There marked a time that the Houston Rockets had concerns with Dwight Howard. But unlike his stints with the Orlando Magic and the Lakers, nothing had to do with his intentions to stay or frustrations with a coach. It had everything to do with what made his lone season last year with the Lakers a painful one.
“Last July, when we got him, he was not healthy,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said Monday after the Rockets’ morning shootaround at UCLA before playing the Lakers tonight at Staples Center. “We signed him, and our biggest fear was his health.”
Concerns appeared wide-ranging, including his surgically repaired back, his labrum in his right shoulder, the strength in his legs and glutes, his flexibility. You name it.
But with Howard averaging 15 points and 17 rebounds in the Rockets’ 3-0 start, McHale described his health as “100 percent different.”
“I’m moving a lot better,” Howard said. “I’m going up to get balls I couldn’t get last season with rebounds, blocked shots, all that stuff is a lot different. I’m doing a lot of work in the offseason to get my body back right. I feel a lot better.”
Howard hardly felt that way last season.
He averaged 17 points on 57.8 percent shooting and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds per game, his lowest marks since the 2006-07 season. But Howard’s frustrations went beyond physical pain. He clashed with Kobe Bryant’s demanding leadership style. Steve Nash took issue with Howard’s effort on pick-and-rolls. Howard disliked Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced system and expressed hope for a larger post role. Meanwhile, Howard’s Game 4 ejection in the Lakers’ first-round loss to San Antonio validated Lakers’ concerns about him becoming the team’s franchise player.
How does Howard reflect on those times?
“It’s over with. There’s no need to talk about it,” Howard said. “Things happen. It wasn’t the best situation for anybody. But it is what it is. I made a decision to move on with my life and I’m in a much better place than I was last season mentally and physically. I think I made the best decision for Dwight.”
Plenty on the Lakers haven’t reacted that way.
Bryant unfollowed Howard on Twitter. Nash has repeated the mantra on how Howard’s negative energy sapped the team’s chemistry. Several Lakers legends, including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have suggested Howard couldn’t handle the pressure surrounding the franchise’s 16 NBA championships and their strong lineage of centers, including George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. Lakers fans have generally expressed a good riddance attitude toward Howard’s departure.
“Fans are very passionate about their team, and unfortunately the Lakers have the most fans in the world,” Howard said. “So, I think it’s kind of a tough thing to let go and the way the season was last year, a lot of people don’t know what really happened on the court or in the locker room. They just know what was being fed to them, and they made their decision based off that.
“But I’m pretty sure if any of those people had to make a decision in front of the whole world, they wouldn’t know how to react or how to do it. It was a tough decision to make, but I think I did what’s best for Dwight. Like I said, I’m in a very good place. These guys have been great since Day 1. Kevin has been amazing and I’m happy. I’m really happy.”
One reason entails McHale’s emphasis with Howard on his postwork. The two worked together at the tail end of the morning shootaround working on such moves. Howard has credited former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon for providing similar guidance.
What feedback does McHale provide?
“Staying low,” Howard said. He always referred to [NFL player] Adrian Peterson and how he runs through different holes in the game. He gets real low. People were saying I had the ability to do the same thing, using my quickness and my speed to get around guys. I have to get low to be able to do it. That’s the only thing he’s been preaching to me. It’s about staying low and doing my moves.”
“I think it’s going to get better as the season goes. Right now the whole team is in that transition period looking in the post and making plays out of the post. It’s an adjustment on my end and theirs. It’s something that I’m happy going through the process with the team. As the season goes, we’ll all get better. when that time comes, I think we’ll be a better team than we are today.”
McHale showers plenty of praise toward Howard, too.
“Dwight has been great. He’s fantastic,” Howard said. “Dwight is a very very easy guy to coach, is fun to be around and has an unbelievable presence on an doff the court. The defense is better when Dwight is out there. Guys turn the corner, you look out there and guys are like I’m not driving in there. He’s been wonderful.”
But Howard’s about to encounter a different challenge.
He plays the Clippers tonight at Staples Center for the first time since his last game as a Laker that ended in an ejection. The Rockets then host the Lakers on Thursday.
What’s McHale’s advice to Howard?
“Just go play,” McHale said. “I have a lot of concerns, but that’s about eight or ninth on my list of concerns.”
Perhaps that’s because Howard already experienced playing against his former team last year when the Lakers visited the Orlando Magic.
Howard responded in that by leading the Lakers to a win with 39 points, 16 rebounds and tying his own NBA record for free throw attempts by shooting 25-for-39 from the foul line.
“This is a totally different situation,” Howard said. “I was in Orlando for eight years. That was my home. I grew up in Orlando, and going back home was tough for me and tough for a lot of the fans there. The situation was completely different.
“I never tried to do anything to hurt these people in L.A., but I understand that they’re just passionate about their team and when you do something that’s best for you, everybody else might not like it and they tend to react in crazy ways. You see the jerseys getting burnt and the ‘Coward’ jerseys and all that stuff. But that’s just fans being passionate about their teams, and it’s totally understandable. I have nothing bad to say about those people.”
Still, even if he no longer wanted to wear it, Howard expressed appreciation for once donning purple and gold.
“I have never been a bad guy and I won’t be that bad guy ever,” Howard said. “I will always be gracious and happy to have the opportunity to play with the Lakers. It was a learning experience and I think it helped me with this team. So, I’m glad that I had the chance to play in L.A. even though it ended soon it was a learning lesson for myself and for everybody else. I think this year you’ll see a different Dwight.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org