The Los Angeles Lakers' 118-115 overtime win against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 22 was fraught with story lines. There was the Warriors' franchise resurgence, the Lakers' continued inability to stop anyone on defense, Dwight Howard's foul troubles and Kobe Bryant's itchy trigger finger, among others.
But the biggest (and most important) story of all centered on Steve Nash. In his first game since Halloween—and third as a Laker—Nash logged nearly 41 minutes, accumulating 12 points, three rebounds, two steals, nine assists and just three turnovers therein. He ran pick-and-rolls galore, served as a steadying force on the offensive end and even scored the final two points to extend L.A.'s season-best winning streak to four games.
All in just his third game of basketball of any kind since suffering the non-displaced fracture in his left fibula that led to persistent nerve irritation.
You could understand, then, why Mike D'Antoni was so effusive in his praise after the contest. In speaking to Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register, D'Antoni likened the impact of Nash's return to that which Chris Paul has had on the Los Angeles Clippers since the start of the 2011-12 season:
Ask the Clippers how important it is.
The guys know that they’re going to get it. It’s a lot different. The floor opens up, and it changes everything — all of the perspective of playing.
Leave it to the man who saw Nash claim back-to-back league MVPs with the Phoenix Suns to be so laudatory.
After all, Chris Paul, to whom D'Antoni was essentially comparing Nash, is a bona fide superstar who ranks among the most valuable in the NBA today. Some (like yours truly) even went so far as to suggest that CP3 should've been the MVP.
Now, Nash would be hard-pressed to earn such high marks league-wide after missing nearly a third of the season (24 games) to injury. But if he turns out to be the missing link for the Lakers' "lost" hopes this season, Nash could easily be the team's internal MVP.
The argument for the honor would be much like the one made for Paul last season, which might well be deemed the Player-as-Coach-of-the-Year Postulate. That is, when a new coach comes in and helps a team make a quantum leap in quality, as Tom Thibodeau did in 2010-11 with the Chicago Bulls, he/she is often the Coach of the Year for doing so. In some cases, the core pieces of the team may not change all that dramatically from one season to the next, but the introduction of a new sideline stalker can change the culture and, in turn, the fortunes of a franchise.
The same goes for some players.
Prior to the 2011-12 NBA season, Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers (in rather controversial fashion) and instantly transformed them from a talented-but-inexperienced squad with some potential to a guaranteed playoff team for the first time in decades.
One year, their pick—which was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Baron Davis salary dump—winds up No. 1 in the NBA draft lottery (and turns into Kyrie Irving). The next, they've got their sights set on shaking up the hierarchy in L.A., thanks to the top point guard on the planet.
And now, the Clips have the look of a legitimate title contender.
In truth, the effect of Nash Equilibrium on Lakers basketball won't likely measure anywhere near what Paul's was with the Clippers, if only because the baselines were different. Which is to say, the Clippers went from cellar dwellers to real winners, while the Lakers were expected to jump from a top-three-seed title contender in the Western Conference last season to...well, a top-three-seed title contender in the Western Conference this season.
Getting back into that range before the postseason rolls around seems like a nearly impossible task at this point. The Lakers are already eight and a half games behind the top-seed Oklahoma City Thunder, seven behind the third-place San Antonio Spurs and six back of the fourth-seed Memphis Grizzlies for any sort of home-court advantage.
Anything less than that would be a big-picture disappointment, given the lofty expectations for these Lakers coming into the season. They were billed as an elite team in the West, with Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol joining forces to form a superstar-studded powerhouse.
Now at 13-14, they're on the outside of the playoff picture entirely. The immediate goal is to catch up to the eighth-seed Minnesota Timberwolves and avoid a wholly unexpected trip to the NBA draft lottery before anything else.
This, despite a squad that, aside from Nash, isn't all that different from the one the Lakers had when they went 41-25 under Mike Brown after the lockout. Kobe and Metta World Peace have played better, Pau's been worse, Dwight's replaced Andrew Bynum and the point-guard situation has been messy in both instances. Neither team has gotten much production from its bench. The offenses have been sluggish at times, and the defenses haven't been anything worth writing home about.
What's more, neither team's coach—Mike Brown last season and Mike D'Antoni now—had much time (if any) to install his own system and get acquainted with his particular circumstances before the actual season got underway.
In total, then, the two editions aren't all that different. The Lakers of 2011-12 were 15-12 through their first 27 games, while the Lakers of today are 13-14.
If Nash can help the Lakers make up the difference (and then some), if he can bring order to where there was once only chaos and contested Kobe jumpers, if he can bring joy back to the Staples Center where recently there's been little more than disappointment, then the team MVP will be his to lose. Clearly, it was going to take more than Kobe's scoring heroics, Dwight's dunks and Pau's begrudging jumpers to make these Lakers hum.
Fans in L.A. can only hope that Steve Nash will be that "more."