Dwight Howard appeared bound for Brooklyn before being traded to Los Angeles. (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
All signs pointed toward Brooklyn once Dwight Howard decided he wanted out of Orlando. The 6-foot-11 center was intrigued by the idea of getting a new perspective on his career while playing alongside his friend Deron Williams, and he wasn't hesitant to say so.
"It's a new team, going into a new city," he said. "It's a place where I could start over, start fresh."
The Magic and the Nets couldn't complete a deal before last season or last summer. The Lakers, tired of Andrew Bynum's immaturity and tender knees, were lurking in the background but needed a lot of pieces to fall into place. Besides, Howard wasn't sure he wanted to play in Los Angeles and be compared to Shaquille O'Neal, who made the same journey from Orlando in 1996. Why take the road well-traveled if you want a fresh start?
The choice was made for him when the Lakers acquired Howard in a four-team trade in August. The three-time NBA defensive player of the year and six-time All-Star has no regrets.
"Now, being here in L.A., I have the same opportunities," he said. "Everything happens for a reason and there was a reason why I didn't go to Brooklyn. There's a reason why I'm here in L.A."
The Nets, unable to get Howard from Orlando after reportedly offering Brook Lopez, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries and four first-round draft picks, made other strong off-season moves that included re-signing Williams and Lopez and acquiring six-time All-Star guard Joe Johnson from Atlanta. With Williams averaging 18 points and eight assists and Lopez averaging 17.8 points and 2.75 blocks, the Nets have assembled a five-game winning streak and 6-2 record. On Tuesday, they will make their first Staples Center visit wearing the Brooklyn logo to play the Lakers.
Nets General Manager Billy King declined to say how close his team came to acquiring Howard, and Howard said he didn't know and didn't care. "I'm going to take advantage of all the opportunities that I have here and I'm going to make the best of this situation because at the end of the day, this is the best situation for me," he said. "So I'm happy."
Howard, thoughtful and genial and more comfortable by the day, has recorded a double-double in four straight games. He's thriving under the freewheeling style of the era that began with Mike Brown's dismissal as coach and has continued with interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff and almost-coach Mike D'Antoni. Howard is averaging 11.4 rebounds — fifth in the NBA through Sunday's games — 2.7 blocks and 20 points over the Lakers' first 10 games.
Bynum, traded to Philadelphia, has yet to play this season because of a bad right knee and his recovery was set back last week when he hurt his left knee. While bowling.
In the meantime, Howard, though still far from peak shape following back surgery, has been bowling people over.
"Dwight is a force on both ends and he dominates games," D'Antoni said. "And I think he's about 75%. He's definitely not a worry. He just needs to expand his game, keep going, keep getting in shape."
Howard's biggest reservation — that he would be unfavorably compared to O'Neal — hasn't materialized.
"I would tell people I didn't want to come here and people would think I was trying to follow in somebody else's footsteps and be just like somebody else," Howard said. "But then once I got here, I just felt like there was no need to worry about people saying I'm following somebody else, but I could blaze my own trail while I'm here, and that's what I plan on doing."
If he seemed less than thrilled when D'Antoni was hired because apparent first choice Phil Jackson has a better touch with big men than D'Antoni has displayed, Howard seems a convert now. And to be fair, D'Antoni has never had a big man in his prime such as Howard, who will turn 27 on Dec. 8.
Howard's happiness is crucial to the franchise's future because he can become a free agent next summer, and his departure would be a huge blow to an aging team. His uncertain contract status surely will make him the subject of rumors as the season progresses, but for now he's content to let things play out along the road not taken.
"I'm happy where I'm at right now," he said. "I'm happy with the progress of the team and the progress of my health and I'm just looking forward to going out every night and winning games."