Updated at: 10/23/2013 6:06 PM
By KRISTIE RIEKEN
(AP) HOUSTON - Dwight Howard is happy again.
He says he has put his disappointing and drama-filled season in Los Angeles behind him. He seems ecstatic about joining the Houston Rockets and helping the young team compete for a championship _ and maybe, just maybe, he will return to form as the NBA’s most dominant big man.
"I’m in a better place mentally, physically and spiritually now," Howard said.
His delight is evident in watching him interact with his new teammates. He wears a broad smile and fits of laughter are common as he chats with his fellow Rockets.
Howard spurned the Lakers to sign an $88 million deal with Houston, joining James Harden and a team that made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009.
He wouldn’t get into specifics about the problems in his short stint with the Lakers after he was traded there in August 2012 from Orlando as part of a four-team trade. But most agree that he had a strained relationship with Kobe Bryant in a season where he has admitted that he wasn’t having fun at times.
The Lakers struggled all season and was swept in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers could have offered him a five-year contract worth $118 million, but he chose to make the move to Houston with a four-year deal.
"The situation in L.A., what happened is over with," Howard said. "It didn’t work out on both sides. So we have to move on. It happens in everyday life. People decide to do different things with their lives. It’s just that when you’re NBA and at the top of your game everybody wants to know what you’re doing."
Howard lights up when asked about his new teammates and talks endlessly about the fun they’ve had in bonding both on and off the court. When asked if that aspect of the move was the most important to him after last season, his response was telling _ even if he wouldn’t specifically address the Lakers.
"For any team to be successful you have to have a great environment," he said. "You don’t want to work in a bad place."
Whether simply perception or reality, his feud with Bryant had some wondering if he was the problem. There were questions if he might mess up the chemistry of a team that made marked improvement in the first year with James Harden on the roster.
The Rockets brushed off that notion, and everyone has raved about Howard’s personality and work ethic.
"Dwight’s a great guy," coach Kevin McHale said. "Plays hard, likes to have fun, so it’s just been pretty seamless to add him to the team."
Harden, who was the fifth-leading scorer in the league last season, rolled his eyes when asked if he’d be able to coexist with Howard when Bryant couldn’t.
"It’s my job to make it work," the 24-year-old Harden said. "He’s going to teach me some things that I don’t know and I’ll teach him some things he doesn’t know. That’s the kind of partnership and friendship we’re going to have in order to be successful. That’s the only way you can be successful is if you be 100 percent with each other."
Howard struggled last season after back surgery. He now knows that he came back too soon and said he never felt like himself. An entire offseason of rehabilitation and training has him feeling like the player he once was. He wasn’t as dominant in 2012 as he has been, but still averaged more than 17 points per game and led the league in rebounding with 12.4 an outing.
Though he’s left L.A., he knows that the glare of the spotlight probably won’t dim much with the expectations surrounding the Rockets. That’s OK with him. After last year, he’s more equipped to deal with it.
"If you get caught up in the good, bad and the ugly, it messes you up as a person and as a player," he said. "I think some of that happened with me last year. I allowed the bad stuff that happened to really sit in my head, push myself away from people in different situations and that’s not who I am. So you have to step away from all the negativity or whatever it might be and just focus on the task at hand."
Howard is just 27, but he’s one of the older players on a Houston team that was the NBA’s youngest a year ago. He enjoys the energy of his younger teammates, but joked that when they’d want to play 10 or 12 pickup games in a row, he’d beg them to slow down.
"I’m like, `Guys, I’m almost pushing 30. I need a break,’" he said. "But I love it."
Howard stayed away from talking Lakers, but he couldn’t stop talking about his other former team, the Magic. He referred to Orlando often when discussing why he likes the Rockets and how they’ve made him feel at home. Howard specifically talked about the bond he and his Magic teammates had in 2009.
"They’re full of life and after practice everybody is together talking and I just love that feeling," he said of the Rockets. "It reminds me of the team in Orlando when we went to the Finals _ we were always together. Everything that we did was together. It really makes the team better on the floor when you have that great chemistry off the floor."
Now, he’s made the Rockets contenders after several lean years for the first time since Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were on the roster.
"We’re goofy. We have fun, but we like to work," Harden said, referring to himself and Howard. "That’s the most important thing. We’re not going to be all strict, we’re young. We like to have fun. When it’s time to get serious and when it’s time to win, we’ll be focused."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)