And the timing couldn't be much better. The Lakers are on a three-game winning streak, after nearly stubbing their collective toe against the visiting Charlotte Bobcats on December 18th. Pau Gasol is back in action, and though he's a bit rusty from his eight-game layoff, the rest appears to have served his aching knees well.
Mike D'Antoni may have tinkered his way into a new rotation, with Kobe Bryant sliding over to small foward, Jodie Meeks starting at shooting guard, Metta World Peace moving to the bench to play power forward and Gasol and Dwight Howard essentially splitting duties at center after the opening few minutes.
All of which sets up perfectly for Nash. The last time he donned a Purple-and-Gold uniform, Steve was seen struggling to adjust to life in Mike Brown's ill-conceived Princeton-ish offense. After 24 games away—or 25, if he opts for a re-debut on Christmas Day against the New York Knicks instead—Nash will find himself more at home in an offense and under a coach with which and whom he won back-to-back MVPs and led the Phoenix Suns to two Western Conference Finals (three, if you count the run in 2010 under Alvin Gentry).
The parts are decidedly different, but the overall philosophy should be familiar enough. Instead of one giant with whom to run the pick-and-roll, Nash will have two. One (Howard) is arguably the best roll man in basketball.
The other (Gasol) possesses the requisite skill to pop out for a jump shot or serve as a second set-up man in LA's repartee.
Kobe and Jodie can both spread the floor on the wings. But in Bryant, Nash will have something he hasn't seen since he last teamed with Joe Johnson—a swingman capable of creating shots for himself and his teammates. It'll take time for Kobe and Nash to work out who controls the floor when, where and under what circumstances. Nonetheless, there's hope that neither member of the 1996 NBA Draft class will have to shoulder too heavy a backcourt burden on his own.
In essence, Nash will be tasked with orchestrating and lubricating what looks to be a hybrid between D'Antoni's quick-shot small ball and the more traditional, twin-towers arrangement to which the Lakers have long been accustomed. There will be plenty of big-little duets and three-point baskets, as well as post-ups and wing isolations intertwined therein.
Not unlike, say, the offense that D'Antoni left behind in the Big Apple. The New York Knicks have thrived this season while playing a much more deliberate variant of Mike D's patented spread pick-and-roll system. Their offense has thrived with Raymond Felton playing the two-man game with a mobile, defensive-minded center (Tyson Chandler) surrounded by a slew of shooters, interspersed with post-ups and isos by a premier wing player.
New York's biggest offensive conundrum, like LA's, involves finding room on the floor for a weak-kneed power forward (Amar'e Stoudemire) who can shoot from the elbow, but is at his best when he's close to the basket.
The Lakers, though, should be able to get Gasol back in the swing of things just fine. He did a fantastic job of feeding Dwight when the two shared the floor against Charlotte, and should regain a semblance of his old self once he returns to proper playing shape. D'Antoni's decision to stagger minutes between Pau and Dwight figures to give Gasol more opportunities to find his comfort zone in the post as well.
Nash will certainly help in that regard, as well. He's a deft passer who understands how to set up his teammates for success. If you're playing with Nash and you're open in your sweet spot, chances are, he'll find you.
Of similar import is the way in which Nash's mere presence can energize a squad. His passing is infectious, and he makes the game fun to play for his teammates.
As opposed to the frustrating slog as which much of Lakers basketball this season might be characterized.
The Lakers could stand to share the ball more as a means of smoothing out the wrinkles in Mike D's offense. According to NBA.com's stats tool, they're 25th in assist rate (i.e. percentage of field goals made off of assists), 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio and dead last in team turnover percentage. Those miscues have led to the third-most opponent points off turnovers in the league.
So while Steve Nash may struggle to stop his own shadow one-on-one, his guidance of the offense may well be a boon to LA's lackluster defense. Better shots and fewer turnovers mean fewer opportunities for teams to score easy baskets in transition and run the Lakers out of the building.
Mostly, though, Nash's return portends a crisper, more aesthetically pleasing offensive machine for the Lakers. Steve may not be the same quick-cutting floor general now that he's 38 and coming off the longest injury-related delay of his entire career.
But he's still a wizard with the ball who's as much a joy to watch as he is to play with. Those qualities should be reasons enough for holiday cheer in Lakerland.
That is, unless all the pieces don't fit together perfectly from the opening tip on Saturday. In that case, you'll probably hear about the Lakers being doomed and the sky falling on the City of Angels the day after the Mayan calendar reaches its "conclusion."
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