Steve Nash has become something of a crutch for the Los Angeles Lakers this season, even more so since Mike D'Antoni assumed the team's head-coaching duties in mid-November. Time and again, D'Antoni has pleaded patience with the fidgety L.A. fanbase while the team's 38-year-old two-time NBA MVP readies his street clothes.
Don't worry, says D'Antoni. Once the fracture in Nash's fibula is no more, Kobe Bryant can relinquish some (if not most) of his duties as facilitator, Dwight Howard will dominate in the pick-and-roll, (a healthy) Pau Gasol will get the ball in his favorite spots, and the rest of the supporting cast will morph into a pack of floor-running gunners.
And, of course, the Lakers will get back to the business of winning basketball games.
Unlike what happened on Tuesday night, when the Lakers built a 17-point cushion against the Houston Rockets only to watch it trickle away in a 107-105 loss at the Toyota Center.
The Lakers finished with more turnovers (18) than assists (16). They held the Rockets to 37.6 percent shooting from the field, including 3-of-19 from James Harden, but allowed Houston to rebound 21 of its own misses. D'Antoni sat idly by while the Rockets switched to the Hack-a-Dwight, disrupting what little flow L.A. had and engendering hope in Houston with every Howard clank.
But hey, Nash will make sure the Lakers share the ball. He'll also clean up the defensive glass and take Dwight's free throws for him...
It's that simple, or so D'Antoni would like to think...or has to hope, anyway.
At this point, the Lakers don't have many attractive alternatives. Steve Blake will miss another six to eight weeks once he undergoes surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle. Second-year guard Darius Morris has been erratic as a starter. Chris Duhon has shown signs of life off the bench and knows D'Antoni's system from their days together with the New York Knicks (see: 22 assists), but he's hardly an ideal option to warrant minutes—much less important ones—for a presumed title contender.
The external options aren't all that attractive, either. The current free-agent crop is headlined by, among others, a head case (Delonte West), a reanimated corpse (Mike Bibby) and a former Laker who's currently cashing checks in Turkey (Jordan Farmar). The Lakers could look to the trade market, where someone like, say, Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors figures to be on offer.
Except, the Lakers aren't exactly flush with attractive assets themselves. They dealt away most of their draft picks for the foreseeable future to acquire Nash and Dwight Howard this summer and lack the sorts of young players that rebuilding teams covet in midseason deals.
Pau's name has been thrown around in trade rumors for some time now, even more so since his struggles came to light this season. His absence on account of tendinitis in his knees will open up opportunities at power forward for Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill, who could (potentially) render Gasol expendable in D'Antoni's system.
Trouble is, Gasol's issues have only further degraded his value on the open market, a value already dragged down by his age (32) and salary ($19.3 million in 2013-14). The Lakers would be loath to deal him away before they see how he fits with Nash and company if/when Pau's knees are in better shape.
Kobe figures to handle most of LA's point guard duties until Nash comes back. But what happens if "Gatsby" doesn't prove to be a panacea upon his return? What if D'Antoni's rudely awakened by a Nash who's not the same guy he was when the coach was last with the Phoenix Suns in 2008? What if Nash is no longer an ageless wonder when he doesn't have the Suns' miracle-working training staff on his side?
What happens then? Do the Lakers, with their $100 million payroll, move desperately to sign an available body? Do they sell off Gasol for pennies on the dollar?
And if it's not Mitch Kupchak's call, what does D'Antoni do with this roster? Ask a 34-year-old Kobe to emulate Magic Johnson, his boyhood idol, for an entire season? Wait for Steve Blake to heal up? Entrust Duhon and Morris with significant playing time, or (dare I say it?) put the ball in Metta World Peace's hands?
D'Antoni's answer to the question of finding equilibrium with or without Nash will likely determine whether the Lakers climb their way into title contention or remain mired in mediocrity for the rest of the season.
In which case, they'd need much more than a crutch to stay upright.