It was just a few days before July 4 when Dwight Howard flew to the mountains in Aspen, Colo., before announcing his free agent decision.
After months of speculation and reports of him leaving Hollywood, the time had finally arrived for him to choose his new team. Alas, the Dwightmare would finally be over.
This is what Howard had pictured in the back of his mind when he signed with the Houston Rockets…
A rising star shooting guard in James Harden would be his sidekick. Kevin McHale – one of the best big men of all time – would be his new coach. Hakeem Olajuwon would continue to be his mentor. And he would get a fresh start to be the face of the Rockets franchise going forward after a messy break up with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Fast-forward six months and it is clear that Superman, the NBA player who wears the cape in dunk contests and stars in McDonald’s commercials, has returned to the NBA after a year hiatus.
For the first time in the past few seasons, Howard is back to just focusing on basketball, the game that pays him millions of dollars to play, and nothing else. He’s beginning to resemble the Orlando Magic version of himself where he was a top five Most Valuable Player candidate every season, the days when he used to dunk over opposing big men with such force that one would think he is from Krypton.
Howard scored 30 or more points only three times all of last season – he has four games of 30 or more already this season. Similarly, he had four 20-plus rebound games last year and this year he has already tied that with four. This is also his best year from the free throw line (53 percent) since 2011.
On opening night, he wasted no time in making an immediate impact on both ends of the floor with his new team, scoring 17 points and grabbing 26 rebounds with two blocks.
Against LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 12, Howard finished with 32 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks. Let’s remember that Aldridge is an MVP candidate in his own right. Nine days later against Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Howard made the second- year player look silly, dominating him with a 35-point, 19-rebound, five-assist and three-block performance. Drummond is an emerging young center who is also top five in rebounding. Then Monday, Howard overpowered the Boston Celtics for 32 points and 11 rebounds in a win.
Paired with Harden, Howard has helped bump the Rockets up from the eighth seed last year to just a game out of the fourth seed in the conference currently. The team draws comparisons to some of Howard’s Orlando teams when McHale puts shooters all over the floor allowing him space to operate – something he never really had with the Lakers. Credit McHale in realizing the Omer Asik experiment alongside Howard was never going to work, which is why the Rockets will seek compensation for Asik before the trade deadline.
Howard signed with the Rockets focusing solely on what lies ahead and for the chance to win a championship — placing the past as a distant memory. He knows he does not have any more excuses to hide behind if he fails to win now. He is the one who chose Harden to be his sidekick, to have McHale as his coach and Olajuwon as his mentor.
It was his decision alone, his own happiness at stake. It should have never been about what others wanted. Howard is happy with his decision. That’s all that matters and he realizes that now.