EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Pau Gasol knows he surprised nobody by agreeing to a three-year contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers nearly two seasons before it kicks in.
After a rough start to his NBA career in Memphis, the Spanish 7-footer had been vocal about his desire to stick with the defending champions well into the future. And after nearly two years in Hollywood as Kobe Bryant’s best supporting player, Gasol thinks Bryant will follow his lead this time.
"It gives me tremendous peace of mind and safety and confidence," Gasol said Wednesday at the Lakers’ training complex. "We have a tremendous team, and we all want the same thing. We want to be the best team out there. It’s a great thing as a player to be a part of something this special."
Gasol’s deal extends through the 2013-14 season, and could be worth more than $60 million depending on future salary caps.
Gasol has been to two NBA finals since joining the Lakers on Feb. 1, 2008, in a trade with the Grizzlies that propelled Los Angeles back into the league’s elite. His impact on the Lakers has been undeniable: The club is an astonishing 101-23 in regular-season games with Gasol in the lineup, and Bryant anointed Gasol as basketball’s best big man after Tuesday night’s win over Oklahoma City.
"With the way we play, with the players we have on our team, I can’t imagine a big man who would be better to play for this team than Pau," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said.
A superb rebounder, a solid low-post defender and a dependable No. 2 scoring option alongside Bryant, Gasol earned an All-Star berth and averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds last season as Los Angeles won its 15th NBA title. His numbers are nearly the same this season despite missing the first 11 games with an injured right hamstring.
Los Angeles is 15-1 since Gasol’s return. The Lakers host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day.
Gasol is making $16.5 million this season and $17.8 million next year. His new deal likely will pay him around $20 million per season, but that might be less than what Gasol could have made as a free agent.
A few extra millions meant little to Gasol, who led Spain to the most recent FIBA world championship and the European title, winning tournament MVP honors both times. After starting his NBA career as a reluctant franchise player in Memphis, he much prefers the cool California lifestyle in a cosmopolitan city more like his native Barcelona.
"I think I’ve matured a lot since I came here, and the quality of everything is just a bit higher (than in Memphis)," Gasol said.
Gasol feels the Lakers have a remarkable team chemistry, with no jealousy or anger over playing time or scoring chances. Young center Andrew Bynum is signed through 2012 with a club option for the following season, while Gasol, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest all agreed to extensions or new contracts in the last few months to be supporting players to Bryant, the NBA’s second-leading scorer with 29.3 points per game.
Gasol said he believes Bryant intends to finalize his own extension soon, keeping together the Lakers’ championship core for several more years. Although Bryant hasn’t formally inked a three-year extension likely worth over $80 million, he declined the chance to opt out of his current contract this summer, flatly saying he wouldn’t leave the Lakers.
"We continue to have dialogue with Kobe and his representative," Kupchak said. "I do anticipate continued discussions, but that’s really all I can say. I’ve always felt … that Kobe should and would end his career in Los Angeles."
With owner Jerry Buss willing to spend beyond the limits of the salary cap, Kupchak believes he can keep together the entire core of the NBA’s most valuable and profitable franchise, according to Forbes magazine. Kupchak even believes the Lakers can keep 10-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson, who has given confusing signals in recent weeks about whether he sees a long-term future with the club.
"If he sees growth and a future with this team, he’ll come back," Kupchak said. "Cutting a deal is the easy part. It’s about his health, and what he’s achieved."