The Los Angeles Lakers have a playmaking gem in Steve Nash.
Though Los Angeles is far from out of the woods, Nash has completely reversed the negative narrative that was plaguing the Lakers all season—the Gasol and Howard dilemma included.
Yes, the point guard has been back in the lineup for just two games. Or, I as I like to put it, two convincing wins.
Let's not attempt to downplay the significance of Los Angeles' recent victories, though. Both have come against viable playoff contenders and the latter came against a New York Knicks team that is easily the fifth- or sixth-best team in the league right now.
Also of importance is Nash's performance in those two games. Since returning from his leg injury, the crafty point man is averaging 14 points and 10 assists on 60.4 percent shooting from the floor. Of the utmost of importance, however, is not necessarily his stats, but the effect he has had on the Gasol and Howard pairing.
It's not as if both bigs have captivated us with their stat lines over these last couple games, because they haven't. Neither has scored more than 14 points in a game, Howard has yet to attempt more than eight shots in one contest and Gasol has yet to shoot even 40 percent from the field.
Do you know what they have done, though?
Learn to play together—because of Nash.
I won't pretend that the two have dominated, nor will I ignore Mike D'Antoni's continued attempts to stagger some of their minutes. What I refuse to overlook, though, is the impact that Nash has had on this dynamic.
Plenty of pundits and critics predicted that the 38-year-old point guard would lose a step or two, especially upon return from an extensive shin rehabilitation.
Well, they were wrong.
In just a short time it has become clear that Nash's ability to space the floor to perfection remains ever-present. His knack for breaking down defenses and running constant high-to-low pick-and-rolls has created an environment where there is enough space for both Howard and Gasol to operate.
Sure, Gasol's shooting struggles have continued, but he is scoring 15.4 points per 36 minutes with Nash on the floor, a far cry from the 12.3 he puts up with Nash on the sidelines. His field-goal percentage currently stands at an identical 41 percent, but with Nash running the offense, not only is he getting better looks at the rim, but his efficiency from deep has been increasing; he's shooting 44 percent per 36 minutes from mid-range with Nash on the floor, to go along with a 40 percent deep-ball percentage as well.
Simply put, Gasol has proven to be a stronger force with Nash on the floor. He's now presented with the opportunity to vary his shots, which has always been the way the versatile forward prefers to play. And that's great for Howard.
Because, as Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com notes, it leaves Howard to focus on defense:
he ball was moving quickly, the Lakers were scoring freely, and all that dysfunction from the first two months of this season felt as if it were a hundred years ago.
It was, at long last, as Bryant and coach Mike D'Antoni had always envisioned it could be. Nash playmaking for everyone, taking the pressure off Bryant and allowing him to focus on scoring. Howard playing the kind of lights-out defense in the paint that won him three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards. Gasol meshing his unique talents as a low-post scorer and passer out of the high post.
Increased offensive output from both Howard and Gasol would be welcomed, but it's not necessarily about the level of their production right now. Rather, the focus is on the manner of it.
With Nash, Gasol is not forced to spend all his time jacking up long-balls. When he's forced to abscond to the perimeter, though, he's become more effective. Being allotted open shots will do that for you.
As for Howard, he is back in his natural mindset—defense. Unlike Gasol, he doesn't need to score to be effective. He's been playing incredible interior defense since Nash's return, leading a charge that held the second-ranked Knicks offense to under 100 points.
Once again, broken-record style, this means everything. Pay no attention to Gasol's continued inefficiency and make nothing of Howard's diminished scoring. Those numbers are going to come.
I continue to reiterate the need for reflection. Nash has done this before. In 46 games together, Stoudemire and O'Neal combined for 39.2 points during the 2008-09 season. Nash was able to put them in spots to succeed; he was able to balance both of their presences.
And that's going to hold true in Los Angeles; it has already begun to hold true in Hollywood.
Remember, the Lakers were built in a day, but sustained success isn't. The same can be said for progress—unless you play alongside Nash.
In just two games, Nash been able to establish an equilibrium between Gasol and Howard that the Lakers have lacked all season. He has afforded Pau more shots and taken a slew of offensive pressure off Dwight's shoulders.
He's the one who has instilled hope into a pairing that has been bordering on lifeless since the season began.
And it's only going to get better.
"It puts everybody in position to do what they do best," Kobe Bryant had said of Nash's presence after the Lakers win over the Knicks.
More importantly, Nash puts "everyone in position to do what they do best" together.
Gasol and Howard included.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of December 25, 2012.