More and more over the past two months, Dwight Howard has smiled the real smile.

He has joked with people to make himself happy instead of worrying about making them laugh. He has accepted both criticism and advice of others and come away a bigger man because he's not trying so hard to judge himself compared to any others.

Howard is growing all on his own, single-mindedly focused on who he wants to be, and he has taken another major step forward in his career by leaving the business manager who has been Howard's primary advisor his entire career, Kevin Samples.

"We had nine great years together," Howard told me late Monday night. "Just time to go separate ways."

For all the intangible growth Howard has discovered recently, breaking away from Samples is a concrete gesture that the past is the past – and Howard is confident in calling his own shots in the future.

"I know what I want to accomplish," Howard said. "I've always written down my goals and everything I want, and I want to make sure I get 'em. Everything I've lost, everything that's gone away, I'm going to get it back."

Samples came to Los Angeles with Howard after the trade to the Lakers, and it was hard to envision him not being around considering they're actually first cousins – and Howard's parents dispatched Samples to live with Howard in Orlando right after the 2004 NBA draft as a big brother/guidance counselor/business manager.

Their relationship grew into Dwight Howard Enterprises, which had two and only two officers: Howard and Samples.

For Howard to sever the tie is no small statement.

"He's still my cousin, my family, so we'll always be around each other," Howard said. "But we just parted ways on the business side."
Someone should've been fired for the "Dwightmare" in Orlando, for sure. But Howard's M.O. has never been to hold an employee accountable like some cold-hearted taskmaster.

What has changed is Howard can reflect on what went awry in Orlando with a healthy perspective now: He wanted to leave the Magic organization, but not really the people and the community that had become so connected to him. He needed to venture out to grow and deep-down he knew it – but he was a little scared to try something that big and new.