We know what Kobe Bryant's role will be when he returns for the Los Angeles Lakers. But the same can't be said of Steve Nash, whose uncertain health and indefinite role make his impact much harder to predict.
That's why the 39-year-old point guard could wind up being the player with the biggest influence on Los Angeles' fate in the 2013-14 season—for better or worse.
Think about it like this: Bryant has essentially played with one mindset his entire career, despite shifting coaching philosophies and a rotating cast of teammates.
He knows he's out there to be the team's alpha dog, primary scoring option and late-game gunner. Yes, he's dabbled briefly with the notion of being a facilitator, but those dalliances have never lasted for more than a few games at a time.
Generally speaking, Bryant looks to score in isolation, takes plenty of shots and tends to control possessions during crunch time. It's just who he is.
So whenever he manages to get his body ready to play this season, that's the guy we'll see.
Undoubtedly, he'll have to find a way to cope with the reduced athleticism that should result from his torn Achilles. But his experience, competitiveness and finely tuned post game are going to allow him to play in a way that won't be markedly different from the style we've seen over the past 17 years.
The Big Question Mark
Nash is a different case.
His injury last year wasn't of the same abrupt, career-altering quality as Bryant's. In a way, that makes it even harder to project what we'll see from Nash this year.
See, Nash suffered a near-total physical breakdown last season. He fractured his leg early in the year and then suffered a related string of strains, tweaks and sprains that resulted from his initial injury.
It was as though his body just couldn't get itself aligned.
Bryant's Achilles will heal, and even if he's never able to cut as quickly or jump as high, his game won't change. Nash's comprehensive collapse could have a much more significant impact on his performance because it's so hard to know if he'll ever be able to play significant minutes again.
That uncertainty means the Lakers are looking at a broad range of possibilities, both positive and negative. They don't know what to expect from their point guard.
And for what it's worth, Nash doesn't know what to expect of himself.
According to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, he said:
We'll see. I've got to go out and find what kind of player I am now. Even I'm still trying to figure out, after all the injuries and everything.
It's been a difficult 12 months of injuries and stuff. [I'm] a little bit [limited] but not necessarily anything that I can't overcome...I've played two basketball games since [May], if you count the two playoff games where I limped around. It's been a while. It takes time to get your rhythm and timing and kind of feel confident and comfortable out there.
For the sake of argument, let's assume Nash's body will be able to hold up to the rigors of a full season. If that's the case, it makes the most sense to use him as a primary ball-handler in an uptempo offense that looks as much like Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams as possible.
Nash was always most effective when he was responsible for either finding open shooters or taking shots himself. A creative decision-maker and one of the greatest pure snipers to ever play, Nash was an elite dual threat in his prime.
Just two years ago, he was still a fantastically effective offensive player.
So if Nash is totally healthy, allowing him to function as a full-time, conventional point guard could transform the Lakers into a high-efficiency offense.
But as was the case when the Lakers acquired him, there are bound to be issues with using Nash in this way. As we've established, Bryant doesn't really work well as a second option. So even if we imagine a best-case scenario in which Nash and Bryant are both healthy, the Lakers will still be stuck in a situation where they won't be able to get the most out of whatever talent Nash still has.
If that's how things play out, Nash could wind up as a glorified decoy on offense. That's far from an ideal way to maximize his considerable skills.
Of course, it's also possible that if Nash isn't healthy enough to handle a major role, he'll wind up camping out in the corner anyway.
Using a fully healthy Nash as a spot-up shooter in support of Bryant is something of a waste, but it would be better than the worst-case alternative in which Nash simply can't do anything else.
If his physical deterioration picks up where it left off last year, Nash might not be able to give the Lakers much at all. And even with Jordan Farmar on the roster as a backup at the point, the Lakers would lose out on the experience, shooting and chemistry-building play that even a hobbled Nash could provide.
Digest that for a moment: Depending on how Nash feels and how the Lakers decide to use him, they could either have one of the most dynamic, efficient offenses in the NBA, or a predictable, isolation-heavy attack that will struggle to score at a league-average rate.
That's some serious range.
The Unlikely X-Factor
It's admittedly strange to feel more certain about the role and productivity of a guy coming off of an Achilles tear than a player who succumbed to mostly minor maladies last year. But Bryant is what he is, and there's a sense that whenever he's able to return, he won't be all that different from the way he was before.
Nash, though, is the Lakers' X-factor because he presents such a wide breadth of possibilities for the team.
There's a kind of certainty with Bryant: If he can play, he'll play well.
But the Lakers have no idea what Nash will give them.