EL SEGUNDO, California (AP) — Pau Gasol politely stepped out of the paint when Andrew Bynum emerged as a dominant NBA center for the Los Angeles Lakers. The 7-foot-Spaniard stayed in a complementary role when Dwight Howard joined the club for one crazy season.
With Bynum in Cleveland and Howard now in Houston, Gasol is eager to be the Lakers' man in the middle again.
"I want to be back to being a dominant player out there," Gasol said. "I'd like to dominate the game, dominate whoever I face, and get back to being one of the top players in the league. ... My preference is to be more inside, because I think I've been very effective throughout the years. I think I can be more productive, more helpful to the team."
After shuffling Gasol's roles and nearly trading him in recent years, the Lakers are favoring Gasol again. They're counting on the 33-year-old to reclaim his championship-winning form after spending most of his offseason dealing with his aching knees — when he wasn't representing the failed Madrid Olympic bid, doing extensive charity work or tweeting photos from Spain's finest restaurants.
"Pau is probably the best offensive center in the league and the most talented big guy in the league," said coach Mike D'Antoni, who sometimes didn't seem to have a role for Gasol in his offense last season. "All of a sudden, he's in his natural position where he'll feel good about it. ... He can play anywhere, but he's a devastating center in the league, and always has been. He can get back to his natural position more times."
With Kobe Bryant sidelined indefinitely, it's clear why the Lakers hope to lean on Gasol, who rarely complained in the face of coaching changes, fan criticism and the usual Lakers upheaval during the three seasons since Los Angeles' last championship.
The four-time All-Star big man loves the franchise in a way Howard never understood, and the Lakers are returning that love — albeit without talks on a contract extension yet.
"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'll be able to post up. He's not going to have to really share 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, and how to get the best out of him. So Pau made a lot of sacrifices last year, and I think he's looking forward to playing this year."
After battling injuries and pain throughout last season, Gasol is also healthier as the Lakers begin training camp. He missed 33 games last season with plantar fasciitis, torn tendons, a concussion and knee woes, saying he was never even healthy in training camp.
Those injuries aren't surprising for a big man in his 30s, but they're also the product of Gasol's heavy workload during the Lakers' three straight seasons with NBA finals trips after he arrived in 2008.
"One hundred percent, it's out of the question," Gasol said with a laugh. "I don't think I'll ever be 100 percent any more, but I think I'll be a lot better than I was last year, and that will be a big improvement."
Gasol had work done on both of his knees in the offseason to address tendinosis, although he's still being cautious with workouts early in training camp. The procedure known as FAST (Focused Aspiration of Scar Tissue) was aimed at rejuvenating his knees.
"It was a painful recovery at first," Gasol said. "A week after I did the procedure, I had to get the stem cells out of my back and shoot them up to my tendons, so that irritated them again, but a few weeks after that, I was able to walk again and live a little bit of a normal life, but then I had to give time to the knees to recover and absorb what I had injected, so I had to wait to start working again, and it's been good since then."
Gasol is making $19.3 million this season in the final year of his contract, and the Lakers haven't approached him to discuss an extension. After nearly getting traded for Chris Paul and being mentioned in virtually every rumor around the franchise in the last few years, Gasol isn't exactly worried about his future.
"I don't look at this as the last ride, but you never know," Gasol said. "That's why you have to fully commit to the present, the season, and make the best of it and see what comes out. Nothing new. I've learned to live my life on a daily basis, and try to have fun in the process."