And then he did the one thing nobody has ever done to the Lakers: He said "thanks, but no thanks" when L.A. begged him to stick around.
Since walking away from the disappointing mess that was the Lakers' 2012-13 season, Howard has kept relatively quiet about his time in Hollywood. But with his former team coming to visit the Houston Rockets Nov. 7, D12 is going to find himself right back in the crosshairs of his mortal enemies: Lakers fans.
Fair or not, there's no way Purple and Gold loyalists will ever forgive Howard. They view him as the symbol for everything that went wrong last season. He's a combination of a scapegoat and a whipping boy; he's a "whipping goat."
So, since he'll never be able to repair his image in the eyes of Lakers fans, Howard needs to embrace his status as a villain.
It's time for D12 to turn up his troll game. Here are a few (mostly serious) suggestions for how he can do that.
Physically, Dwight Howard may never get all the way back to the version of himself that dominated the league as recently as 2011. This is his 10th NBA season, and barring any unreported trips to Germany, D12 is unlikely to get all of his athleticism back.
But he's a heck of a lot more mobile and explosive now than he was a year ago, and that has to bother Lakers fans who feel like they never got to see how dominant Howard could be.
If Howard wants to stick it to his detractors, all he has to do is dig deep for a little extra bounce. Nothing would frustrate Lakers fans more than watching a rejuvenated Howard soar for swats and alley-oops.
Of course, merely being in the same zip code as the Earth-bound Chris Kaman will make Howard look like an Olympic high jumper. So he might not have to leap out of the gym to make L.A. fans miss him.
Howard is going to have to wait until Feb. 19 to pull this one off. The Rockets won't play the Lakers in Los Angeles until the first game after the All-Star break, which should give D12 enough time to think of a way to make his attempt to harass L.A.'s most iconic fan look like an accident.
Maybe he can work out a scheme with James Harden that involves a deliberately errant pass that bounces right toward Jack Nicholson's courtside seat. Howard, poised and ready, could make a show of diving out of bounds to save the rock, landing conveniently near Jack—to the dismay of L.A. fans everywhere.
Nicholson wouldn't be hurt, of course. There's nothing malicious about Howard; his M.O. has always been mischief. But when he snatches Jack's sunglasses off of his head and wears them as he jogs back into the play, it'll feel to Lakers fans like D12 had desecrated a sacred statue.
There's no more iconic figure in the history of Lakers' fandom than Nicholson, so if Howard really wanted to tick off L.A. fans, this would be a good place to start.
The Lakers traded for Howard because they thought he'd instantly transform them into an elite defensive team. Obviously, things didn't work out that way.
L.A. allowed 103.6 points per 100 possessions last season, which tied them for 18th place in the NBA's defensive rankings, per ESPN.
Where the Lakers hoped to have a committed, mistake-erasing force in the lane, Howard provided finger-pointing, shoulder-shrugging apathy. Sure, he'd slide over to send away a shot occasionally. But he never served as the kind of defensive anchor the Lakers needed.
Worst of all, he clearly suffered from lapses in effort. When an opposing penetrator slipped into the lane after meeting almost no resistance from the Lakers guards, D12 didn't hustle to help.
Through five games this year, the Rockets are allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions, bettering L.A.'s figure of a year ago by a significant margin. Howard is largely responsible for that number, as he's been much more conscientious and committed to helping out his teammates—who, by the way are at least as defensively inept as the cast of Lakers he played with last season.
So, if Howard wants to irritate his former team and its fans, all he has to do is play the kind of sound team defense he failed to provide last season.
After Howard signed with the Rockets, Steve Nash told Dave McMenamin of ESPN that one of the biggest issues with the Lakers in 2012-13 was that D12 had an aversion to running the kinds of plays that should have comprised most of L.A.'s offense:
He didn't seem like he really wanted to do a pick-and-roll offense, maybe because he had run one in Orlando for so long and he wanted to get in the post more...We'll see. Houston runs a pick-and-roll offense and they are littered with shooting and can maybe space the floor more for him so he can have more opportunities inside with space.
It's easy to understand why Lakers fans were frustrated by Howard's offensive preferences. The big man has been an absolutely devastating force as a roller in his career, so his refusal to embrace the practice fell somewhere between selfish and nonsensical.
Howard came to Houston whistling a different tune. Jeremy Lin told Jason C. Friedman of Rockets.com:
He’s just an athletic freak. Certain sets with him rolling down the paint toward the basket and using his athleticism, it’s going to be really good for us. I think we can be really creative with the ways that we use him. He’s just an animal when it comes to everything near the rim—he’s thrown down numerous alley-oops already from James [Harden].
The fact that Howard didn't dismiss the idea of running the pick-and-roll right away was already a step up from his attitude in L.A. If he and the Rockets guards feed the Lakers a steady diet of the exact play Howard refused to run for his former team, it'll really boil Lakers fans blood.
It wasn't so much that Howard missed a lot of foul shots last season; he does that every year. I mean, he was below the 50 percent mark from the charity stripe for just the second time in his career, but the accuracy rate wasn't the thing that bothered Lakers fans the most.
What really irked them was the way he giggled and shrugged his way through his misses.
Nobody expected Howard to suddenly turn into Mark Price from the foul line, but would it have killed him to at least look like he cared about his embarrassing brickfest?
In a way, Howard's nonchalant approach to free-throw-line failure was a microcosm of his tenure in L.A. He underperformed physically, but the real problem was that he didn't seem to be bothered by his poor performance.
If he knocks down a bunch of foul shots against the Lakers, it'll cause the collective blood pressure in the city of Los Angeles.
In terms of quality basketball, Los Angeles now belongs to the Clippers.
Doc Rivers and his squad have decided to take ownership of the Staples Center by covering up the Lakers' collection of championship banners during home games, a move that irked a few fans of the Purple and Gold. Some viewed it as a slight against the team's title-winning heritage, while others thought the gesture was more like a little brother messing up his big brother's room.
Either way, Lakers fans don't dig the banners.
Howard needs to seize the opportunity to pour salt in the wound by getting a few Clippers banners raised in the Toyota Center before the Rockets tip off against the Lakers Nov. 7.
It'd be a subtle dig at the Lakers' status as second-class citizens in Los Angeles. And seeing as his departure created one of the biggest cracks in the Lakers' facade of dominance, it'd only be fitting that Howard provide another reminder of how far his former team has fallen.
I'm sure Rockets fans would be able to stomach Blake Griffin's giant face in the rafters for one night, especially if it bugged the Lakers.
Howard couldn't keep quiet when he was with the Lakers. He griped to the media one day, then played the victim the next.
He didn't always have a coherent message, but his agenda was consistent: All he wanted was attention.
Suffice to say that the only real joy Lakers fans continue to get from Howard is when he comes off like a clown in the media. It's a nice reminder that, at least in some ways, L.A. is better off without his distracting, often embarrassing presence.
It's a tiny sliver of happiness that Lakers fans can cling to while they watch Howard try harder, play better and win more in another city.
"At least we can still laugh as he puts his foot in his mouth on a daily basis," they probably say.
But what if Howard quietly, maturely went about his business? What if he never said a single word about his former team? What would Lakers fans have then?
There's nothing Howard could do to hurt his detractors more than to grow up, shut up and play ball. After all, nobody likes the silent treatment.