POSTED: Jul 30, 2013 12:58 PM ET
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With Dwight Howard gone and Kobe Bryant injured, Pau Gasol is eager to reassert himself as a leader of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Gasol told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he wants, knees allowing, to be the dominant player of old who helped Bryant and Co. win back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010.
"I think I have the most uncertain period behind me," Gasol said. "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.
"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."
The Lakers have entered one of the franchise's most difficult eras in recent memory, with Howard snubbing the storied club to sign with the Houston Rockets, and Bryant, its heart and soul, out indefinitely recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
Gasol said he wasn't surprised by Howard's decision to leave after just one season because it was "always a possibility." He described his former teammate a "nice guy" and a "hard worker."
Gasol spoke to the AP in the Barcelona airport, where he had just returned from a trip as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador to a refugee camp established in Iraq for the thousands fleeing the armed conflict in neighboring Syria. Gasol called attention to the shortages of "water supplies, schools for children, and medicine" in the camp that was built for 15,000 but has taken in 50,000.
Gasol said that his humanitarian work gives balance to his life as a professional athlete and all the noise surrounding his team, especially during last season when the Lakers went from preseason title contender to getting swept in the first round of the playoffs.
"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."
Despite the loss of Howard, Bryant's injury, and a disappointing 2012-13 season, the Lakers have so far not opted to completely overhaul the team. Instead, they seem prepared to wait for Bryant to get healthy and go for another run with him and Gasol as their veteran pillars.
The Lakers did waive Metta World Peace, but they signed Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman.
Yet even with Howard off to Texas, there are still two factors that will play an important role in whether Gasol can return to his peak form at 33 years old and entering his 13th season in the league: his health and his coach.
Gasol had surgery followed by stem cell treatment on both knees in May. He said that after resting for most of this summer he is increasing the intensity of his physical rehab.
"These next two months are the key months to find out how they really are," he said, adding that he wasn't in pain.
And while Gasol wants to again be the Lakers' second scorer after Bryant, he still hasn't heard if coach Mike D'Antoni agrees.
The Spaniard said that he had spoken to Bryant, point guard Steve Nash, and general manager Mitch Kupchak about the team after Howard opted to leave, but he had yet to speak to D'Antoni.
Gasol had a rough first season with the former Suns and Knicks coach and lost his guaranteed starter's job. Nevertheless, Gasol said he was looking forward to this season.
"[D'Antoni] had a tough position, I had a tough position," Gasol said about last season. "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."
A career scorer of 18-plus points per game, Gasol had his worst scoring season in 2012-13 with just 13.7 PPG. Now the four-time All Star is aiming to bounce back with his contract coming up next summer.
"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."
Besides continuing his work with UNICEF, Pau and his brother Marc Gasol, a center for the Memphis Grizzlies, will be launching the "Gasol Foundation" focused on children's health in September.