As the Los Angeles Lakers continue cling to their loss-column tie for the eighth seed in the Western Conference like a toddler to his mother, the injury bug continues to strike with a venomous rage.
Kobe Bryant is dealing with a myriad of injuries, including a sprained left ankle and bone spurs in that same foot. Pau Gasol just returned on March 22 from a month-and-a-half-long stint on the injured list. Dwight Howard is still dealing with a lingering shoulder injury that has hampered him all season, and few know what “percentage” his back is at right now.
The coup de grace, though, remains point guard Steve Nash. Brought in to spur the offense of this four-headed monster, Nash’s season has arguably been the worst of any Laker—although it has been shrouded behind an avalanche of Dwight hate and Pau-pounding in the papers.
Nash has played in just 50 games this season prior to Tuesday night. He missed nearly the entire months of November and December with a shin injury and hasn’t looked like himself all season. Nash is averaging just 12.7 points and 6.7 points per game this season, at times looking like a lost weary traveler on the Lakers’ turbulent roads.
But as the Lakers built themselves back up to the .500 mark, so did Nash. His 14.5 points per game in March were his highest in any month this season, and he finally seemed comfortable in his move away from the ball.
Alas, nothing can ever go completely right for the Lakers this season. In the midst of what was shaping up to be his second 20-plus-point performance in his last three games, Nash went down with another injury—this time a right hamstring problem. Initially thought to be a minor blip, this injury could prove anything but for the Lakers.
He played two minutes in their win over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday before exiting with discomfort. And according to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Nash will miss Tuesday’s critical clash against the Dallas Mavericks:
* @stevenash (hamstring strain/hip) is OUT for tonight's game against Dallas.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) April 2, 2013
It’s a downer for the Lakers, but one that should have been expected. Gasol’s return was supposed to spark a locking of the No. 8 seed and a possible upset of the San Antonio Spurs in Round 1. Instead, Bryant and Nash are ailing, and the Jazz’s return to playoff-race relevance has the Lakers reeling.
It seems that just when everything looks good in Lakerland, someone decides to punt Baxter off a bridge and make everything descend out of control.
This time around, the Lakers have little wiggle room to pull themselves out of a watery grave. A loss to Dallas on Tuesday night, and the two teams’ tiebreaker (should it come to that) will be their conference records. With the Lakers already having lost their head-to-head tiebreaker to the Jazz this season, they run the risk of needing an outright lead on both of their eighth-seeded foes with a loss.
Of course, the importance of Tuesday’s game makes Nash’s absence all the more concerning. If Nash could have played, then he would have—no one has ever questioned his toughness. And we’ve already seen a “short-term” injury for Nash go a lot longer than initially expected this season.
And while Nash certainly hasn’t had the effect anyone was hoping he would, losing him for this late-season stretch will be the death knell for the Lakers.
As Mike D’Antoni has continued tinkering with his offensive scheme throughout the 2012-13 season, Nash and Kobe Bryant’s evolution has become the most noteworthy. Brought in to give Bryant a traditional “point guard” for the first time since Derek Fisher’s heyday, Nash has become more like late-career Fisher than he’s ever imagined.
By that, I mean he’s spotting up—a lot. Though Nash still uses over half of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler—where “uses” means a possession ending in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws—his role in that capacity has diminished significantly since leaving Phoenix. He’s using over eight-percent fewer of his finished possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler than last season, per Synergy Sports.
Instead, Nash has been more stationary than he ever has since leaving Dallas. Nash is using 17.9 percent of his possessions as a spot-up shooter, about three times his six-percent rate from last year, per Synergy Sports. And that rate has gone up as the season has progressed, with Bryant’s newfound distribution emphasis keeping Nash off the ball even more.
It was a brilliant (albeit late) transition. Nash’s shooting has always been strangely overshadowed by his passing, but the 39-year-old guard is one of the best shooters in league history. He’s made better than 40 percent of his three-pointers in 14 of his 17 NBA seasons, including this season, where his 43.8-percent rate is his best since 2008-09.
Unsurprisingly, Nash has excelled as new-age Fisher. He’s fifth in the NBA at 1.34 points per possession in spot-up situations, making him by far the Lakers’ best shooter on a team without much shooting.
What also goes underrated is where Nash takes his threes. The place for traditional spot-up shooters has always been the corner three. It’s the best shot outside the restricted area in basketball, where players historically make a much higher percentage of their shots.
That isn’t the case with Nash. He’s taken just 10 shots all season from the corner, making them his two least-used offensive areas. Therefore, when Nash is on the floor, the Lakers can still store a spot-up guy—say, Jodie Meeks—in the corner and keep spaced out for a slash-and-kick.
Though he’s played well of late, Steve Blake, Nash’s replacement, doesn’t provide the same versatility. Blake has hit above-the-break threes only slightly less frequently than Nash this season—the difference of a little more than one percent, per NBA.com—but he doesn’t create well at all. He’s averaging just 0.72 points per possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler, which ranks 113th in the league, according to Synergy Sports.
One could say Blake is a “better” defender, but that’s just like saying a broken-down Lamborghini is better than a broken-down Pontiac when stranded in the Mojave Desert. Both are broken and aren’t taking you anywhere—their value is negligible.
Even a limited Nash is a superior talent to an at-his-best Blake. If Nash’s injury lasts beyond Tuesday night’s game with Dallas, the Lakers will need the trio of Bryant, Howard and Gasol to play like they haven’t together all season. Dallas is followed on the schedule by a home game against the Memphis Grizzlies and a “road” tilt against the Clippers on Sunday.
Lose those three games, and the Lakers are done. And with Nash’s hamstring injury leaving his status uncertain, it looks likelier than ever that this Lakers team will finally crumble under the weight of their season-long burden.