Rockets a happier crew in post-Dwight Howard state

Former center's departure in free agency has worked out well so far both parties

It will be another homecoming for the grinning big man with the twinkle in his eye. Though in Dwight Howard’s case they’re starting to pile up like ports of call in a drifting sailor’s log.

Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston have led to Atlanta, where he hasn’t put in enough hours yet to add to his trail of broken hearts. But give him time.

Howard returns to the Toyota Center Thursday night (8 ET, TNT), where the difference from a year ago is not night and day as much as it is between a deep, dark cave somewhere beneath the Earth’s crust and the surface of the sun.

This time 12 months ago, the Houston locker room could hardly have been more toxic if someone had dropped a vial of sarin gas in the middle of the floor. Colorless, odorless, deadly.

After every game, win or lose, Howard would sit in his chair on one side of the spacious, ultra-modern digs and to tap away on his phone and answer questions with soul-less platitudes. Harden, meanwhile, stood directly opposite him, singing and rapping loudly to himself, barely acknowledging that an outside world existed. Theirs was never a war of open hostility, but more like a junior high cafeteria where the students talk around each other.

After a lifeless and mediocre 41-41 finish in 2015-16, the Rockets are 36-16 — third-best in the NBA — not just because they’re better, but also happier.

Sure, Eric Gordon has pumped in the second-most 3-pointers in the league and is a leading candidate for the Kia Sixth Man Award. But he and fellow ex-New Orleans Pelican Ryan Anderson are thriving in coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense and an atmosphere that isn’t so thick with passive-aggressive discord.

Veterans Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley are Corey Brewer are back to their old selves, doing more running and diving and shooting. They’re simply enjoying themselves on the court rather than trying to see how fast they could dressed and get out of a locker room full of distrust. A year later, it’s a mope-free zone.

Chemistry is a funny and fleeting thing in sports and can blow up at a moment’s notice, especially when it was an odd, volatile mix in the first place.

It begins at the top, where Rockets own Leslie Alexander has always been a star-plucker and will perennially chase the biggest, brightest bauble — and Howard certainly was one of those in the summer of 2013.

At the same time, general manager Daryl Morey had pursued Howard like Ahab chasing the white whale for years. Trouble was, when he signed Howard to a four-year, $88-million deal (an out-clause in 2016), Morey was like the dog who finally catches the car. Now what to do?

Harden and Howard were never a good fit, not as personalities and not on the court. Not with both of them wanting the same thing, but differently. Both gave lip service to having only selfless championship goals. But the truth is each wanted to be the lead horse pulling the wagon with vastly opposing views of how the game should be played. That should all have been sorted out at those wining-and-dining meetings in Beverly Hills during the courtship process. But the Rockets’ brass had stars in their eyes and Howard simply wanted to flee the no-holds-barried criticism of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, who were then coached by D’Antoni.

After their first season together ended with Damian Lillard’s 3-point dagger knocking them out of the playoffs in the first round, the veiled recriminations began behind the scenes and they both would have preferred the other gone.

The 2014-15 season found the Rockets making a surprising run to the Western Conference finals. But that was one part beating (a broken and dysfunctional) Dallas team in the first round, another part an utterly Clippers-being-Clippers collapse in the Western Conference semifinals combined with Howard missing 41 games with leg injuries (which allowed Harden to seize control).

By the time the 2015-16 season began, the cracks in the facade had become a chasm and almost from Day One, Howard was marking time. The truth is the Rockets were perfectly happy with his numbers — 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game — last season. But Howard wasn’t happy and once he goes into full-moping mode, there’s never a good ending (as the Magic and Lakers can attest).

He returns with quite similar averages (13.8 ppg, 12.8 rpg) and is wearing the same smile for his hometown team.

At 31, in his 13th NBA season, it is fitting that Howard makes his latest return on Groundhog Day, still selling the same story. But the burned bridges are piling up.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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