well.

Why would Washington even consider making this deal? Because the difference in salary for this season once you swap all those players is approximately $5.5 million. And due to the Arenas suspension, that’d be enough to put them under the luxury tax threshold for this season and net them an additional $5 million rebate for being under. A $10 million swing for a team racing to the John Wall sweepstakes is eye-opening.

It would also shave around $14 million off next season’s payroll (assuming they don’t pick up Howard’s option) and put them in the $40 million range depending on where their draft pick is and which of their free agents they renounce the rights to. That’s about where Oklahoma City and Minnesota will be and that gives them plenty of room to partake in the free agent game this summer.

It would be a radical and expensive move for a Mavericks team currently in the top three in the West to make. But it would also likely jolt a team that is often searching for a spark and charge up an antsy fan base that senses that despite the nice record, something is amiss here.

I mean this with all sincerity; I think it’d be a great move for Josh. He needs a change of scenery. He is way better than he’s playing this year. I’m not going to speculate as to why he’s not reaching his potential here, I just know that he’s not. I know the guy and I know his game. I want him to be one of the main guys for this team. But I'd be lying if I said I felt like he was a big time contributor.

I also know this team and I feel like it needs some degree of change. I feel like if that change was going to come from within the current roster, it would have already happened by now. You can argue that maybe it could be Roddy - as Jet has recently done - and I’d buy it to some degree. But I’m not the kind to pin my hopes on a late first-round pick in his rookie season and first year living in a new country.

So when you look at all the likely game-changing trade options, it comes back to Howard’s contract status versus his current level of play. A status that changes significantly after February 18. And if the Mavericks are inclined to try and charge this team for a stretch run, then that’s most likely where it’s at ...