Howard and Lakers in Houston -- what might have been

HOUSTON -- They've all moved on in one way or another. All of the key characters from last season's Los Angeles Lakers drama have found themselves in a new reality -- at long last -- of their choosing.

But reunions have a funny way of forcing you to deal with old emotions and lingering issues.

So for one night at least, Dwight Howard and the Lakers will go back to talking about all of the things they grew tired of talking about last season. All of the chemistry issues the best team money could buy never resolved. All of the "what ifs" and "why nots" that everyone involved just has to live with and learn from now.

Could things have been different? Was there anything anyone could have done to change the outcome?

Howard was in Los Angeles earlier this week to play the Los Angeles Clippers, returning to Staples Center for the first time since his season came to a frustrating, tearful end when the Lakers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. A season that had begun with championship aspirations, a season in which Howard consistently battled pain and injury (he had preseason back surgery and suffered a torn labrum midway through the season), had ended in crushing disappointment and inevitable regret.

Now, his Houston Rockets host the Lakers for the first time since he decided to leave.

When the Lakers made their previous trip to Houston, in early January, Howard was just two days removed from suffering the torn labrum. He watched from the bench and saw the Rockets erase a 14-point first-quarter deficit en route to a 125-112 runaway victory.

He saw James Harden come out on top of the individual matchup with Kobe Bryant, dropping 31 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds on 11-for-19 shooting to Bryant's 20, 7 and 5 on 8-for-22.

He saw 6-foot-9, 24-year-old Chandler Parsons fill up the stat sheet with 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a block and a steal.

He saw Jeremy Lin excite the crowd with his boundless energy and joy for the game.

And he saw Kevin McHale, one of the best big men of all time, on the sideline presiding over it all.

There were his future teammates. There was his future coach. You have to wonder, did Howard know right then and there where he wanted to be? When he heard Steve Nash tell reporters after the game, "I definitely don't think there's a guarantee" that the Lakers would ever get it together with the group they had, did he silently nod his head in agreement?

The Lakers brought Mike D'Antoni, Bryant and Nash to their pitch meeting to try to keep Howard in L.A., but they did not connect, and he chose to leave for Houston and a four-year, $88 million contract.

Howard hasn’t spoken to most of his former teammates since choosing Houston, telling reporters this week that the Lakers he still talks to are Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre.

"I wanted him to come back," Meeks said. "He was a great teammate, but at the end of the day, I didn't want him to come back if he wasn't going to be happy. I wanted it to be good for both parties. He's where he wants to be."

Limited by injuries and unsettled in his role in the Lakers' offense, Howard often seemed uncomfortable in L.A. and sometimes pressed to be thought of as the franchise centerpiece. When Lakers security personnel carried Bryant’s bags on road trips, for example, Howard would demand the same treatment, as if he envied the longtime star’s status.

On practice days, Howard had his driver keep the engine running on his blue Maybach outside the team facility in El Segundo, as if he had somewhere else to be. "There's probably a hole in the ozone layer right above El Segundo because of him," one source said.

"It got a little bit sideways, I think, for everybody," D'Antoni said. "Not saying who's at fault, who isn't. I don't think he was completely healthy and there was a lot of pressure on them. Right from the beginning, they thought championship or bust, and he wasn't healthy. Now all of the sudden, starting in the preseason, you lose eight preseason games, you go 1-3 at the first [games of the regular season] and now it's like, 'Oh, shoot.'

"For everybody concerned, nobody left it just to mature into what it should have been and it never got there -- for all kinds of reasons. It's too bad. He's obviously a great player, but now, let's turn the page and let's go on. No use crying over spilled milk, it just happens."

On Thursday, an injured Bryant will have the courtside seat. You have to wonder, will he watch Howard and Harden lead the Rockets and think of what might have been?