Why Steve Nash Is Most Critical Piece of LA Lakers Puzzle Next Season

J.M. Poulard@ShyneIVContributor IIAugust 15, 2013

The Los Angeles Lakers will need Steve Nash to play at a high level in 2013-14 for the team to enjoy some success and possibly earn a playoff berth.

It goes without saying that Kobe Bryant is still the team’s best player as well as the tone-setter. He has set such an incredible standard in terms of his durability and play throughout his career that ownership expects him to recoup from his Achilles surgery and be ready to go by the time training camp starts.

Bryant will still be the Lakers’ alpha male, but surprisingly, the season will not rest on his exploits. Mike D’Antoni already knows what to expect from the former two-time Finals MVP.

However, the coaching staff faces a little uncertainty vis-à-vis Nash’s role and his contributions. The former Phoenix Sun missed a large chunk of the 2012-13 season due to a broken leg.

The Lakers were forced into adapting their style of play and consequently ran an offense predicated on Bryant’s scoring and playmaking. By the time Nash returned to the lineup, he became a spot-up shooter more than anything.

The two-time league MVP still had a few ball-handling responsibilities, but they paled in comparison to his Phoenix days. Nash was a solid point guard in his first season in Los Angeles, but his new role made him appear less than stellar.

When called upon to run the offense, he did so brilliantly and manufactured open shots for his teammates. Bryant was often the beneficiary of Nash’s playmaking, as seen in the video below against the Portland Trail Blazers:

Furthermore, the former Dallas Maverick literally shot the lights out in 2012-13. He did a terrific job of hitting shots off the dribble, especially in the pick-and-roll. Synergy Sports tells us that Nash hit 48.9 percent of his field-goal attempts in screen-and-roll situations in his first year with the Lakers.

Nash was simply terrific in this setting because of his shooting ability as well as his driving and finishing skills. Keep in mind, the point guard flourished in the pick-and-roll in his Phoenix days under D’Antoni’s tutelage.

Indeed, the Suns offense was consistently one of the best in the league during the time D’Antoni and Nash were paired together. The Suns put the ball in the hands of their best player and watched him manufacture quality looks with great regularity.

During his illustrious career, Nash has been sensational at hitting his big men in the pick-and-roll because he sees the floor practically with infrared goggles and can make any pass in the book.

Watch him find Pau Gasol after running a pick-and-roll against the Golden State Warriors:

With Bryant recovering from Achilles surgery performed at the conclusion of the 2012-13 campaign, it will be best to reduce his workload when he joins the Lakers. Nash is a critical component on this front because he can reduce the amount of isolation plays his 2-guard will face.

Bryant loves operating in one-on-one situations and that can take away from the flow of the offense, regardless of his efficiency on a given night. This will become particularly troubling if the superstar struggles to initially regain his footing because of the condition of his Achilles tendon.

This is not to suggest that Bryant should get frozen out. Instead, the Lakers will spread the wealth with Nash diagramming plays to get teammates involved. The Purple and Gold often become predictable when the 15-time All-Star asserts himself offensively at the expense of other players.

Indeed, Bryant demands for the ball and fires up shot after shot and submarines the offense. When he is making shots, defenses throw additional help his way because they understand he will be reluctant to pass the ball. These are typically the spots where he rises up and shoots over double teams.

Thus, the Lakers ranked favorably in terms of offensive rating, but there were times when the ball movement was non-existent and the offense became choppy.

However, the Lakers coaching staff will make things infinitely easier for Bryant and company thanks in large part to Nash. The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer showed great trust in his backcourt partner in 2012-13 and that should carry over to the 2013-14 season.

Whenever opponents were foolish enough to send Nash’s defender over onto Bryant, the future Hall of Fame wing player quickly delivered passes to his point guard who made them pay by hitting 50.5 percent of his spot-up jumpers in 2012-13, per Synergy Sports.

Have a look at the shot Bryant created for Nash in 2012-13 against the Golden State Warriors:

He did it again here against the Denver Nuggets with Ty Lawson cheating over to contain Bryant:

Clearly, Nash is the perfect complement to Bryant because he spaces the floor and gives the 2-guard a quick-hitting option when faced with extra defenders. However, that script cannot become the norm and that is where Bryant’s former rival is essential.

The Bryant-Nash two-man game turns the other Lakers on the floor into spectators. Instead, an offense predicated on sharing the wealth will provide better overall results, and that is Nash’s forte.

Granted, at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, Nash sported a plus-minus rating of plus-36, according to NBA.com. Projected on a per game basis, the Lakers were a mere plus-0.8 with Nash on the floor.

Mind you, this was mostly a function of how poor the Lakers were as a defensive unit, particularly with Nash on the court. Los Angeles simply was not good on that side of the ball in 2012-13 and Nash certainly contributed to those woes.

The Lakers scored 106.2 points per 100 possessions with the Canadian on the floor per NBA.com, a figure that made the Lakers a borderline elite offense. In Phoenix, Nash steered the Suns to the same type of offensive output and actually held his own defensively within the team structure.

This should be cause for optimism heading into 2013-14. D’Antoni will have a training camp to instill a semblance of defensive principles and rules that will allow the team to compete better and provide more resistance on that end of the floor.

One should not expect the Lakers to produce a terrorizing defense, but anything close to above average will suffice. Nash is a good team defender because he anticipates where plays are going, gets into lanes and disrupts the flow of the opposing offense.

That was a challenge in his first season in LakerLand, given the time he missed and the change in coaches. The continuity heading into the 2013-14 campaign will greatly benefit the team. The players need repetition and familiarity, something they sorely lacked when D’Antoni took over the team.

A better Nash undoubtedly makes the Lakers a better team as well. His manipulation of the offense coupled with his improved defensive play will make or break the Lakers’ 2013-14 season.


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