Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
The NBA has seen a fair share of impressive guard tandems throughout its rich history that have left us with multiple exciting memories. Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon easily come to mind while Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller as well as John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek also give us an idea of what a good, if not great, backcourt once upon a time looked like.
As potent as those guard pairings were, they weren’t necessarily units that created a lot of anticipation across the league when their unions were initially constructed.
Indeed, there have been a couple of guard tandems that garnered a lot of attention when they were formed because they had the potential to go down as the one of the best guard pairings in the history of the league.
Think of Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway in Phoenix, Gary Payton and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter in New Jersey and lastly, the flamboyant pairing of Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl Monroe in New York; from the moment these groups were formed, they instantly gave their fans championship aspirations and rightfully so. Other than Hardaway, a case can be made that all of the players listed above will one day occupy a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Fast forward to the present, and think about the moment it was announced that Steve Nash would join the Los Angeles Lakers and play in the backcourt next to Kobe Bryant: They had the potential to not only trump the previous duos but also to possibly become the best guard tandem ever.
Heck, they still do.
Between them, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame players have 22 All-Star selections, 13 All-NBA first-team selections, five assist titles, two scoring titles, four NBA All-Star Game MVPs and three NBA MVP awards.
Individually, an argument can easily be made that Nash and Bryant have been models of excellence at their respective positions for the past decade of NBA basketball.
Hence, their pairing wasn’t supposed to simply work, it was assumed that it would be devastating, especially with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol playing on the same team.
And yet, one cannot avoid the feeling of being a little underwhelmed by the Lakers’ backcourt so far in the 2012-13 regular season. It’s not that they’ve been awful, but rather that between injuries and a coaching change, they’ve been good as opposed to sensational.
And, well, that’s a bit of a disappointment.
With Nash playing alongside him, Kobe Bryant has been a new man. The playmaking duties have become a thing of the past for the most part, and instead the Black Mamba has been able to focus on moving without the ball and getting himself into scoring position where Kid Canada can deliver him the ball and allow him to go to work.
Bryant loves to run the pick-and-roll with Nash to force opposing point guards to switch defensively and cover the five-time champion. This benefits Kobe because the smaller defenders are no match for him physically, and additionally, he can comfortably take his patented fadeaway jumper without fearing that these defenders will bother his shot. Also, because the Lakers usually run this action at the top of the floor, Nash is often at the top of the circle, and if his man cheats over to double-team Kobe, it gives the former Suns player an uncontested look from three-point range and the Mamba is quick to find him in these scenarios.
Another area where Nash is a big help to Bryant is when Gasol handles the ball in the high post and Bryant is at the wing with Nash screening for him. This has proved to be an effective way of freeing up the Lakers' all-time leading scorer for an easy shot attempt.
Nash’s impact has been apparent in the stats. Per NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, Kobe Bryant is averaging 29.1 points, 3.3 assists and 2.2 turnovers per 40 minutes on 50 percent field-goal shooting with the starting point guard on the floor; but when the former two-time league MVP hits the bench, Bean produces 31.4 points, 5.5 assists and 3.8 turnovers per 40 minutes on 46.1 percent field-goal shooting.
Clearly Nash has made the life of the superstar shooting guard easier, but the Lakers as a whole haven’t exactly benefited from this when we look at their overall record (16-21). And really, this is what’s made the tandem a little disappointing so far this season.
Statistically, both players are playing at fairly high levels, especially when we judge them based on their performances in seasons past, but they’ve contributed to the Laker woes in two specific areas this season that have resulted in the team’s losing record: defense and an inability to close out games.
Will the Lakers' starting backcourt lead the team to a postseason berth this year?
Defensively, the guard tandem just hasn’t cut it, to be quite frank. Nash doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay with other point guards in the league and also struggles to fight through screens in the pick-and-roll, which typically leads to a plethora of open shots. Bryant, on the other hand, has fallen asleep on far too many defensive possessions, missed out on rotations or simply hasn’t been engaged enough on that end and given up open looks to opponents.
Put both on the court together and, well, it’s a bit ugly, Laker fans. According to NBA.com, when Nash and Bryant share the court, the Lakers yield 108.7 points per 48 minutes on 47.6 percent field-goal shooting. For the sake of context, both defensive statistical outputs would be the worst in the league.
As it pertains to closing out games, Kobe has the uncanny ability of preventing games from getting away from the Lakers, but his play in the clutch hasn’t been impressive this season. Indeed, although the 17-year veteran has been a good shooter this year, he's settled for a lot of contested three-point looks late in ball games and has clanked his fair share of them. Thus, in late-game situations, he is only converting 33.3 percent of his field-goal attempts and 22.2 percent of his tries from downtown per NBA.com.
Nash, on the other hand, has been a great option judging from his 60 percent field goal percentage in the clutch (clutch is defined as the last five minutes of a game with the scoring margin within five points), but he has only attempted five such field goals all season.
What’s interesting about the former Maverick is that most of his shots have come in situations where he took the ball, called his own number and delivered.
Perhaps more of that might be needed if the Lakers are going to bounce back and turn themselves into a winning team, because at this moment the team isn’t getting it done. And really, a large part of the blame has to be directed at the dream backcourt.
All of the accolades and accomplishments that Nash and Bryant have accumulated throughout their illustrious careers unquestionably make them first-ballot Hall of Fame basketball players, but their credentials alone can’t save the Lakers.
As great as they’ve played individually, they may just have to be better if the purple and gold are going to make the playoffs and perhaps remind us just what the big deal was when Nash joined the team.
The clock is ticking, though…
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.