Knee injuries mar last season's trade

Caron Butler's knee injury is an obvious blow to the Dallas Mavericks, but it could cost Butler millions this summer when he will become a free agent.

The two principle figures in the blockbuster Mavs-Washington Wizards swap last February have suffered season-ending knee injuries. Just four games into his new life in D.C., Howard tore the ACL in his left knee. Also in a contract year, Howard's value plummeted. After making $10 million last season -- and with an $11.8 million team option for this season -- Washington re-signed Howard to a $3 million deal knowing he would not be ready to start the season.

Howard, 30, finally made his return on Dec. 18. He played in seven games, but missed Saturday's game with soreness in the knee. After trying to overcome ankle surgery, who knows if Howard will ever be the player he once was?

Butler's season ended Saturday night in Milwaukee when his right knee caved. The Mavs held out hope for the best, that he could return in a couple months, but the 6-foot-7 small forward underwent surgery Tuesday morning and the team later reported that a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee is expected to be season-ending.

Obviously, Butler, making $10.8 million in the final year of his deal, is no longer the trade chip he was. Any significant deal would have involved Butler as the key piece. Now, Butler will only be attractive to a team looking purely for salary relief.

The Mavs liked what Butler was doing, especially recently. Playing with an edge, Butler had accepted a role in which he was averaging around 30 minutes and also found himself sitting for large chunks of the fourth quater, if not all of it. He was averaging 15.0 points, but that's been on the increase. Over his past seven games, Butler was averaging closer to 20 points a game and he put up 30 on the Spurs with Dirk Nowitzki out nursing a sprained right knee.

After a slow start, Butler was well on his way to passing Jason Terry as the team's second-leading scorer behind Nowitzki. He was playing well with Nowitzki and Jason Kidd and learning how to score in the flow of the offense, driving to the hole even, rather than relying purely on his isolation, jab-step or fall-back jumper. He had also been shooting the 3-point shot with unseen accuracy (43.1 percent) in his career.

Perhaps if there is a sliver lining in this, if the Mavs don't trade Butler, 30, and his expiring contract in the coming weeks, they might be able to bring him back next season at a reduced rate.

But, that's next season. This one, which got off to such a fast start and can still hold promise in a wacky and unsettled Western Conference, has a long way to go.

"Not thinking about next season at all," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said.