Dwight Howard’s departure leaves Pau Gasol eager to have a larger role

Among all the long-term struggles the Lakers could face with Dwight Howard’s departure to the Houston Rockets, there could be one unintended benefit.

Pau Gasol will remain a Laker, surviving yet another season filled with trade rumors. He might also find his groove back.

“Now with Dwight gone I am the reference inside and I am more like I was a couple of years back when we made the Finals three straight times and won two straight championships,” Gasol told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Gasol remained supportive of Howard, described as a “nice guy” and a “hard worker.” He also sounded hardly surprised about Howard’s departure, saying it was “always a possibility.” But Gasol seems relieved Howard’s departure enabled him to stay with the Lakers.

“I think I have the most uncertain period behind me. The team has suffered a lot of changes, but as far as me, I am back in the position of a lot of responsibility, which I like, and I’m just going to focus on getting healthy.”

Gasol averaged a career-low 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting and played more as a facilitator in the high post instead of inside. He also remained sidelined for 33 games because of various ailments, including because of knee tendinitis, a concussion and plantar fascia in his right foot. Once the season ended, Gasol underwent two knee procedures, one involving a probe eliminating scar tissue and another involving stem cell injections to help stimulate regeneration in Gasol’s tissue.

“These next two months are the key months to find out how they really are,” said Gasol, who added he doesn’t have any pain.

Gasol may not have played basketball recently. But his trip as a UNICEF ambassador to Iraq shows he’s at least comfortable walking, not to mention visiting a dangerous area stemmed from the U.S. led invasion in 2003. Gasol also traveled to South Africa (2005), Angola (2007), Ethiopia (2010) and Chad (2012). Each trip involved a specific responsibility, including feeding efforts (Chad, Ethiopia) and handing out medicine to help eradicate the HIV virus (South Africa, Angola).

“I’ve made five trips to the field (with UNICEF) and seen all kinds of different things and people suffering a lot of different situations,” Gasol said. “Obviously, it puts things in perspective, and all the other things I might deal with my team or with my profession are much less important or meaningful than the lives of people that are on the line every day.”

In other words, Gasol isn’t going to gripe about last season or how D’Antoni featured him.

“He had a tough position, I had a tough position,” Gasol said. “I had a job to do, he had a job to do, so there really is no mystery. I know he had challenges. It was a very challenging season. Next season is a different one and a new chapter. So we’ll start out fresh and do our best.”

Gasol could financially benefit from such a reality. He’s playing the last season of his contract with the Lakers worth $19.3 million. An improved performance could help his case for the Lakers to resign him, or spark a relatively lucrative deal elsewhere.

“I have a great motivation,” he said. “It’s the last year of my contract so I want to get back to being one of the top players in the league.”

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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