In the end, this is where he belonged, on a team that will forget his past, in a soft city that will forgive his flaws, with a coach he respects and who knows something about playing in the post, and far, far away from the demands of following in the elephant footsteps of Laker legends.
Dwight Howard and Houston are made for each other, a hoops marriage where the player and team are praying they'll someday share a ring.
He rejected the Lakers. Has anyone ever done that to the proud franchise? Howard turned down a chance to stay with all that prestige and history and roughly $9 million extra in net guaranteed dollars to escape to a safe haven. That's really what Houston represents, more than anything else. It wasn't necessarily his best choice from a winning standpoint, although he'll have a shot at doing that. Houston is a non-threatening, low-pressure situation for a player whose knees buckled from a public fallout and who has put himself through the ringer for the last two-plus years.
He did all of that for peace of mind, as well as an opportunity, questionable as it might be, to restore the Rockets to championship glory. Here are the comforts that come with leaving L.A. behind:
James Harden. Howard will no longer get a lecture from Kobe Bryant or worry whether Kobe will accept him equally. Harden is laid back and low maintenance. Plus, Harden isn't coming off Achilles surgery and will be around a while. Howard's relationship with Kobe was complicated in the year they spent together. Kobe was, at various times, angry with Howard, sensitive toward Howard, happy with Howard, didn't understand Howard, wanted to drive his foot into Howard and defended Howard. And this strange dynamic continued right up until the end, in the meeting with Howard when the Lakers made their pitch. Kobe didn't kiss Howard's ass; he took a tough-love stance and told Howard not to run away from the challenge of being a Laker, then gave him a hug.
Well, in the end, Kobe really didn't know Howard after all.
Howard didn't want Kobe buzzing in his ear for the next year or two or however longer Kobe plans to play. Howard could only come off looking like the loser in that scenario, because Kobe has five rings and Howard doesn't have any.
But Harden? He's totally unassuming, the kind of teammate who meshed with the large shadow of Kevin Durant and the pitbull personality of Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Besides, Harden can create shots for Howard and be a decent compliment. They should serve each other well. And peacefully.
Josh Smith. Fifteen years ago they were AAU teammates in Atlanta, a pair of raw teenagers who used their sheer athletic ability to leap from high school to the NBA. And now they'll be reunited if Smith, as expected, joins the Rockets through a sign-and-trade with the Hawks.
Howard was adamant that the Rockets find a third wheel but it wasn't an especially tough search. Smith had planned to sign with the Rockets with or without Howard. Smith has never been an All-Star, but he's been a borderline case for a few years now, someone with multiple weapons, and he's still in his prime.
The only drawback is Smith and Howard aren't high on intangibles. Howard can't shoot free throws and that makes him a liability in close games. Smith takes bad shots, most of them from beyond the arc, and makes questionable decisions when he has to rely on something other than athletic ability. But he'll be one of the best teammates Howard ever had, then (in AAU) and now.
Kevin McHale. Obviously, everyone knows what Mike D'Antoni had in common with Stan Van Gundy. Neither could connect with you-know-who. Howard didn't try to get D'Antoni fired but wasn't thrilled about playing under him again, either. This is where the Lakers, very likely, blew it by not hiring Phil Jackson instead. It would be hard to imagine Howard choosing McHale over Jackson, and that's not a slap at McHale.
Howard will like and respect McHale, who can show Howard a few pointers on playing in the low post, something D'Antoni couldn't possibly do. And McHale doesn't invite confrontation, it's not in his nature. Howard was desperate to develop a kinship with a coach and if he can't do that with McHale, then such a coach doesn't exist.
There are other, smaller advantages of being with the Rockets. He'll have Hakeem Olajuwon on speed dial. The Toyota Center stays packed and friendly for the most part. Owner Leslie Alexander is top notch, a non-meddler who chose a smart GM in Daryl Morey. Plus, no state tax, warm weather, cheap mansions, etc.
And now, about those championship dreams...
What Howard will discover, if he doesn't already know, is that the Rockets aren't in a win-or-else situation with him. At least not right away. He won't have that hanging over his head. This isn't LeBron James joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. This isn't even Howard joining Kobe and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. The Rockets organization isn't raising the bar that high or even implying as much. And nor is the city, as best as anyone can tell.
That's because the Rockets will hardly enter next season as a heavyweight. A good team? That's obvious. A contender? Of course. A sure thing? Hardly. Not after one season together, or even two. Not unless they get better production at the point guard spot, either with Jeremy Lin or someone else. And not without a bench or another supporting player. For example, Chandler Parsons is coming off a promising season but has never taken an important jumper in his life.
Finally, there's the question of how good Howard actually is. Can he be the defensive menace he was in Orlando and a player who can learn how to score in other ways? The hunch is he's better than last season, when he was coming off back surgery, uncomfortable in D'Antoni's system, unable to please Kobe and in the end, unwilling to sign an extension. That alone was a sign that Howard had doubts and his gut was telling him he needed a change of scenery.
So he left the Lakers after one season, which isn't long enough to accuse him of bailing. After two years that saw him conspire against a coach, fall out of love with the team that drafted him, force a trade that left a bitter taste and turned him into a national punchline, suffer a back injury, fail to meet all the grandiose expectations and then get swept from the playoffs, Howard craved a soft shoulder to lean on.
A big man, too sensitive for his own good, much better than people think, not as good as he thinks, just wanted a place he could call his own. And now, we know. H-Town stands for Howard, Houston and Home.