This is the way the Lakers always expected it to be. A throng of fans in purple and gold standing on its feet directing loud noises at Dwight Howard.
Of course, he’s back at Staples Center as the villain, not the hero, when the surging Rockets play the sagging Lakers on Wednesday night (10:30 ET, ESPN).
What ever did happen to all those Stay D12 billboards that were a symbol of public groveling last summer?
This much is clear. Howard was right when he chose to bolt L.A. for Houston, if for no other reason than health.
While the Rockets appear hale and hearty with the NBA’s longest active win streak intact, the Lakers are beset, bedeviled and bedraggled by injuries. Not only have the aging Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant spent virtually the entire season on the shelf, but the rest of the roster has been so broken that the Lakers nearly ran out of players in one game. As much as any locker room discomfort with the forceful Bryant, this is what Howard knew he was leaving behind in L.A.
The 28-year-old big man has been as content as a cat on a fat man’s lap with a young team that sometimes doesn’t know which end is up, but rarely stops firing away from behind the 3-point line anyway. In his 10th season, there is suspicion in some corners that Howard’s most dominant days may be behind him. Yet he is averaging 18.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots a game at a time when it seems like he is still learning how to be comfortable in the Rockets’ lineup.
His public confusion about where he wanted to play and itinerant hop-scotching from Orlando to L.A. to Houston over the past two years has caused his reputation to take a hit, as evidenced by his plummeting vote totals in the fan balloting for the All-Star Game. Yet there was never a chance that the head coaches who fill out the reserves were going to overlook the chiseled force who is still the best big man in the game.
Meeting with reporters following the Rockets’ workout in L.A. on Tuesday, Howard said despite all of the negativity surrounding his season with the Lakers, there might have been ways the NBA’s most glamorous franchise could have kept him as the centerpiece for the future.
“There’s a couple things that could’ve been done, but that’s over with now,” he said. “I’m in a better place, our team is doing great and the Lakers, they’ll come back. But hopefully this is the Rockets’ time.”
It is certainly a much better time for Howard if for no other reason than he is healthy and feeling fit. He did not enter this season following back surgery, as he did in L.A., and he did not suffer a shoulder injury that limited his ability to perform, as also happened with the Lakers.
Most of all, there is not the constant pushing, pulling, tugging in every direction for him to make a decision about his free-agent future. And there is no longer the daily friction between Howard and Bryant about the so-called proper way to play basketball and compete.
In Houston, Howard has returned to his old happy-go-lucky self, a clown one minute and a serious team leader in the next, even if much of it seems to be superficial and dependent on whether the Rockets won or lost that night. And there are still rough spots to work out in the way the Rockets play the game and the way Howard co-exists with fellow All-Star James Harden.
“It’s going great,” Howard said during his media session at the All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. “We’re going to continue to get better. We’re still learning ways we can make each other better and once we do that it’s going to be easier for the rest of the team.
“We talk a lot. We watch film together. We’re looking forward to doing that kind of stuff. It’s been great. He’s getting better every day.”
While the Rockets are 36-17 and currently hold down the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, the Howard-Harden pairing is not greater than the sum of its parts. They are two shiny objects circling in separate orbits and haven’t yet found a way to fully combine their force.
Harden, for all his ability to get to the basket at will, is an odd duck himself, enjoying the higher profile and All-Star status that was out of range in Oklahoma City, but not yet demonstrating ability — or willingness — to make his teammates better, other than to score a lot of points.
“We’re just trying to make it work,” Harden said in New Orleans. “Something’s got to give. So we work with each other to make it work, somehow, some way.”
This is the world that Howard chose when he left the Lakers and their history and Bryant and his unrelenting willfulness. He’s in a better place, if only because there’s less noise. Except for tonight.