Why Steve Nash Is Most Important Piece to Lakers Puzzle

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25:  Steve Nash #10 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball through mid-court against the New York Knicks during the NBA game at Staples Center on December 25, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Knicks 100-94.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers and head coach Mike D'Antoni promised their anxious fanbase this day was coming.

The team's rocky start (9-14) was just kindling for the empty blogosphere, fueling an unexpected fire on the offseason's crowned champions just weeks into the 2012-13 season.

And that panic wasn't denied entrance into the Staples Center, either.

Despite losing point guard Steve Nash (leg fracture) in the club's second game, the Lakers' 1-4 start would prove too costly for former coach Mike Brown.

Then came interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who let the inmates run the asylum. Given the championship pedigree of those inmates, though, his decision was neither crazy nor ineffective.

In fact, the move nearly spurred a five-game winning streak. Under his "direction," the Lakers erased that awful start with an inspired stretch of 4-1 basketball. They knocked off playoff hopefuls like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and the only blemish on that streak came courtesy of a two-point defeat at the hands of the mighty San Antonio Spurs.

Of course, the interim coach was never seen as a permanent solution, certainly not with names like D'Antoni and Phil Jackson residing in the unemployment line.

D'Antoni ultimately got the nod, and it appeared a match made in basketball heaven.

Despite a successful debut, though, the coach couldn't inspire any more spirited play than what Brown had brought out of those same players.

The team dropped its next two games, then seven of their next 10.

Frustrations mounted. MVP candidate (and the league's leading scorer) Kobe Bryant vocalized those frustrations after a disheartening 100-94 loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.

Still, even in the face of those expanding challenges, there remained a relative calm within the locker room.

The Lakers understood where they were at—under the direction of their third different coach and minus that coach's former star pupil (Nash).

Even as the point guard's absences mounted, the team did what their front office executives and rabid fanbase could not.

They saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

D'Antoni never shied away from reminding his players (and the nation) that they didn't have the final piece to this championship-or-bust puzzle. The coach knew how to maximize Nash's impact, and the two-time MVP knew how to orchestrate the coach's game plan (both awards came during the duo's shared tenure in Phoenix).

Even with two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners on the roster (Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace), this team's best chance for a championship would only come on the offensive end.

Bryant was years removed from his best defensive seasons. Likewise for Pau Gasol. Even the Lakers bench was headlined by players who amassed their career earnings on one end of the floor (in the forms of Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks).

There wasn't a more capable point guard alive to implement the attack concocted by the offensive guru D'Antoni than the 38-year-old Nash.

Since Nash's return to the hardwood on December 22, the Lakers have averaged 110.7 points per game (a number that would lead the league by more than five points per game). They've also knocked off the Warriors (again) and the New York Knicks, and even dropped 114 points in a losing effort against a Denver Nuggets team that has allowed just 100.8 points per game on the season.

Nash has 28 assists in his first three games back from injury. Despite the overhauled offensive system, he's already recognized the true talents of his teammates.

He knows when to find an isolation opportunity for Howard or Bryant. Or feed Gasol near the elbow after the point guard has drawn the defense below the free-throw line.

And by seemingly keeping one eye on the action and the other on his teammates, he's located the Lakers' shooters when they're open.

Nash has put a lot of mileage on his legs over the course of his 16-plus-year career. And he's not the same offensive force that once averaged 15.5 points or better nine times over a 10-year stretch.

He's not the best player on the roster, and he may not even be a top-three talent on the Lakers. But he's never been more valuable to his team's success than he is this season.


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