Steve Nash and defense are rarely used in the same sentence unless someone is discussing Nash's obvious lack of interest in the art after watching him getting badly beaten off the dribble.
Plenty has been written about the title chances for the Los Angeles Lakers since the recent roster additions of Nash, Dwight Howard and Antawn Jamison, but Nash's perimeter defense, or lack thereof, has been severely down-played by most Lakers fans.
That could be because Nash now has Howard watching his back.
The one glaring weakness the Lakers will face next season might be the inability of Nash and Kobe Bryant to keep opposing guards out of the lane. Bryant's days as a consistent perimeter defender are behind him and Nash has never understood the concept.
But Howard certainly does.
Howard's ability to block shots is impressive, but the range, athleticism and mobility that allows him to police the entire paint area is what makes him a difference-maker for the Lakers, and a savior for Nash.
As the weakest link of the Lakers defense, Nash will face constant pressure from the west's other elite lead guards, which should give a healthy Howard plenty of opportunities to increase his block totals from last season.
Even when Howard doesn't block shots, his sheer physical presence is enough to force other teams to think twice before attacking the rim, and I'm willing to bet that Nash, who is a master of improvisation on the break, returns the favor in transition.
Howard has become a master at the art of blocking shots and maintaining possession, and when you couple his ability to run the floor with Nash's vision in the open court, the fast break opportunities are endless.
In fact, on a team featuring Bryant, Gasol and Nash, Howard's best chance to make a significant impact on offense may be through his ability to create extra possessions with his defense.
Howard will be the youngest and most athletic player in the Lakers' starting lineup, which also makes him the most likely candidate to be at the receiving end of Nash's passes in transition situations.
This doesn't change the fact that Nash will be counted on to at least give the impression that he's trying on the defensive end, because the Lakers do have a reputation as a good defensive team. But Nash's poor defense will not be the reason the Lakers fail to reach the 2013 NBA Finals.
The Lakers have won five championships with mostly marginal point guard play, but they have not had a point guard with Nash's ability since the Magic show was holding court.
Former Laker Derek Fisher was a big-game player, fan favorite and a strong defensive player in his prime, but would anyone pick Fisher over Nash to lead their team at any point in their careers?
Nash's poor defense is a flaw for sure, but the Lakers have been flawed at the lead guard position for years and it hasn't really hampered their success.
Nash is definitely an upgrade over any Laker guard who manned the point last season, but what keeps getting lost in translation is that a healthy Howard is a massive defensive upgrade over the departed Andrew Bynum as well.
I accept the theory that Howard and Bynum are closer in positional rankings than most people think, but that is only true when it comes to offense, because there is no comparison on the other end.
Bynum has all the tools to be a great interior defender, and Howard is what Bynum might look like if he really ever dedicated himself to that side of the ball, minus the quickness and athleticism of course.
Bynum may be bigger than Howard, but he's also less mobile, less active and less motivated.
Howard's back is still a question that must be answered, but if he is able to weather it, then the Lakers team that takes the court in 2012-13 will be vastly improved from the one that just lost for the second consecutive time in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
In fact, this new Lakers team has the potential to be even better than the 2010 version that captured the franchise's last championship against the Boston Celtics.
In that series, Fisher played a big role against an elite point guard, and Nash could be even bigger in the future, especially since Howard will serve as a constant reminder to other teams of the perils of attacking his point guard off the dribble.
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