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“"If the team is able to perform and fulfill expectations, there's going to be more stability. If we're not, they [management] are probably going to be willing and looking to change things up to find the right formula." Gasol, of course, is usually the first name mentioned in any trades the Lakers might consider. He's owed $19 million next year, the last season of his contract. His future seems tied both to how well the Lakers finish this season, which began with such high expectations, and whether center Dwight Howard, 27, chooses to re-sign with the team this summer. "There are a lot of questions. I guess the first one will be whether Dwight signs the extension with the Lakers, if that's what he wants to do," Gasol said. "I'm not sure how much of that is going to be impacted by how we finish up this year." Asked why Howard might not choose to stay in Los Angeles, Gasol said, "I don't know. I don't know. He might feel like he wants to play somewhere else. Who knows? Different reasons. That's a personal decision. Obviously, the Lakers can offer him a lot more money than anyone else, which would be hard to turn down." The Lakers were expected to contend for a title this season after trading for Howard and Steve Nash. Instead, they've been one of the most disappointing teams in the league as they've suffered injuries to key players, have tried to adapt to a new coaching staff after Mike Brown was fired just five games into the season, and have struggled to develop chemistry. Gasol went down with his foot injury during one of the Lakers' toughest stretches of the season. In fact, he'd been pushing himself to play through the injury on the Lakers' seven-game Grammy road trip because Howard was nursing a shoulder injury. After Gasol was injured Feb. 5, Kobe Bryant seemed to challenge Howard publicly to return from that shoulder injury because the team sorely needed the inside presence he can bring. Asked Wednesday how he felt about Bryant speaking publicly on sensitive team issues, Gasol said, "I agree with the fact that he can do that because of the player he is and what he's done. Not many players can. "Some things got out of hand externally. I'm a believer that it's always better to fix things and handle things internally. "But if that doesn't work, then you have to take it another direction. And I think that is what Kobe did, just to try to do what he could, what he thought would be best to redirect the ship a little bit. That's what he can do. He's got five championships, he is who he is, he's got a strong personality. You have to respect him for that. And at the same time, I think he was able to cool it off pretty well once things started getting out of hand." The Lakers ended that seven-game road trip with a loss in Miami that dropped them to 24-28. They've since gone 10-3, including 9-2 since the All Star break, and seem to be settling into a style of play that works. Gasol, out since being injured in the final minutes of a Lakers' win against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 5, has had a front-row seat to the turnaround. He was able to participate in full-court running drills with Lakers assistant Darvin Ham before the team's game in Atlanta on Wednesday. "Hopefully, everything will go well this week and then next week is a possibility," Gasol said. "We're in the last stretch of my recovery. It's been a rough season for me in terms of injuries. I've never missed this many games before in a season, and hopefully I won't have to again. It's been difficult, but hopefully, I'll be able to be back with my team soon and help us play even better than we have." Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, who had decided at one point that Gasol was best used coming off the bench, said Wednesday that he hoped Gasol would "knock us up to another level" upon his return. "The next big step for us is getting Pau back and integrating him really well with the team and making sure we run smoothly," D'Antoni said. "We got to make sure that works out." The Lakers recently caught Utah in the race for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth and are within sight of seventh-place Houston and sixth-place Golden State. What would happen if they not only made the playoffs, but made some noise once there? "It would mean a lot," Gasol said. "It would mean that after all we've been through and ups and downs of the season, it would mean when crunch time comes, we were ready to be a team that's been playing extremely well. But right now, we're trying to finish the season up, trying to move up as much as we can, and find that rhythm and game shape we want to be in. Then once the playoffs start, it's, 'Who wants it more?' "We have the talent to do it, even though we probably won't have home-court advantage, it's just a matter of going out there and taking it and at that point, 'Who wants it more?' " Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin was used in this report.
Hopefully everything will go well this week and then next week is a possibility. We're in the last stretch of my recovery. It's been a rough season for me in terms of injuries. I've never missed this many games before in a season, and hopefully I won't have to again. It's been difficult, but hopefully I'll be able to be back with my team soon and help us play even better than we have.” -- Pau Gasol on return