Mike D'Antoni may need Nash to run his offensive sets to perfection, but he also needs him, well, alive. Resting too many hopes on 39-year-old shoulders won't end well.
Nash isn't the same player Magic Mike coached in 2008. Shoot, he's not even the same player who single-handedly almost carried the Phoenix Suns to a playoff berth in 2012.
One year has made all the difference in Los Angeles. Nash is no longer considered an ageless floor piece, and he can't be treated like one.
Precautions must be taken and minutes monitored. Responsibilities and expectations must be tapered. Nash must be watched like a hawk and handled with care, lest the Lakers be forced to plow on without the starting point guard they'll need to contend for a postseason spot.
Learn from Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant was overworked last season, and look what happened.
I'm not directly referring to his Achilles injury. He was on the floor at a time he always would have been on the floor. We can't hang D'Antoni for that, even if some of us are still looking for someone to blame.
People blaming D'Antoni for this is ridiculous.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) April 13, 2013
Instead, look at how last season turned out. Kobe notched 27.3 points and six assists in 38.6 minutes per game, but the Lakers still barely made the playoffs.
Then, you know, the injury.
Los Angeles cannot afford for something similar to happen with Nash. Expecting him to play 35-plus minutes a night at this point is unrealistic. Matching the 32.5 he logged last season is equally ambitious.
At 39, he's the oldest player in the NBA. A 40-year-old Kurt Thomas was the league's oldest player last season, and he averaged just 10.1 minutes per game.
Nash isn't Thomas or even someone close to Thomas. They are, however, close in age. Nash is just expected to do more—not just performance wise either, forget about that.
There's no question as to who's the better player, so of course Nash is expected to do more. Focus on just the role, the importance to one's team by itself.
Most players Nash's age aren't on the court for 30-plus minutes at a time. Of all the players aged 35 or older in the NBA last year, Nash was one of only three (Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce) to surpass that 30-minute mark. And he was the only one older than 36 to play more than 30 minutes a night.
Entering 2012-13, that may have been acceptable. But that was when Nash had gone 12 straight years without missing more than 12 games in a single season. Now he's coming off a campaign during which he was absent from 32, the most of his career, and just the second time ever he missed more than 25.
These Lakers can't ignore that Nash is officially a health risk. Though he told the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch he has "fully recovered" from the broken bone and nerve damage in his left foot, he's still 39. Players who aren't a member of the San Antonio Spurs don't improve as they age. It just doesn't happen.
"He's 39 years old... and you can't play a guy like that 35 minutes a game," Kupchak said, per Bolch.
Coach Gregg Popovich even knows his seemingly ageless core has its limits. Tim Duncan played some of the best basketball of his career last year, yet he has still put four years between him and the last time he averaged 32-plus minutes per night.
Similar discretion must be employed by D'Antoni. To minimize the risk of potential injury and exhaustion, he must recognize that less of Nash can sometimes be of more value to the Lakers.
The days of all Nash, all the time are over.
Trust What You've Built
Putting faith in what the Lakers have built is like telling your girlfriend you can't take her to the zoo because it's Sunday in the fall and your favorite NFL team is playing. You're hesitant to do it, but you've got to do it.
Save for the hopes and dreams of lost and stubborn souls, championships aren't the standard in Los Angeles next year. Getting out alive for 2014 free agency is the new NBA title. So now is the time to take risks, to exploit the presences of Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake.
Farmar and Blake are hardly extensions of the ideal point guard. Neither has averaged more than 11 points or 5.1 assists for an entire season, and both are shooting under 43 percent from the floor for their career. They're also not Nash, who is known for his double-doubles and deft shooting touch.
But they don't have to be Nash; they just need to serve as adequate stopgaps while the real Nash is on the bench.
Jordan Farmar on Steve Nash, "I've already told him I'm going to be in his ear everyday. I'm going to be like his son"— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) September 28, 2013
D'Antoni's system has a habit of making below-average to mediocre point guards play sensational basketball. Jeremy Lin wouldn't be starting with the Houston Rockets if Magic Mike didn't roll out the red carpet for him in the Big Apple. The New York Knicks also wouldn't have jumped at the opportunity to re-acquire Raymond Felton last year if he didn't post 17.1 points and nine assists under D'Antoni in 2010-11.
This system is made for point guards. And D'Antoni himself has already said Blake and Farmar are perfect fits for said system.
Mike D'Antoni views Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar as great guards for his system http://t.co/vZNhx2qmxA— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 1, 2013
If that's the case, show us. Show us they're not mere roster fillers and that they can be of value. Show us that they can alleviate some of the pressure currently on Nash.
Then remember that Kobe hasn't retired either. No one knows exactly when he'll return, but he's going to return. While his minutes must be monitored as well, the ball can still be put in his hands when Nash is on the sidelines.
Kobe's six assists per game last year tied a career high, and the Lakers were 34-17 when he dished out five or more. Not only can he help carry the playmaking, it's preferred that he does.
The Lakers must believe in him. Believe in Farmar and Blake.
Believe that they don't need to put Nash's well-being at risk more than they should.
Think Big Picture
Next season, if the Lakers are to make the playoffs, they need a healthy Nash. For them to appeal to star free agents as a worthy team of choice in 2014, they need him even more.
This upcoming expedition isn't Nash's swan song. He is one of only two Lakers (Robert Sacre) under a guaranteed contract for 2014-15.
Kobe could leave (he won't). And Gasol could leave as well (er...). Almost everyone could leave, hence the Lakers' plan to go bananas next summer in hopes of foregoing a rebuild and forming an instant superteam.
To do that, they need to have someone they can point to and say, "Look, he's pretty good." In all likelihood, Kobe will still be that somebody. Having two won't hurt, though, especially when you consider all may not go according to plan.
Mitch Kupchak can't promise LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony, among others, will want to play with Kobe. He can't even guarantee Kobe will take the necessary pay cut to make their additions possible.
How many minutes should Steve Nash play per game this season?
What if the Lakers don't land LeBron? Or Anthony? Or Derek Fisher? What then?
They need more than a potentially healthy Kobe to build around. A point guard over 40 isn't a quintessential pillar, but it sure beats a battered 40-year-old who can't stay healthy because he was habitually abused the year before.
"Obviously, I think people think I'm on the downswing and that I'm receding into retirement in front of our eyes," Nash said, via Bolch. "So I've got a lot to prove."
As do the Lakers.
Regardless of the route these Lakers are forced to traverse beyond next season, they need Nash. They need him if they're to lure in big names and make the most out of a newly spawned powerhouse. They need him if they're to field a watchable product on the off chance they strikeout next summer. They need him beyond 2013-14.
Recognizing that now gives them a better chance of having him. The real him. Not some broken version of the point guard he should still be.