The moment Pau Gasol walked off the floor, he heard a roar from the Staples Center crowd that suggested more than just a sendoff marking the end of a season.
It could also mark the last time Lakers fans will see him wearing purple and gold.
“There is a sense that might happen,” Gasol said following the Lakers’ 103-82 Game 4 loss Sunday to the San Antonio Spurs. “That is not something I have thought a lot about. I always try to play my best as if it is my last game. I am very thankful for our fans and the support they show.”
Gasol nearly choked up when he said those words, but it remains to be seen whether the Lakers front office will feel just as nostalgic.
The Lakers’ offseason mostly hinge on Dwight Howard’s future. If he stays with the Lakers, he would receive $117.8 million over five years. If he signs with any other team, he will get a four-year deal worth $87.6 million. Meanwhile, the Lakers could shed Gasol’s $19.3 million left on his contract through a trade or the amnesty provision.
Does Gasol sense his future hinges on what Howard does?
“They will try to get Dwight and extend him. That’s why they brought him here,” Gasol said in an interview with this newspaper. “But I don’t think everything is set in stone in the sense that if he stays, I’m definitely gone or if he goes, I’m definitely here. Ownership has to answer that.”
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak wasn’t immediately available for comment. But Gasol believes Kobe Bryant will directly advocate for him to stay after repeatedly supporting him this season.
“We both appreciate what we bring to the table and have great respect for what we’ve done,” said Gasol, who teamed up with Bryant to win two NBA titles in 2009 and 2010. “No matter what, he always had my back, I always had his back. But it’s not going to come down to that.”
Instead, it could come down to how Gasol fits in with the Lakers.
He battled various ailments that sidelined him for 33 games, including plantar fascia in his right foot, a concussion and tendinitis in both knees. Gasol faced a reduced role to accommodate Howard and D’Antoni’s offense. He even handled a bench role for six games.
“I would like to be a part of another championship team here, but it’s not up to me,” said Gasol, who has averaged 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting and 8.6 rebounds this season. “I’ll be surprised if there’s no changes whatsoever …. It’s always interesting.”
Of course, Gasol isn’t new to this.
The Lakers originally tried trading him Dec. 2011 in a deal that would’ve landed them Chris Paul, but NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the proposal while overseeing the ownership group of the New Orleans Hornets. Endless trade rumors ensued. That died down this season, but Gasol still found himself trying to restore the role he once had when he helped the Lakers to two NBA championships in 2009 and 2010.
“It was hard for me to be that vocal leader and have that sense of responsibility on the team,” Gasol said. “I’ve been a vocal leader for the last part of the season. Things went through my hands and I was able to make a lot of plays. You feel that way and feel you have th right and need to step up and be that voice.”
Through seven games in April, the Lakers’ output from both Howard (21.6 points) and Gasol (17.6 points) represented their highest all season when they played together in the starting lineup. They routinely looked for each other on lob passes and post-ups. Though the Lakers struggled with handling San Antonio’s double teams, Howard (20.3) and Gasol (13.3) still led the Lakers’ offense. That’s understandable considering the numerous ailments, including Kobe Bryant (season-ending torn left Achilles’ tendon), Steve Nash (sore right hamstring/hip) and Steve Blake (strained right hamstring). Such an effort prompted D’Antoni to call Gasol “arguably the best center in the league.”
“We had a much better concentration and understanding on the floor. Due to the injuries, the ball has gone through our hands a lot more,” Gasol said. “We’ve been able to work on passing and I’ve been trying to get an easy basket. It’s hard for him at times to fight through the post. The defense goes at him. But the connection has been good. I think we’ve been very effective the last part of the season. I was able to give a lot of good looks and baskets. My relationship on the floor has been great.”
But will that relationship last?
Gasol has experienced this uncertainty for far too long the past two years to know. But as he stepped off the floor for the final three minutes of an otherwise awful game, it’s clear many Lakers fans want him to stay. They remember all too well how his arrival in 2008 after a trade from Memphis spawned three consecutive NBA Finals appearances and two championships. Gasol wants to experience that again — as a Laker.
“We can definitely get it done,” Gasol said. “But I would be pretty surprised if there were no changes whatsoever.”
And with that, Gasol exited the interview room. He chatted with a few team officials and reporters as he walked his way toward the loading dock. And then Gasol headed toward the exit, unsure if he will ever return here as a Laker again.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org