LOS ANGELES -- The lingering effects from Dwight Howard's 2012 back surgery were so severe that Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale had concerns even after Houston signed the All-Star center to an $88 million contract last summer.
"Last July, when we got him, he was not healthy," McHale said Monday after the Rockets finished their morning shootaround at UCLA in advance of their game against the Los Angeles Clippers. "We signed him, and our biggest fear was his health.
"We knew he could play. He already had been three-time defensive player of the year, he'd been first-team all pro. He could still play, and he was young enough. We were more concerned about his back and his strength and flexibility."
Since then, Howard's condition has improved dramatically. Howard has averaged 15.0 points and 17.0 rebounds as the Rockets have gotten off to a 3-0 start this season.
"His health is 100 percent different," McHale said. "When we did a physical after we signed him, I sat down with our training staff and they were all like, 'Oh boy.' He had a huge discrepancy in his strength in his right leg and his left leg. His glutes and his hamstrings were really weak and his flexibility was completely ... funky.
"He really spent a lot of time this summer getting right. He's getting closer."
Howard averaged 17.1 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds with the Los Angeles Lakers during his lone, drama-filled season in which he didn't mesh with Kobe Bryant and had issues with coach Mike D'Antoni's system.
What's different in Howard's body in the four months since signing with Houston?
"Everything," Howard said Monday. "I'm moving a lot better. I'm going to get balls that I couldn't get last season. Rebounds, blocked shots, all that stuff is a lot different. I've been doing a lot of work in the offseason just to get my body back right. I feel a lot better."
Howard recognizes that many of the Lakers fans still feel stung by his choice to continue the Rockets' big-man lineage of Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming over the L.A. line of centers in George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal.
"Fans are very passionate about their team, and unfortunately the Lakers have the most fans in the world," Howard said. "So, I think it's kind of a tough thing to let go and the way the season was last year, a lot of people don't know what really happened on the court or in the locker room. They just know what was being fed to them, and they made their decision based off that.
"But I'm pretty sure if any of those people had to make a decision in front of the whole world, they wouldn't know how to react or how to do it. It was a tough decision to make, but I think I did what's best for Dwight. Like I said, I'm in a very good place. These guys have been great since Day 1. Kevin has been amazing and I'm happy. I'm really happy."
Howard will play his first game back in Staples Center on Monday after being ejected from the Lakers' playoff series-ending loss to the San Antonio Spurs in April. He will follow that up by playing the Lakers in Houston on Thursday.
"We play 82 (games)," McHale said of the early timing of the Lakers game for Howard so early in the season. "I assume that they'll be on our schedule at some point."
The 27-year-old Howard went through the ritual of facing a former team last season when the Lakers played the Orlando Magic. He memorably scored 39 points and tied his own NBA record for free throw attempts by going 25-for-39 from the line while grabbing 16 rebounds in a win for the Lakers.
Howard was reluctant to compare the two reunions, however.
"This is a totally different situation," Howard said. "I was in Orlando for eight years. That was my home. I grew up in Orlando, and going back home was tough for me and tough for a lot of the fans there. The situation was completely different.
"I never tried to do anything to hurt these people in L.A., but I understand that they're just passionate about their team and when you do something that's best for you, everybody else might not like it and they tend to react in crazy ways. You see the jerseys getting burnt and the 'Coward' jerseys and all that stuff. But that's just fans being passionate about their teams, and it's totally understandable. I have nothing bad to say about those people."
On the contrary, Howard said that he appreciated his time with the Lakers, no matter how short it may have been.
"I have never been a bad guy and I won't be that bad guy ever," Howard said. "I will always be gracious and happy to have the opportunity to play with the Lakers. It was a learning experience and I think it helped me with this team. So, I'm glad that I had the chance to play in L.A. even though it ended soon it was a learning lesson for myself and for everybody else. I think this year you'll see a different Dwight."