It doesn't seem that long ago that Josh Howard was a 26-year-old playing in his first All-Star game after starting for the Mavs in the Finals the season before. That was more than five years ago, though, and it's been a slow descent for the 6'7", 210-pound swingman ever since. He bottomed out during a year and a half in Washington, tearing his ACL four games after the Mavs traded him there. He played in only 20 games over two seasons before he signing this past December with the Jazz. This season he struggled in the playoffs after left knee surgery in March knocked him out for more than a month. Now he faces uncertainty as he heads into unrestricted free agency for the third time in as many years.
He signed a $2.15MM contract with the Jazz before the season, coming off a one-year, $3MM deal with the Wizards in 2010/11. That was a significant paycut after finishing off a four-year, $41.67MM contract. Howard may have been on the way to reversing his trend of declining salaries during a string of 15 games before he hurt his knee this year. He started each of those games, averaging 10.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and a steal in 27.5 minutes a night, but he wasn't the same after his return, going for just 3.8 PPG and 3.5 RPG as the Jazz were swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
Howard's saving grace might be weak competition among free agent small forwards. He's arguably the best unrestricted free agent at his position, and after Nicolas Batum, the restricted class doesn't look that impressive, either. There's a decent chance Howard winds up back with the Jazz, as GM Kevin O'Connor has said the team is open to bringing him back. It's far from a lock, however, as the team could easily use Gordon Hayward as the starter at the 3 or experiment with DeMarre Carroll in that role, as was the case when Howard was injured this year.
The draft lottery doesn't hold great personal interest for a lot of 32-year-old veterans in the NBA, but it may have a roundabout impact on Howard's destination. If the Warriors' pick falls out of the the top seven, it goes to the Jazz, and if Utah takes a small forward like Harrison Barnes or Terrence Jones, Howard could be on his way out. If the Warriors, a team that will be looking for a small forward this summer, keep the pick, they could take Barnes, Jones or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, eliminating the need to sign a veteran like Howard. The Raptors, another team looking for a small forward, may also choose to do so with a high draft pick instead of free agency.
The Bucks, Timberwolves and Suns are three more teams with money to spend that could have interest in Howard as a starter, but the best situation for him might be as a reserve for a veteran team. He can play limited minutes, minimizing the amount of stress on his body, and he's shown he can be a valuable contributor, if not a primary offensive option, when healthy. I could see him flourishing with the Grizzlies, who might envision him as a cost-effective replacement for O.J. Mayo.