HOUSTON (AP) — New Rocket Dwight Howard is healthy and talking about bringing a championship to Houston.
“We have an opportunity to do something special if we stay together and stay focused,” Howard said Friday on the eve of Houston’s training camp.
He was slowed last year after offseason back surgery, which played a part in a disappointing and difficult season with the Lakers. The center’s signing propelled the James Harden-led Rockets from a young and talented group to immediate contenders.
“For me, being healthy, I think it’s going to bring back a lot of the things that I’ve done in the past,” Howard said. “I’m very excited about it.”
The Rockets gave him a four-year deal worth about $88 million, a year less and far below the $118 million the Lakers could have offered. But Howard was ready for a fresh start after a tumultuous time in Los Angeles, which included an admission that there were times that he wasn’t having fun and what many believed to be a strained relationship with Kobe Bryant.
He wasn’t interested in talking too much about last season, but acknowledged the difficulties of the year.
“It happened,” he said. “It’s over with. It didn’t work out on both sides, so we have to move on.”
Then he raved about the relationships he’s already built with his new teammates and his excitement about playing on such a young, energetic team.
“I’m in a better place mentally, spiritually and physically,” Howard said.
Howard, point guard Jeremy Lin and Harden were among several players who spent time in Aspen, Colo. in the offseason working with Houston great Hakeem Olajuwon. Howard and Lin separately relayed a story about a time during the workouts where Lin lobbed a bad and high pass intended for Howard.
Lin immediately began to apologize for the errant throw, but there was no need. Howard jumped up to grab it and dunked it with ease.
“I was like: `Oh, wow. OK, that’s good for me,”‘ Lin said of that moment. “He makes my job easier.”
Howard chuckled as he recalled the play.
“He was in shock that I actually caught it because he hasn’t seen that and it’s been a while since I was able to do that kind of stuff,” Howard said. “So I think my health is coming back. I’m getting some of the bounce back in my legs. It takes a while to recover from back surgery.”
The Rockets reached the playoffs for the first time since 2009 last season and battled back from a 3-0 deficit before being eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6.
Harden went from being a sixth man with the Thunder to bona fide star in Houston. He’s looking forward to doing even more with the addition of Howard.
“We have all the right pieces,” Harden said. “We have a lot of talent in that locker room. We have no more excuses. We’re just trying build on what we did last season.”
General manager Daryl Morey believes pairing Howard with Harden gives Houston its best chance to win since the team featured Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
“We have two top-10 players in the league,” Morey said. “They have to continue to prove that, but both of them have played at extremely high levels. In the league you’ve got to have at least one and it’s great to have two like we have now playing at an elite level. Then you have guys who can play a role and play it well around them.”
The Rockets are also looking forward to the possibility of playing Howard and last year’s starting center, 7-foot Omer Asik, at the same time.
“Our focus as a team is on the defensive end,” Howard said. “(Omer and I) have an opportunity to really mess up a lot of teams on the defensive end because of our presence.”
Houston coach Kevin McHale noted the development of Lin in his first season in Houston. A year removed from “Linsanity” in New York, McHale thinks Lin made great progress in his first full season in the NBA after playing just 64 games combined in his first two seasons.
Lin isn’t comfortable with being the focal point of a team and enjoys having a lower profile on a team with featuring Howard and Harden.
“From a personal standpoint, there’s a lot less pressure this season,” Lin said. “I’ve had such a wide spectrum of literally no expectations to having every expectation. Now it’s kind of going back down to some lower expectations.”