Steve Nash will be back in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform soon. Whether it's in time to face the Golden State Warriors on December 22nd or to take on the New York Knicks on December 25th remains to be seen.
After the team's morning practice on December 21st, Nash told Lakers reporter Mike Trudell that a Christmas Day re-debut seems like the likelier scenario:
Nash: "I felt pretty good." There was a little soreness, as expected. He said there is a chance for Saturday, but "Christmas for sure."— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) December 21, 2012
Whenever Nash gets back, he'll be greeted warmly by a Lakers squad that's struggled in his absence. Head coach Mike D'Antoni, under whom Nash won back-to-back NBA MVPs with the Phoenix Suns, thinks Steve's impact will be greatest among LA's bigs, namely Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol (via Mike Trudell):
Mike D'Antoni said he thinks Nash will help Dwight Howard the most, & Pau Gasol second. Top PG's get bigs involved.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) December 21, 2012
But let's not forget about the effect Nash's return will have on the player with whom he'll be sharing a backcourt—Kobe Bryant. The Black Mamba has performed brilliantly this season, with or without Nash.
At least on the offensive end, as Bryant leads the league in scoring with 29.5 points per game. He's shooting a career-high 47.7 percent from the field and posting a strong 38.1 percent on 5.7 threes per game—his most in seven seasons. He's getting to the free throw line more frequently than he has since 2007-08 and he's registering assists on 26.7 percent of his teammates' made baskets when he's on the floor.
With LA's injuries at the point, Bryant has had to shoulder many of the team's ball-handling and distribution duties. Hence, his assist totals are on the rise, but so are his turnovers as he attempts to hone his skills running the pick-and-roll on the fly.
And you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks.
The presence of Nash—an even older dog than Bryant—should help to alleviate Kobe's duties in that regard. Steve won't play big minutes right away (if ever), but those that he does play figure to feature less responsibility on the ball for Bryant.
But a movement toward Nash Equilibrium in the Lakers lineup will mean more than just less dribbling for the Mamba. It may also lead to new, different and in some respects better shots for Bryant.
Let's first consider Bryant's current shot distribution and how that may change next to Nash. Here's a look at his 2012-13 shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com:
Not surprisingly, the plurality of Bryant's shots have come at the hoop and on the wings, with some free-throw line jumpers and post-ups on either block mixed in. These have long been Kobe's sweet spots—or, at least since 2011-12:
That could shift a bit if D'Antoni gets to run some semblance of the Seven-Seconds-or-Less system with which his Suns thrived once upon a time. He's already experimenting with Metta World Peace at power forward off the bench and may soon move Jodie Meeks into the starting lineup at shooting guard.
A trio of MWP at the "four," Meeks at the "two" and Kobe at the "three" wouldn't be all that dissimilar from the group with which D'Antoni began his run with Phoenix in 2004-05. That season, the Suns started Quentin Richardson (shooting guard), Shawn Marion (power forward) and Joe Johnson (small forward) next to Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire—a pick-and-roll center not unlike Dwight Howard.
As it happens, Joe Johnson is the closest approximation to a Kobe-like wing that D'Antoni's Suns ever had (unless anyone would care to argue for Raja Bell). During his only full season under Mike D, Iso Joe averaged 17 points on 46.1 percent shooting (47.8 percent from three) with 3.5 assists. Here's a look at his shot distribution from that campaign:
Overall, Johnson's shot chart from eight years ago isn't all that different from Kobe's today. Both feature plenty of attempts at the rim, with strikingly similar numbers on either block, at the top of the key and on the left wing.
The most notable shift is in corner threes. Those shots are widely considered the second-best in basketball behind only those directly at the rim. The corner three is closer to the basket than one from the wing or the top of the arc, but is worth the same number of points as any other from long distance.
More than one-sixth (16.9 percent) of Johnson's attempts that year came from the short corners, while a mere five percent of Bryant's have originated from those zones. Kobe has hit a respectable 37 percent (10-of-27) of those attempts, though that number pales in comparison to the 51.8 percent that Johnson hit in 2004-05. Nobody's expecting Bryant to torch the nets from the corners, though if D'Antoni has his way with the offense it seems likely that Bryant will get more looks from those spots.
And not just any looks, but wide-open ones, which should boost the percentages some.
Nash is a master of causing defenses to collapse with his dribble drives, leaving perimeter shooters open on crystal clear kickouts.
Most defenses would be loath to leave Kobe, but might have no choice with Nash and Howard/Gasol playing pick-and-roll down the middle. Bryant's gotten plenty of guff for taking "too many" shots, most notably from ESPN's Chris Broussard and his swath of anonymous sources.
But while Broussard's stats—over the last three seasons, the Lakers are 54-47 when Kobe takes 20 or more shots and are 51-14 when he takes fewer than 20—are intriguing, they don't tell the whole story. He and (some of) his consultants admit that Bryant often shoots out of necessity, or rather a feeling that his teammates can't or won't come through.
When Kobe goes into "Hero Ball" mode, he often winds up taking tough, contested shots over multiple defenders. Some of them he makes, much to the delight of fans and to the chagrin of the laws of physics.
But, more often than not, such attempts go unrewarded on the scoreboard.
With Nash around, Bryant will no longer have to work so hard to get his shots, nor will those he takes necessarily be so difficult. Rather than dribbling around and taking shots off the bounce, Kobe can defer to Steve to set him up with good looks. Bryant might even spend some time floating on the perimeter (including the corners), where he'll be available for open spot-up opportunities whenever Nash runs the pick-and-roll.
How will Steve Nash's return affect Kobe's shot selection?
Moreover, if Nash is the one making decisions on the ball, then Kobe will naturally see his shot totals decline. For Bryant—a scorer by trade—logic usually dictates that he should shoot if the ball is in his hands. He's confident in his own abilities to a fault, believing the Lakers' best chance to score is with him launching the shot.
Nash, on the other hand, tends to take a more diplomatic approach. He's a pure point guard and a born people pleaser. As such, it's in his nature to get everyone else involved (not just Kobe) and to reserve his scoring stores for special occasions. Nash will still get the ball into Kobe's hands, just not as frequently.
And when Kobe's in charge of creating, particularly in crunch time, Nash will serve as a safe outlet if/when Bryant finds his looks to be less than appealing. To say that Nash is a trustworthy shooter is to undersell just how deadly a marksman he is. He's one of eight players in NBA history in the 50-40-90 Club. That is, he's gone a full season shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
Better yet, Nash has pulled off that particular hat trick four times in his future Hall of Fame career. Larry Bird's the only other player to ever shoot so well more than once in a career, and he did it twice.
Nash isn't just a trustworthy shooter, then; he may well own the most accurate jumper in basketball history. Surely, Kobe could get used to deferring to that.
If he does—if Bryant comes to believe in his teammates, take (slightly) fewer shots and more of the high-value, high-percentage variety—then Steve Nash's return may yet be the key to a forthcoming Lakers turnaround.