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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.”