By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; D01
After leading the Washington Wizards to a shocking 10-point victory over the Denver Nuggets nearly three weeks ago, Josh Howard reached into his locker room stall and picked up an all-white Washington Nationals baseball cap. Howard explained how much he liked the curly W logo and that he had bought a few Nats hats in different colors long before the Dallas Mavericks made him a District resident in a trade.
"I got a whole bunch of these," Howard said, flashing his crooked grin as he twisted the slightly oversize cap around his head. "You'll see."
Howard had hoped to make wins and his assortment of Nats caps a regular postgame sight, but that was the last time he would play a game at Verizon Center and leave the court without assistance.
Howard's season came to an end just two games later on Feb. 22, when his left knee bent awkwardly while receiving an outlet pass from Mike Miller in the first quarter of a 101-95 win over Chicago. He said he immediately knew "something wasn't right" but didn't find out until a day later that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
"It was devastating," Howard said Thursday after receiving treatment on his knee at Verizon Center. "No guy wants to find out they're not going to finish out the season. I had high expectations of taking this team to the playoffs, which I thought we was on our way to. It was an unfortunate situation to happen."
Howard was the main acquisition, from a talent and financial perspective, when the Wizards made their roster overhaul last month. The Wizards had no intention of picking up the one-time all-star's $11.8 million option next season, even before the knee injury. The team began touting the salary cap flexibility provided by his expiring contract immediately after acquiring him from Dallas for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson.
But according to two sources with knowledge of the Wizards' thinking, the team is now considering re-signing Howard, albeit at a price less than his option, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The sources were encouraged with Howard, who averaged 14.5 points and 3.3 rebounds and brought a positive attitude and enthusiasm to a locker room in desperate need of a jolt. Howard said he would like to return to Washington next season, citing the Wizards' two first-round picks and significant salary cap room this summer.
"I feel like I'm in a good place right here in Washington if they give me a shot. Great city, fan support. Another top-notch organization. Can't beat it. And I'm close to home," said Howard, a North Carolina native. The Wizards "gave me a fresh start. Being able to come to an organization that's great, leaving another great one where I learned a lot. I'm hoping that I can still teach people what I learned there."
Howard added that he is not concerned about joining a rebuilding situation with the Wizards. "Not at all. I had my opportunities to go through rebuilding before, in college [at Wake Forest]. It's nothing new to me. I'm looking forward to the challenge, if it's for me," he said. "You never know. Just got to wait and see. One way or another, I'm going to try to play somewhere, if not here, somewhere. It's up in the air right now.
"I guess we'll wait until after the season is over," he said. "Right now, that's not something I'm concerned about. Right now, my number-one focus is this knee."
Howard said he still has not set a date for surgery, with the swelling in his left knee yet to subside enough. He shows up at the arena for rehabilitation and to receive treatment for nearly two hours each day and is still able to maneuver with the assistance of a bulky brace, which he masked Thursday under a pair of baggy sweatpants.
Howard, 29, said he had never had any knee problems before. The timetable for his return after the surgery is six to nine months. "But I'm super athlete, hopefully I'll be back soon," he said. "I'm ahead of schedule, I guess. You don't see me with a crutch right now."
After going 3-1 with Howard in the lineup, the Wizards have lost seven of eight games without him. He said he wishes he could help, then shrugged. "Things just unfortunately happened. Can't control it, just hope to get better and come back better next year."