How Josh Howard's Injury Will Help the Washington Wizards Long-Term

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2010

DALLAS - JANUARY 30:  Forward Josh Howard #5 of the Dallas Mavericks takes a shot against Juwan Howard #6 of the Portland Trail Blazers on January 30, 2010 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It's not often that a team loses its best player and improves.  The Lakers tried it for a few games without Kobe Bryant, but when push came to shove, they sorely missed the Mamba's clutch shooting.

In the Washington Wizards case, this could plausibly end up being one of those times.

When Josh Howard tore the ACL in his left knee on Monday night, the Wizards' shiniest new acquisition ended his season slightly more than three games into his Wiz career.

The Wizards, who had just completed a firesale that shipped out Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson within the past week, suddenly found themselves with a starting lineup that looked like a D-League roster on paper.

With Gilbert Arenas in the midst of a year-long suspension, Howard was the only active Wizard with an All-Star game appearance.  Howard, who came in the Butler trade from the Mavericks, had been accustomed to winning for years; these Wizards have been sloughing through mediocrity for a large part of the past two seasons.

But these new-look Wizards have shown that they aren't laying down in these final 27 games.  

These Wizards are fighting for new contracts, or trying to convince management that all basketball hope isn't actually lost in Washington.  

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And after beating Denver and Chicago within the past week, you know what?  I'm inclined to believe that all hope isn't lost in Washington.

In fact, Howard's injury only frees the once-restrained Wizards even more, as the team tries to distance itself from its failed Big Three experiment ASAP.

Alright, I'll confess: I was partially motivated to write this column to try and make myself feel better for picking up my personal fantasy basketball kryptonite, Al Thornton, off of waivers this week.

Thornton, who TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz lovingly described as a "high-volume yet inefficient scorer who plays little defense,"  will put up a double-double of 31 and 10 one night , then come at you with a five-point on 2-of-15 shooting night the next.

So how does replacing a former All-Star like Howard with an inconsistent third-year player like Thornton help the Wizards?

It's all about opportunities.

The fire-sale writing was on Washington's wall starting with the minute Gilbert Arenas was charged with a felony and a season-long suspension.  (You can kindly refer to me as Mr. Cleo from now on. )  

The Big Three had clearly run its course in Washington, and the Wizards needed to move on to their next plan immediately .

Did that mean trading their two best remaining active players for 60 cents on the dollar? You better believe it!  And amazingly, the Wizards' fanbase had grown so tired of the Big Three that they fully condoned a slash-and-burn, knowing full well that their only chance to eventually be competitive in the next decade was a complete overhaul.

And Howard's injury has advanced that overhaul one step further than anyone could have expected this season.

Not knowing how the 2010 free agent extravaganza is going to play out four months in advance, it's impossible to for me definitively say whether the Wizards will exercise his nearly-$12 million team option for next season.

Well, I'll turn to ESPN's Marc Stein for that one :

The reality is that the  Washington Wizards  had decided even before  Josh Howard  tore his left ACL last week that they would not be picking up his $11.8 million option for next season.

The Wiz essentially regarded Howard as an expiring contract when they acquired him from Dallas in the deal that cost them Caron Butler  and  Brendan Haywood , knowing that the ability to pass on the team option in Howard's deal would help Washington create significant salary-cap space this summer to greet the expected ownership transfer to Washington Capitals boss Ted Leonsis.

If they weren't going to keep Howard for next season, all he would have done this season is theoretically improve their chances of winning (and hurt their chances of a higher draft pick), and take minutes from the Wizards other young talent or new players.

Given that the Wiz gave Thornton generous minutes even when he was coming off the bench, it's entirely possible that they wanted him to get as many minutes as possible for the rest of the year, to determine whether or not he'd be a long-term option at small forward.

And once Brendan Haywood headed to Dallas, leaving Andray Blatche to step into the starting center role, it's been full steam ahead for Blatche.  Blatche has shown flashes of his potential before, much like Thornton, but hasn't been able to put it together for long stretches...before now.

He dropped a 33-and-13 night in his first night as a starter, and he's posted double-doubles in four of his past six games, including a 26-18-6 night against the Knicks on Friday.  

No guarantee that he continues this absurd line of production, but Blatche clearly has the skillset to be a starter in the NBA.  That's one lesson learned.

With a starting lineup of Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Al Thornton, James Singleton, and Andray Blatche, they've got a surprisingly potent combination of imported veterans and young players.  

They've run out to a 3-3 record since making their big moves, and they haven't lost a game by more than five points.  

Now's their chance to determine which of these players they cut, and which of them they choose to build around in the next few years.

I'm not sure whether the Wizards make their big free agent moves this summer or next. (I would be inclined to say they'll wait until 2011, when they have a better idea what they're doing with Arenas.)  

Regardless, the Wizards jumpstarted their rebuilding process better than any other team in the league with their activity at the trade deadline.

And while it's an unfortunate injury for Howard, it only means that the Wizards got one more leg up on their roster reconstruction.

(If only my beloved Sixers could do the same.)