A happier Pau Gasol is ready to celebrate the new season with Lakers

How close was Pau Gasol to playing for the Houston Rockets?

Members of his inner circle bought airline tickets from LAX to IAH, resigned to Gasol’s stunning fate amid an alphabet soup of airport codes.

Gasol, though, never booked one. He hoped for a miracle reversal of the trade involving Chris Paul to the Lakers, and it came a day later when NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed the deal.

It didn’t help Gasol’s mind-set that the same team that delivered a three-year, $57-million contract extension on the way to winning consecutive championships wanted to drop him for the dynamic New Orleans point guard in a three-team trade.

Is it any wonder that Gasol’s stat line last season showed a career-low scoring average (17.4 points) and his second-worst shooting percentage in 11 NBA seasons (50.1%)?

It was easy to discern the relief on his face at the London Olympics when he found out he wasn’t involved in the Dwight Howard trade. It’s equally easy to sense a new calmness in him now.


“It’s very different to be in a situation where you are not in the middle of the hurricane as far as rumors, where there’s a big chance of you not being part of the team you’ve been through so much with,” Gasol said in a quiet moment Sunday before the Lakers’ exhibition opener. “With all that now aside and the addition of great players, it makes it much more enjoyable.”

Gasol didn’t have fun last season. He was shoved outside the key more often than not to make way for Andrew Bynum’s less-fluid presence down low.

It was great for Bynum, not so much for Gasol. His three-year run as an All-Star ended.

“We all know how competitive and how hard it is to make the All-Star team, but we weren’t doing great as a team,” Gasol said with a sigh. “Obviously, I like to make the All-Star team every single year because I like to consider I’m one of the best players in the league and the world.”

Even the Lakers seemed to sympathize last March.

“This has been a really hard, hard period for Pau,” said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who was put in the awkward position of welcoming Gasol back after the Paul trade fell through. “The way the whole thing unfolded with what took place in training camp, it’s just been one big unavoidable mess, and unfortunately Pau’s in the middle of it.”

Despite the Lakers’ early playoff exit, Gasol became a driving force two months later at the Olympics. He got Spain to the gold-medal game and had 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a surprisingly close 107-100 loss to Team USA.

When it was over, Kobe Bryant found Gasol and hugged his Lakers teammate.

“It was a tough moment for me,” Gasol said at the time. “He came all the way to our bench. It was a great gesture from him.”

Said Bryant: “I just told him I loved him and he did a fantastic job. He played his heart out. I told him to get some rest because we’ve got a long [season] coming up.

“He said he would. He said he’s going to be ready.”

Gasol stayed away from basketball for a month after that, working on something else important to him.

He visited the struggling country of Chad in his role as a UNICEF ambassador, posting pictures on Twitter that included kids trying to cross a flooded area near a basketball court.

“Obviously, the region is going through a nutritional crisis,” said Gasol, who spent a week in the middle region of Africa known as the Sahel. “It was good to see the efforts of many people helping thousands of children’s lives.”

With Howard and Steve Nash on the payroll, so much less is expected of Gasol this season. He will have plenty of chances to cut toward the basket in the Princeton offense, not to mention post up whenever Howard flashes to the free-throw line for the entry pass from the guards that initiates the offense.

“Last year, there was a lot going on, but this year’s a new year,” Gasol said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a smile.

Party on

A few minutes after the Lakers lost to Golden State in their exhibition opener, word was that Metta World Peace would drive to Las Vegas from Sunday’s game in Fresno.

“Gonna hit the road,” he confirmed. “Maybe have a Hangover, Part 3. Ya never know.”

World Peace had 10 points and three steals in 16 minutes Sunday. He made two of three three-point attempts, providing a glimpse of the off-season work he claimed to have done on his outside shot.

Hill injured

Forward Jordan Hill has a herniated disk in his back, the team announced.

Hill, who had 10 points against the Warriors, was examined Monday by Dr. Robert Watkins Jr., a back specialist, and will be reevaluated in a week.

The Lakers did not practice Monday. Their next exhibition game is Wednesday against Portland in Ontario.