HOUSTON — It’s not exactly the House That Dwight Howard built. But it is the one where the All-Star center chose to sign a four-year lease, snubbing the high-profile and high-rent district of the NBA’s most glamorous franchise.
Imagine the first time one of those blonde, leggy Hollywood starlets was told, well, you’re not quite the stuff of everyone’s dreams and that’s a dose of cold reality still dripping off the Lakers as they practiced at the Toyota Center in preparation for their first meeting with their ex-teammate Thursday night (9:30 ET, TNT).
“He made his decision,” said forward Pau Gasol. “He thought it was the best for him. So you have to respect him for it and that’s it.”
While a contented Howard and the Rockets cruise along with the best record (4-1) in the Western Conference, the Lakers are once more foundering on the rocks of another difficult start, waiting for 35-year-old Kobe Bryant to return from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, hoping that 39-year-old Steve Nash can overcome the reality of the calendar and able to only look back at a lost season with Howard.
“A lot of things went wrong last year, for sure,” Gasol said. “There was a lot of adversity. Nothing clicked. It was a tough year for everyone. Not for one individual. Pretty much for the entire team it was a tough year to go through.
“I was definitely hopeful, but I knew there was a lot of work to do. You don’t win games just by showing up on the court, by wearing a certain number, a certain name. You gotta work. You gotta make things. You gotta create a chemistry. You gotta create certain habits on the floor. You gotta understand your strengths and weaknesses and work on them every single day…A different total system came in. A system that probably didn’t fit our personnel. There was just a lot of stuff. “
It was a season full of coaching changes and injuries and the constant recrimination of a relationship between Howard and Bryant that never seemed to develop beyond mutual suspicion and snapped like a breadstick when the 6-foot-11 center left roughly $20 million on the table in Los Angeles to take the Rockets’ four-year free agent offer and warm embrace.
After Howard jumped ship, Bryant made it immediately known that he stopped following him on Twitter. When the Rockets played in L.A. against the Clippers earlier this week, Howard told reporters that he keeps in constant contact with many of his former teammates, but no longer speaks to Bryant. A few weeks ago, Bryant said there was a constant tension between the pair last season.
“We have two different personalities,” Bryant said during an NBA TV interview on Tuesday night from Dallas. “There’s a certain way that I believe you have to approach the game in order to win championships. He had a different way that he felt like would be best and because of that it was tough to see eye-to-eye on a daily basis.”
Gasol said the only time the Lakers had fun playing basketball last season was during their playoff push over the final weeks when they succeeded in clinching the No. 7 spot in the West. However, they lost Bryant when he tore his Achilles’ tendon on April 12.
“That stretch was a little fun,” Gasol said. “The team competed. We were fighting to get in and that was fun. I think we had a couple of games here and there that we all kind of enjoyed playing together without too many issues. But for the most part, that wasn’t the case.
“There was definitely a lack of understanding and connection. I don’t know how much tension there was. There was days when it was fine and everybody was on the same page and when things get a little rough, usually that’s when the tensions occur and come up. It was a rough year, a lot of things didn’t go our way and that made it that much more difficult.”
Howard is currently averaging 17.4 points, 14.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots and wears a constant smile as the anchor in the middle of the Rockets lineup and in the locker room. Interestingly enough, the 10.8 shots and 9.6 free throws per game he’s getting in the Houston lineup are practically the same as the 10.7 and 9.6 he got a year ago in a Lakers offense where Howard often seemed to chafe as being an uncomfortable fit.
“Strange they do exactly the same thing here that we tried to do,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said sarcastically. “That’s fine. We’re cool.
“It’s too bad. We would loved for him to have been here in LA. It didn’t work out. Turn the page and go. That’s about it. We knew there were some problems. We didn’t know which way it would go. He picked Houston and now I’m sure he’ll try to make the best of it and he’ll make the best of it.”
There’s no question that Howard is healthier than a year ago, when he entered the season still ailing from back surgery, then suffered a shoulder injury while trying to contribute. Much of the time last season he was not simply physically fit to be the player the Lakers wanted and needed. Yet there was always the sense that he could never accept his place in the pecking order of a locker room where Bryant would always be the alpha dog.
Now with a younger roster that views him as a veteran leader, Howard is relaxed, almost carefree, enjoying being the center of attention, which is evidently what he sought most when making his career decision last summer.
“It was his first time being in a free agent position,” Gasol said. “He had the freedom to pick his future and he picked it. It wasn’t with the Lakers. It’s with the Rockets. So, good luck. That’s it.”