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The Mav Who Makes the Difference

If the league's winningest team is to take the final step to an NBA title, no player will be as crucial as forward Josh Howard, who has established himself as Dirk Nowitzki's righthand man

The NBA's best teamdraws its energy from multiple sources. Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks'franchise superstar, pumps his fist and scrunches his face into a fearsomeTeutonic scowl as he drains jump shot after jump shot. Sixth man JerryStackhouse, a gentleman off the court, can turn thuggish between the lines;witness a game at Utah on Jan. 9 in which he collected a technical foul forengaging in a memorable verbal exchange with combative Jazz coach Jerry Sloanand a flagrant foul that resulted in an automatic ejection. "[The Jazz]play a fake physical game," Stackhouse said afterward. "Cowardbasketball."

Dallas coach AveryJohnson, loud and emphatic in his pronouncements, is famously kinetic as hemarches up and down the sideline waving his arms--a cross between a tentpreacher and a symphony conductor. And though the dotcom billionaire who ownsthe team has been much quieter this season, vowing (facetiously, it must beassumed) to play by the rules of "David Stern University," there isalways a chance that Mark Cuban will surface to stir the pot.

The Mavs' mostconsistent source of energy, however, is Josh Howard, a 6'7" small forwardwho wears on his left pectoral muscles the street address (1500) of hisgrandmother's house in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he grew up. Under thathomespun tattoo beats a hungry heart. And it is Howard--drafted with the finalpick of the first round in 2003 even though he was the ACC player of the yearand a first-team All-America at Wake Forest--who has come to embody the teamthat has evolved under the hard-boiled stewardship of Johnson.

"Obviously wedon't get to the level we've gotten to without Dirk," says Johnson ofNowitzki, who finished third in MVP voting a year ago and at week's end wasaveraging 24.8 points this season. "But Josh is our juice and our engine.If he isn't going full steam ahead--and most of the time he is--we can breakdown." Says Nowitzki, "Josh has always had the attitude, I'm going tobe a great player. I'm not surprised by anything he's done."

Howard'sperformance reflects the divergent paths taken by the 2006 NBA finalists. Thechampion Miami Heat elected to play a pat hand and through Sunday had theseventh-best record (17--19) in the execrable Eastern Conference. By contrast,the Mavs, beaten 4--2 in the Finals, have deepened their roster and theirresolve, and gotten improved, multifaceted play from the 26-year-old Howard,who has taken to heart the ambitious goals Johnson gave him before the season:18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals per game. All thosenumbers would be career highs by quite a lot. "It's just a gauge," saysJohnson. "Something to think about after the game when Josh is looking atthe stat sheet."

Howard looks at ittoo, especially the steals total (he was averaging 1.23 at week's end), fordefense has always been his calling card. As a rookie with Dallas, he had tovie for minutes with offensive-minded players such as Nowitzki, Michael Finley,Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker. "The only way I made it to thefloor," he says, "was through defense and rebounding." Indeed,through Sunday, Howard was well within reach of Johnson's goal for rebounds,with an average of 7.1. He might be the best rebounding small forward in theleague, particularly at the offensive end, where he had grabbed 2.0 pergame.

J-Ho, as teammatescall him (if there's one sports nickname that has to go, that's it), won't comeclose in assists, however, not with two ball handling guards (Devin Harris andJason Terry) in the starting lineup and a superstar (Nowitzki) who oftencreates his own shots. "Assists is the hard one," says Howard, who hasaveraged only 1.9. "But I think the idea was to have me try to dish offwhen I draw double teams. That's what I've been trying to do." The bigsurprise has been his scoring, which has risen from last year's 15.6 points pergame to 19.0. He has passed Terry to become the Mavs' second-biggest threatbehind Nowitzki.

All thatversatility has made Howard a viable All-Star candidate, despite the wealth oftalented forwards in the Western Conference. "I don't pay any attention towho's an All-Star and who isn't," says Sloan, "but all I know is thatHoward can beat you about six different ways, so that means he's pretty damngood."

Howard wasn't theonly player Johnson challenged with goals. The coach gave Harris a list ofevery other starting point guard in the West and told Harris he wanted him tobe the best defender. (Harris has the list taped to his locker in AmericanAirlines Center.) He told Nowitzki that he needs to get at least two offensiverebounds a game. (He was at 1.5 through Sunday.) Johnson told the team that hewants more attention paid to scouting reports and opponents' tendencies. "Igotta admit I didn't think about them much before," says Howard, who shouldone day be an all-league defender, "but they're really helpingnow."

Meanwhile, DonnNelson, president of basketball operations and general manager, has reworkedthe end of the rotation, adding free-agent swingman Devean George, who earnedthree rings as a Los Angeles Laker; bringing defensive-minded guard GregBuckner back to Dallas as a free agent; and trading for 6'10" forwardAustin Croshere, who can hit the boards and three-point shots, from thePacers.

Put it all togetherand it's clear why the Mavs had an NBA-best record of 31--8 at week's end. Theyare at this point a step ahead of the Suns (28--8), whom they have defeatedtwice, and a step and a half ahead of the Spurs (27--11), whom they have beatenon two of three occasions. But for Dallas to take the final step--winning thetitle--Howard's emergence is critical.

For all hisimproved play, Howard's greatest strides have been in his comportment andcommunication. He is by nature quiet and reserved, but on the court he wasgiven to paroxysms of rage. At Wake Forest he feuded with coaches Dave Odom andSkip Prosser, and on a few occasions thought about quitting, "just goingback to the other side of town, where I was from." And what would he havedone? "Try to stay out of trouble, work, go to community college, playpickup ball, lots of things," he says.

He took ananger-management course during his junior year, but when he reached the pros,he still frequently whipped off his headband (which he continues to wear) orripped out his mouthpiece (on which he stopped chewing after he got his bracesoff last May) when reacting to perceived bad calls. He also was short withteammates, another Stackhouse tendency. "We're both from NorthCarolina," says Howard, "so maybe it's something in the water."Howard first demurs when a reporter suggests the term pain in the ass todescribe what he sometimes was to coaches and teammates, but then.... "Iwas just passionate about the game and didn't always know how to show it,"he says. "I'd let the refs have it. I'd get on my teammates." Hesmiles. "I guess you could call me a pain in the ass. But I worked on[controlling myself]. I'm much better at it now. I had to be, right?" Hehas had only two technicals this season, even though referees have beeninstructed by the league to be less tolerant of verbal abuse.

Johnson agrees thatHoward has a better handle on his emotions than in the past. "Josh wouldeither say nothing or snap completely, both at the refs and at histeammates," says Johnson. "I told him I want his input--I need hisinput--but in a positive way, during timeouts, in the huddle, at halftime.That's what he's doing this season."

Howard still playsin a kind of controlled rage, but he won't psychoanalyze himself and pin it onhis upbringing in Winston-Salem. "It wasn't easy, but I always had lovearound me," he says. He lived at the 1500 address (he won't reveal thestreet) with Helen Howard, his grandmother, but his mother, Nancy Henderson,lived right down the block. "My mother thought it would be better for me tolive with my grandmother, but she was still a big part of my life," saysHoward, "My mother gave me most of my butt-whippings. My mother was the onewho wouldn't let me play football in high school." He remains close to bothwomen, particularly his grandmother, who still lives in the same house (thoughwith improved plumbing and a new front porch, courtesy of her grandson) inwhich he grew up. Helen calls him "my Joshua."

Howard's father,Kevin Robinson, walked out on the family right after Howard was born. He sayshe didn't meet his father until age eight and has seen him only rarely since."He was supposed to be the next big thing in Winston-Salem," saysHoward, speaking of his father's high school basketball career. "But hewent in another direction." As far as Howard knows, his father has neverseen him play an NBA game. "He doesn't have the finances to get here,"says Howard, who will not disclose his father's job status or whereabouts."No, I'm not paying for him to get here either. I'm doing him a favor justletting him contact me once in a while."

That is Howard:direct and brutally honest. He's no quote machine but scores points withreporters because he doesn't sugarcoat or obfuscate. His game has a bluntnesstoo. He slashes to the basket. His jump shot is not particularly fluid. He isnot above engaging in occasional extracurricular activity. The Suns, forexample, were convinced that Howard was deliberately tripping them in lastyear's Western Conference finals, won by the Mavs in six games. When Phoenixowner Robert Sarver confronted him before Game 6, Howard said, "I don'tknow what you're talking about, but in about two hours we're going to becelebrating on your court." Which is exactly what happened.

This combination ofa rough-hewn game with a rough-hewn 'tude perhaps explains why Howard lasteduntil the last pick of the first round, taken after such forgettables as ReeceGaines, Troy Bell and Ndudi Ebi. "I had worked on my attitude, and it haddefinitely gotten better by my senior year," says Howard. "The onlyexplanation I got was that I could do many things good but not one thinggreat." The knock against Howard, as it is with many versatile players, wasthat he wasn't a lights-out shooter (as if the NBA were loaded with them).Well, he shot 47.3% from the floor over the last two seasons and was not farfrom that mark at week's end (45.5%). He's also been knocking down 39.7% of histhree-pointers.

Howard's mostimportant role, though, might be that of ignition key. He has averaged 7.2points on 51.2% shooting in the first quarter of games, an important stat sinceNowitzki is often a slow starter, albeit a helluva finisher. In the first sevenminutes of the win at Utah, for instance, Howard hit a baseline drive overAndrei Kirilenko, slashed to the middle for a layup and an eventual three-pointplay, hit a standstill 20-foot jumper, made a nice crossover dribble to getinto the lane for a dunk and swished a 13-foot jumper. He finished the quarterwith 11 points as Dallas took a 26--24 lead. Nowitzki, meanwhile, had only two.But at the end of the game, Nowitzki had 38 and Howard 21. (On Sunday, though,it was Howard who had the last word. He sneaked open in the paint, took a feedfrom Terry and made the game-winner over a leaping Chris Bosh with 0.9 of asecond left as Dallas beat the Toronto Raptors 97--96.)

"It's never inmy mind to outscore Dirk," says Howard. "I try to get us going and lethim take us to the finish line."

So far, that planhas the Mavs on track to beat everyone else to the ultimate finish line.


Player Rankings

See where Josh Howard and teammate Dirk Nowitzki fall inKelly Dwyer's weekly NBA Player Rankings. ONLY AT SI.COM

Super Sidekicks

JOSH HOWARD'S emergence as a scorer, rebounder anddefender casts him in the clear role of Robin to Dirk Nowitzki's Batman on theMavericks. Herewith, other players--all of whom are in the Hall of Fame or willbe--who have performed key roles in the shadow of a superstar.

KOBE BRYANT, G, Los Angeles Lakers
His stand-alone talent was always evident, but he never outscored ShaquilleO'Neal in L.A.'s threepeat years (2000 to '02), when Shaq was the Finals MVPeach time.

SCOTTIE PIPPEN, F, Chicago Bulls
Was a small forward but roamed all over the court and was first-teamall-defense eight times. Averaged 18.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists in11 seasons in Chicago, helping Michael Jordan to six championships.

KEVIN MCHALE, F, Boston Celtics
Played with Larry Bird for 12 seasons, winning three titles. Was one of thebest back-to-the-basket technicians ever (17.9-point career average) and acanny rebounder (7.3) and shot blocker (1.74).

JERRY LUCAS, F-C, Cincinnati Royals
One of the game's first truly versatile big men, he could rebound (15.6 careeraverage) and shoot from way, way outside, though he never outscored OscarRobertson in their six full seasons together.

CLIFF HAGAN, F, St. Louis Hawks
Played alongside all-timer Bob Pettit in the Hawks' frontcourt for nineseasons; fierce competitor with a great hook shot who finished with career NBAaverages of 18.0 points and 6.9 rebounds. Won one title and lost to the Celticsin three Finals.

"All I know is that Howard can beat you about SIXDIFFERENT WAYS," says Sloan, "so that means he's pretty damngood."


Jeffery A. Salter

SPARK PLUG Off the court, Howard maintains a calm demeanor that belies his competitiveness, which drives the Mavericks.



INSIDE OUT Although Howard has made himself into a solid shooter, his greatest offensive strength is slashing to the basket.