LOS ANGELES--Pau Gasol is still around, never mind the mountain of trade rumors about him seemingly every season, including the one that was actually true before getting vetoed by David Stern faster than you can say Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Gasol is finally in the last year of his contract, coming off a bunch of career lows last season and a knee procedure that sidelined him the entire summer.
But he's still here in Los Angeles, somewhat miraculously in NBA circles, more than 5 1/2 years after a multiplayer deal, including Kwame Brown, helped turn him into a Laker.
"I'm a survivor," Gasol says self-deprecatingly.
He'll be a free agent next July after earning $19.3 million this season, but people only talk about the Lakers trying to sign LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony next summer, never about re-signing Gasol.
Can a four-time All-Star be underappreciated? Certainly. Is it possible to forget about a guy who had 19 points and 18 rebounds in a Game 7 victory in the NBA Finals? Entirely.
But remember, Gasol was still on the court when the Lakers were destroyed by San Antonio in last season's playoff sweep.
"Last guy standing," Gasol said ruefully, reflecting on Kobe Bryant's season-ending injury and Dwight Howard's Game 4 ejection as part of the failed championship expectations that accompanied a $100-million payroll.
It was important for him to be on the court as the Lakers lost by 21 points, representing the same franchise that had him scrambling for a plane ticket to Houston almost two years ago before the NBA commissioner infamously stopped a three-team trade.
"It's nice to be here in the last year of my contract," Gasol said. "I'd love to continue to play with the Lakers (next year). We've been through so much together. Mostly amazing moments and some hard moments too.
"It's like a relationship. If you're still together, it shows improved strength and consistency and how solid the relationship is. Hopefully we'll see if we can extend it."
Gasol, 33, would rather forget last season. He missed eight games because of tendinitis in his knees and was benched three times in the fourth quarter before Christmas presents were even opened.
Then he lost his starting job for a handful of games in favor of Earl Clark, only to earn it back before missing more than six weeks because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
Along the way, Gasol had career lows in points (13.7), field-goal percentage (46.6 percent) and games played (49), while trying to become something he's not -- a long-range shooter -- after being shoved out of the post by the less-versatile Howard.
Gasol will return to center, where he'll once again be important ... assuming he's healthy.
He underwent a procedure in May to reduce chronic soreness in his knees. A large needle was inserted into each knee and emitted ultrasound waves to clean degenerative tissue and break up calcifications, Gasol said. Six days after that, stem cells were extracted from the back of his hip and injected into his knees to promote regeneration of healthy tissue.
Gasol couldn't do anything active for three months. He started running again only three weeks ago. He's easing into training-camp practices but will be ready for the season opener Oct. 29 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"If he's healthy, he's going to be an All-Star player," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "He'll be the focal point of our play in the paint. He's not going to have to share really that much space.
"A lot of what we did last year was an adjustment and deferring, trying to figure out how Dwight would fit in, trying to figure out how to get the best out of him. So Pau made a lot of sacrifices last year."
If the Lakers start losing, though, the trade rumors might snare Gasol again.
He still looks back at December 2011 as one of the low points of his career. Gasol would have headed to the Rockets, Lamar Odom to New Orleans and Paul to the Lakers right before training camp began in the lockout-shortened season.
"The trade that happened but didn't happen," Gasol said. "I came in ready to start strong and get back to my highest level and just full of desire and excitement, but that was a quick punch that I didn't expect. I think I handled it pretty well.
"I got over that first hit knowing that there was a real chance it could happen at any point, that the team was open to it. That kind of lingered throughout the year. It kind of made me a little tired. It's not the most ideal for an NBA player or any person that has a job to know that one day they can call you up and tell you to pack your things and go to a different city, a different state."
Funny thing, though. Gasol was the one still out there last April against San Antonio.
"I'm very loyal and passionate about my commitment to a team," he said. "That could have been my last game with the Lakers, wearing that uniform. To me, that was powerful and meaningful. Regardless of being down 3-0 and regardless having lost Game 3 by 30 or 40 points at home, I wanted to make sure I went down swinging."
As he goes into a contract year, Gasol has plenty of pleasant memories with the Lakers. Nothing stands out more than June 17, 2010.
"When we finished playing against Boston in Game 7 here, I was completely exhausted, my energy completely drained," he said of the Lakers' tense 83-79 title victory. "I couldn't even express my excitement that particular moment because it took that much emotionally and physically to be able to do it."
It's difficult to predict where he'll be a year from now. It's impossible to guess what the franchise will look like with only three players under contract after June (Steve Nash, Nick Young and Robert Sacre).
Gasol's made it this far. Tough to imagine the Lakers without him.
(c)2013 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services