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Dwight Howard leaving the Rockets was best for both sides

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He’s been booed every time he returns to his old stomping grounds. That’ll probably happen again as Atlanta visits Houston, but he’ll be OK with it.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard will make his first appearance at the Toyota Center Thursday night since leaving the Houston Rockets for his hometown Atlanta Hawks in free agency.

Howard opted out of the final year of his contract, worth $23.2 million, despite Houston’s efforts to retain him, though their hiring of Mike D’Antoni was against that rhetoric.

The 6’11 big man later agreed to a three-year deal worth $70.5 million to return home and play for the Hawks.

In an interview with ESPN’s Mike & Mike over the summer, he detailed the relationship, or lack thereof, with Houston’s franchise pillar, James Harden.

“It wasn’t as good as it needed to be for us to succeed. But, you know, looking back on it, there’s really nothing that we can do about it now,” Howard said. “Talking about it amongst ourselves is great, but for myself, and I think for the Rockets, we all have to move on and let that chapter of all of our lives pass. I wish the relationship would have been a lot better, but throughout all the things that happened the last couple of years, I think it’s shaped and molded me into the player — the person — that I am today. It made me stronger.”

In the end, though, this divorce was best for both sides.

The Rockets have launched since Howard’s departure

Harden is the runaway candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, words that weren’t a thought while Howard was in town. Harden handily leads the league with 11.5 assists per game and his scoring clip of 28.4 points per game ranks behind only Russell Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas.

Thanks to Howard’s decision to bolt for home, The Beard can be mentioned in the same breath as NBA legends like Oscar Robertson and Nate “Tiny” Archibald as the only players in league history to average at least 28 points and 10 assists in a season. Westbrook, who is averaging a triple-double, is also on pace to join that list.

With D’Antoni orchestrating from the sidelines, Houston is pelting teams with threes from uncharted distances all due to Harden’s ability to score isolation situations. And because of their re-tooled roster, the Rockets are seated firmly at the West’s third seed.

Howard seems to have found happiness at home

The eight-time NBA All-Star just hasn’t had the same pep to his step since things in Orlando got awkward with the front office and then-head coach Stan Van Gundy. Howard couldn’t establish any chemistry with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and had similar issues with Harden in Houston.

But in Atlanta, Howard’s said he’s “just happy to be back home.”

The numbers are the same. Howard’s posting 12.8 rebounds per game, more than his career average 12.7 boards. His 13.6 points per game are the fewest since his rookie year, and 1.2 blocks per game is a career low.

But Atlanta is 28-21 and sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks are still winning games, even after dealing Kyle Korver in a suspected mid-season blowup. And as long as Howard is happy, opting out to head home was the right choice for him, too.

Howard shouldn’t expect a warm welcome from Rockets fans, though

Right choice or not, Howard still must confront the Houston crowd upon his return. History shows Dwight Howard is 0-for-everything when returning to an old home crowd as a visitor:

When he returned to Amway Center for the first time as a Los Angeles Laker:

When he returned to Staples Center for the first time as a Houston Rocket:

When he checked into the game at Amway Center as an Atlanta Hawk:

That time he tried to fight a Lakers fan for calling him a “b——”:

Odds Dwight gets booed at the Toyota Center on Thursday: 27.5/10