A Minor Deal

It’s not quite moving a deck chair on the Titanic, but the straight (and still unconfirmed) trade of Mike James to Houston for Juwan Howard seems more of an addition-by-subtraction and a bid to install locker room leadership than a significant upgrade in on-court talent.

First, the upside. Howard is a quality individual, a hard worker who has been given various community awards and citations for his charitable contributions and strength of character. At 6-9, he is a front court player who has averaged more than 16 points and 7 rebounds over the course of his 13-year career. In terms of chemistry, he is a stabilizer, not a disrupter, and has long been friends with Kevin Garnett.

His contract is slightly more expensive than James’s, but extends out to a player option (that he will almost certainly exercise) in 2008-09, whereas James has his own lucrative player option in 2009-10, so the Wolves save a year of expensive penance for their unfortunate signing. Howard also enables the Wolves to rid themselves of James the player, whose horrendous defense and emotional inability to make the transition from role player to reliable starter was among the more significant of myriad disappointments in the 2006-07 season. Add to that persistent rumors that James was a corrosive component of this team, especially in his willingness to talk the talk about team play but not walk the walk, and it’s easy to understand why Minnesota pulled the trigger on this deal.

The downside is that Howard will be 35 in February and cannot reasonably be expected to hold down the center position, even in this era of no hand-check small ball. He is a better rebounder than Mark Blount (who isn’t among big men?), shares the ball better in the half court game, and is a better defender. But he is *not* a shot-blocker (his career average is 0.3 per game) and can’t provide the staunch, trunk-oriented ability to hold his ground so necessary in defending bigs in the paint. Instead, he is a decent mid-range jump-shooter (albeit not as good as either KG or Blount) and passable defender of opposing power forwards who is probably incapable at this point in his career of playing the sort of uptempo style that is coming into vogue in the NBA, one the Wolves might be able to play with the right draft pick and deploying KG as the “center.”

Any more tea-leaf reading on the future will of course have to wait for this month’s draft and other deals that might occur between now and the beginning of training camp this fall. At first blush, it appears that Minnesota is either preparing to draft a point guard or indeed committed to Randy Foye as its point guard. I’m guessing the latter, because Juwan Howard is decidedly not the banger required to take the onus off Kevin Garnett in the paint wars.

Bottom line, I think this trade was made for chemistry reasons, and to begin to correct the backcourt imbalance on the roster that plagued the team last season. Juwan Howard is not the piece that cements a playoff contender. He is a reliable player on and off the court who will provide an honest night’s effort 82 games per season. The same could not be said of Mike James. The only lingering question, one we obviously can’t answer, is whether or not the Wolves could have received better compensation for James than an aging, smallish, slightly redundant power forward.