Rockets center Dwight Howard is sure to draw double teams like the one deployed… (Bob Levey / Getty Images )
Dwight Howard walked past Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak in that Staples Center tunnel last spring and never really stopped, the allure of less pressure and a permanent honeymoon triggering a Texas two-step.
The hypersensitive hulk returns to the same court for the first time Monday night to face the Clippers, having gone from ejected in his final game as a Laker to elated in his first week as a Houston Rocket.
"I'm just happy to be on the floor playing, being a lot healthier than I was last season," Howard told reporters a few days ago. "I'm just full of joy."
Why wouldn't he be? Howard's debut with the Rockets has been the inverse of his dreadful start with the Lakers.
His team is 3-0 instead of 0-3. His body is spry as opposed to hobbled. His coach is safe and not embattled.
Perhaps most important, his status is secure instead of uncertain, that four-year, $88-million contract erasing any wisps of the ominous cloud that followed him throughout his only season as a Laker.
He'll be a Rocket for years to come not just because the team enticed him with its young core and championship aspirations.
Owner Leslie Alexander may have actually sealed Howard's commitment after the Rockets' formal recruiting pitch in July when he spoke privately with the object of his desires on a bench at the Hotel Bel-Air.
"The theme was if he comes here it will be more like one big family," Alexander told the Houston Chronicle on the day Howard was formally introduced to Rockets fans. "He will be taken care of. We take care of our players. And he'll enjoy himself in a different atmosphere than he's used to."
No doubt about that.
Howard has gone from a fan base that expects championships to one that hasn't abandoned a team with one playoff-series victory in the last 16 seasons.
He's traded the demanding tandem of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for the relatively easygoing duo of James Harden and Chandler Parsons, who have five fewer titles and three fewer most-valuable-player awards than their Lakers counterparts.
He's escaped the shadows of Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain by stepping into the realm of Hakeem Olajuwon, who won't challenge Howard in the acerbic manner that the living Lakers greats would.
In other words, Howard can't lose in Houston, even if he loses. He can keep smiling and constantly find someone who will smile back.
The Lakers didn't exactly restrain themselves even before Howard left town, Bryant challenging him during a timeout in Oklahoma City and Nash scrunching his face in disdain after Howard failed to move into position to grab a pass in Miami.
They also didn't feign support for Howard's decision once he left.
Bryant unfollowed him on Twitter. Abdul-Jabbar questioned his basketball IQ on ESPN. O'Neal said he couldn't handle being a Laker and was better suited to "a little town like Houston."
And they weren't the only derisive ones around the NBA.
Alluding to Howard's decision to spurn his team in free agency, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called him an "idiot."
Howard just kept smiling.
"There's no need to be mad," Howard told reporters Friday after the Rockets beat Cuban's team. "He said what he had to say.… I totally understand. It was business. If I would have went to his team, he would have been happy. If not, he wouldn't have felt like that was the best decision for me. But I have to do what's best for Dwight."
He always does, even if it means holding fans in Orlando and Los Angeles hostage with his indecisiveness.
Howard has tantalized his newest supporters with his early play, taking 26 rebounds in his Rockets debut to match a career high. He has averaged 15 points, a league-high 17 rebounds and has even made half of his free throws, a slight uptick over last season's 49.2%.
So what if Houston has beaten only the middling Mavericks as well as two of the league's worst teams in the Charlotte Bobcats and Utah Jazz? The vibes will always be positive in a place where Howard's mere presence is a victory.
The Lakers should consider themselves spared by the departure of a super-nice man whose cape isn't cut from championship cloth. Here's suggesting they greet his return to Southern California by putting up a few of those old billboards, with one letter strategically added.