Dwight Howard is still the same guy who alienated teammates, media and fans with his look-at-me schtick with the Los Angeles Lakers. So why are things going so much more smoothly for him with the Houston Rockets?
Simple: Houston has collectively decided to embrace Howard for who he is, warts and all.
We should probably start by emphasizing that D12, as prone to jokes and as attention-hungry as ever, is goofing off just as much with the Rockets as he did with the Lakers.
His legacy of silliness started early in L.A., as he good-naturedly mocked new teammate Kobe Bryant's brusque manner of speaking in an introductory press conference.
At the time, everybody was enamored with the big man, which explains the tickled reaction by the assembled Los Angeles press. It wouldn't be long until everyone in Lakerland was fed up with displays like this, though. But we'll get back to Howard's L.A. struggles in a moment.
In Houston, Howard's goofiness isn't still in that honeymoon phase, but it's pretty close. Everybody enjoyed his clearly rehearsed reaction to the Rockets' mascot scaring him and his teammates after shootaround:
And his one-on-one game with a fan during a rain delay in Washington hasn't met with nearly the same negative, cynical response it would have a year ago.
The key difference is that the media in Houston isn't champing at the bit to call out Howard for being a phony like everyone in Los Angeles was.
The Lakers had a legacy, one that required a certain level of professionalism and reverence for the brand. When Howard repeatedly joked and occasionally whined, he was perceived as not living up to the high standards in L.A.
Teammates bristled and the media buried him.
Bryant was a key figure in said burial, as he went out of his way to call out Howard as things went south for the Lakers.
This is the same Dwight Howard whose indecision in Orlando led to quite the backlash from fans. In Los Angeles, he ran into another buzz saw, this one named Kobe Bryant. The ultra-serious Laker guard did not take kindly to Howard's goofing off. In fact, he perceived it as weakness and, as a result, so did fans, former athletes and sports writers. The narrative became that Bryant, the winner, couldn't tolerate a loser like Howard.
L.A. was ecstatic to bring Howard aboard, but there was always a tricky balance to strike between appeasing him and wanting the big man to feel appropriately honored to even be a part of Laker lore. That created a weird dynamic that was especially irksome to Howard, a man totally convinced that this world and every other one revolved around him.
Things have changed in Houston, even if Howard hasn't.
Per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Rockets teammate Chandler Parsons says the attitude toward Howard is exceedingly positive these days:
He is in a good place and back to being a dominating center in the league. Everyone on our team and in our city has embraced his personality and taken him in and love him being in Houston. … I wouldn't want anyone else as my center.
How's that for contrast?
The Rockets aren't just letting Howard be who he wants to be in the locker room. They're also allowing him to have a larger say in what he does on the court.
Despite being a devastatingly effective pick-and-roll threat, Howard has always been reluctant to commit to a heavy dose of those types of sets. Instead, he wants the ball on the block. We know he's not quite as effective in his preferred area, but the Rockets don't seem to care.
They realize that keeping Howard happy is more important than whatever statistical advantage they might gain from forcing him into positions he hates.
Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), D12 is posting up on more than half of his offensive touches this year, a notable increase over his 2012-13 numbers with the Lakers. He's also being used as a roll man just 7.6 percent of the time, down from 11.4 percent last year.
Those statistics aren't overwhelming, but combined with a more accommodating environment, they've resulted in a version of Howard that is more satisfied, less disruptive and generally more valuable.
That's not to say Howard's time in Houston is guaranteed to stay this way. The fact that the Rockets are winning games and meeting expectations is helpful to both player-team and player-media relations. If losses begin to mount, who knows what might happen?
The lesson here seems to be that certain big-time stars tend to perform best when teams let them do whatever they want. Come to think of it, that's not really much of a lesson at all; we've known that forever.
Ultimately, letting the baby have his bottle is a dangerous way to address problematic behavior. In Howard's case, it's possible he'll eventually act out even more severely just to test his boundaries.
But what the Rockets are doing seems to be working right now. Howard is playing well and his team is in good shape.
Let's just hope he doesn't break out a James Harden impression any time soon.