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NBA free agency 2016: Pau Gasol fits a need, but D'Antoni likely keeps him out of Houston

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Our free agency previews continue with a player who was almost a Rocket once before. Might Houston get a second chance?

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, that's right, the llama himself is set to be an unrestricted free agent. And with the Chicago Bulls publicly stating their desire to get younger and more athletic, the forward/center is not likely heading back to Chi-town.

If you recall, back in 2011, Gasol was set to become a Rocket as part of a three-way deal also involving the Lakers and the Hornets. The Rockets would get Gasol, the Hornets would pick up Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and Lamar Odom, while the Lakers would get prized point guard Chris Paul.

The trade was famously nixed by then-commissioner David Stern, and the rest is history. Paul would end up in Hollywood anyway with the Clippers, Gasol would later make his way to Chicago, the Rockets would dump Scola, Martin and Dragic along the way, and Lamar Odom-- well, let's just say things didn't really go uphill for him from there.

But with the Rockets in search of a big man and Gasol available, might we see him end up in H-town anyway? Even approaching age 36, the 7-footer from Spain can still play.

Gasol played in 16th NBA season last year, and his numbers were as good as ever. He finished the year averaging 16.5 points per game and shot 46.9 percent from the field. His 11.0 rebounds per game was the third highest of his career. His 4.1 assists were his second highest. His blocks? 2.0 per game and the highest average of his career. There's a cliche' about fine wine I'm hesitant to use, but the phrase is made for guys like Gasol.

Despite his advanced age, Gasol even showed he was still a capable defender, racking up a +3.5 defensive plus-minus on the year, the single-highest defensive total of his career. He was also a positive offensive player (+0.5), had a 3.5 value over replacement (VORP), his best in 5 years, built up 7.1 win shares and finished with a PER of 21.7. The advanced metrics indeed matched the sparkling box line.

He's also a guy who's always relied more on skill than on pure athleticism, which explains how he's maintained such a high-level of play into his mid-30s and also lends credence to the thought that he has a couple more seasons left in the tank.

After the failed trade of 2011, Gasol made it clear that while he was happy he didn't get moved, it had nothing to do with the Rockets organization or city of Houston, it was only because the Rockets were still in the process of rebuilding and not considered a contender at the time of the move. Gasol told the L.A. Times:

"It was going to be kind of a rebuilding situation. You'd try to be competitive. It wasn't so much about the franchise or the city. It was just about the situation and how different it would have been from what I'm used to."

With Houston only one year removed from the Western Conference Finals and one of the best players in the NBA on their roster in James Harden, the Rockets could be ripe for a quick turnaround from this past year's disappointment, making their situation significantly more enticing than it was five years ago.

This isn't a layup move, however. Gasol will be in demand.

Most noticeably, the San Antonio Spurs are apparently targeting Pau as one of their priority free agents as soon as July 1 hits. Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a Woj-bomb on his recent The Vertical podcast with Chris Mannix, saying:

"I'm told that Paul Gasol is a real priority for them. They tried to get him before he signed with Chicago. The Bulls were able to offer him more than the mid-level that year, and I think the Spurs had a mid-level for him that year. They can maneuver in San Antonio and probably be able to offer him market value."

In addition, Gasol doesn't have the greatest history with new Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni coached Pau with the Lakers, and their relationship was tenuous at best. D'Antoni benched Gasol at one point in favor of a small-ball lineup, and the coach and player fired public shots at each other in the media during the season. Gasol blamed D'Antoni's system for some mid-season struggles, while the coach accused Gasol of not giving 100 percent.

The last thing Houston needs is another disgruntled big man, and with the wide range of options Gasol is expected to have, the likelihood he'd pick going back to play for D'Antoni does seem very low.

There's also the aforementioned age factor. When big man slip, they often fall off of a cliff. Quickly. Especially post-35. Gasol played extremely well last year, but who knows how much longer that can last. Could this be the year he finally shows his age?

So while Gasol's skills and strengths would seem to be a fit for the Rockets' needs and he likely won't be asking for a king's ransom (Gasol averaged $7.5 million per season while in Chicago) and getting a top-flight big under contract in Houston is one of Daryl Morey's main offseason goals for improving the team, Gasol's past troubles with D'Antoni and the interest of other top franchises in the Association will likely keep him from joining the team that traded for him in 2011.

The search for a frontcourt piece in H-town continues.