It's Officially Time for LA Lakers to Panic About Aging Steve Nash
Can we panic now?
Curious was the best way to describe his situation at first. Limited preseason appearances weren't of concern, not for the oldest player in the NBA. They were precautionary measures, and those were to be expected.
Not even when coach Mike D'Antoni admitted Nash might miss some time this season did we panic.
"I'm not concerned," D'Antoni said after Nash left a preseason game against the Sacramento Kings with a sore left ankle, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "I think this will happen off and on all year, but he's going to give you a good season and good stuff. We have to take care of him."
Breathe easy, Mike. We know you're posturing; preparing us for the worst when Nash is headed for the best. Your basement-level expectations aren't fooling anyone.
Since then, it's become clear D'Antoni isn't masking Nash's progress or dramatizing his injuries. Nash isn't right, and D'Antoni isn't the only one who has noticed.
With the Los Angeles Lakers already down Kobe and wearing thin on established players, the team needs Nash on the floor. Unfortunately, it may have to trod along without him, too.
So, can we panic now?
Why yes; yes, we can.
Pretending that Nash's injuries and spotty absences are no big deal is to ignore the obvious. Nash is old, much older than he was in 2011-12, when he almost led the downtrodden Phoenix Suns to a playoff berth on his own.
Nash, already the oldest player in the league, will turn 40 in February. In NBA years, which are typically crueler than dog years, that's ancient.
Last season, there were only two 40-year-olds who appeared in any games—Grant Hill and Kurt Thomas. Neither played more than 39 times or averaged more than 15.1 minutes of active duty.
In fact, Nash was one of only three players, aged 37 or older, to log more than 25 minutes a night. The other two were Ray Allen and Jason Kidd, the latter of whom is retired and coaching the Brooklyn Nets.
When (if?) healthy, Nash won't likely be able to match his 32.5 minutes from last season. Years of wear and tear began to catch up with him even then. The 32 games he missed in 2012-13 were a career high and marked just the second time in 17 years he sat out more than 20 games.
Making a full recovery isn't an option at this point. His ankles may heal, but he can't outrun Father Time any longer. And the track record for players his age isn't great.
Over the last 10 years, 13 players (not including Nash) have played out a regular season after their 39th birthday. Of those 13, four have averaged at least 25 minutes per game that same year—Reggie Miller, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone and Clifford Robinson. Only two of those four, however, appeared in 50 or more contests (Miller and Kidd).
Put simply, the Lakers could very well be a team that is directed by Nash for fewer than 50 games or under 25 minutes a night, or both. Los Angeles knew the risks when it signed-and-traded for Nash, but he was definitely expected to play more than that.
Remember, he was supposed to vault the Lakers back into title contention before Dwight Howard even arrived. Losing that type of player for extended periods of time or failing to have him at full capacity will bridle Los Angeles' ceiling considerably.
Much of this is predicated on maybes becoming certainties, but if you don't think it's a strong possibility Nash struggles to remain healthy and play at all, you're sorely misled.
“We’re honestly going to have a three-point-guard lineup,” Jordan Farmar said, per Ding. “There are going to be a lot of games where Steve Nash probably doesn’t play; there may be some games where somebody might be hurt and play limited minutes. There will be a lot of opportunity for all three of us.”
Opportunities that are borne out of Nash's age and could ultimately lead to season-long misfortune for everyone involved.
Thin At Point Guard
Steve Blake and Farmar are fine backups. Though neither of them will emerge as consistent double-double threats, they're functional stopgaps when playing within a rotation where there exists a clear-cut starter.
Both also have D'Antoni going for them. As Ding writes, he's the anti-Phil Jackson and the perfect coach to weather this type of storm:
D’Antoni is the anti-Phil Jackson in one clear sense: Jackson has been able to connect with his superstars fabulously and navigate those egos, while D’Antoni has done some really fine work with guys people hardly know. He empowers the role players and has the strategic acumen to put them in advantageous matchups.
So in a weird way, the absence of Bryant and the limitations of Nash have given D’Antoni his most comfortable zone to nurture this team. And he must get more from the lesser lights. It is the first prerequisite.
Magic Mike's offense affords free reign to all who abide by its loosey-goosey policies: Keep shooting, never stop shooting and shoot some more.
Recent success stories include Jeremy Lin and Earl Clark, both of whom were on their way out of the NBA until he got his hands on them. After one season playing for him, Lin and Clark earned a pair of multiyear deals with other teams.
Point guards especially, are his bread and butter. Ask Nash himself, who won two MVPs in Phoenix within his system. For a New York minute, D'Antoni even had Carmelo Anthony excited about running the New York Knicks offense in 2011.
What he preaches usually resonates with players, most notably lesser-known players. And it starts with his willingness to value them. Any and all playmakers are vital in his mind. No exceptions.
"It could change during the season,” D’Antoni said of the point guard situation, according to the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. "There will be a time for all of them. It just depends who’s hot early. I’m sure all of them will get good runs."
Good runs, not great runs. That's what these Lakers will be missing if Nash isn't right—a definitive starter. Chances are, Blake and Farmar won't make up a collective Linsanity.
Worse still, there's no one after them. Blake missed more games than Nash last year (37). What's to become of the point guard position if he goes down again and Nash isn't Nash? Farmar to the rescue?
Essential unknowns become studs under D'Antoni, but if Nash can't return to form, the Lakers' lack of depth at the point will show.
Problems at the point guard position will actually force Farmar to break out his cape and come to the rescue, because no one knows if or when Kobe will be able to.
The Mamba tied a career high with six assists per game last season, and the Lakers were 28-12 when he reached or exceeded that average. When you consider the Lakers won 54.9 percent of their games last year (45), that 70 percent success rate when Kobe dropped six dimes is huge.
But Kobe's timetable is unknown. We've seen him jog up and down the sidelines, but like Ding says, he still hasn't started running. Not really. Ding also says he hasn't "done any cutting or tried typical basketball moves yet," either.
Sans Nash, the Lakers are at a disadvantage no matter what. Having Kobe available would soften the blow his absence delivers, though. He can make plays with the ball in his hands; he and Nash are the two best playmakers the Lakers currently have.
Once Kobe returns to action, a burden will be lifted off Blake and Farmar's shoulders, and a gaping hole will be partially filled. Problem is, there's no relief coming until that happens. Best-case scenario, Nash will be limited. That's less a remedy to Los Angeles' current quandary and more another obstruction in itself.
Until Kobe returns, then, the Lakers will have to navigate a smattering of obstacles without their most tried-and-true barrier breaker.
So, That Panic Button Is Where Again?
Nash's health is a big problem for the Lakers, and it causes an even greater problem.
Like Ding writes, the Lakers are supposed to be a good team; Kobe would make them great.
Now the Lakers are left wondering if they're even good. Next to Gasol, Nash was one of the primary reasons the Lakers were supposed to be good enough without Kobe. If he himself isn't good enough, how will the Lakers survive until Kobe gets back? Moreover, how are they supposed to take that next step with Kobe as Nash's well being continues to fluctuate?
Chemistry is one of the few advantages the Lakers were hoping to have this season. They're not young or particularly fast. They're not built to play defense of any kind, either. Preeminent compatibility would will them into playoff contention; copious amounts of production from their most recognizable faces and skill sets would keep them relevant.
How many games will Steve Nash play for the Lakers this season?
One of those faces is already confined to the bench and encouraging Instagram videos. Nash isn't far behind, and could be toeing that line all season.
Without Kobe, the Lakers can be good—if all the other pieces click. Among those pieces is Nash, whose possible absence and fettered playing time could prevent the Lakers from salvaging life without Kobe. And whose continued struggles could repress their potential with him.
"It’s a lot of positive energy all the time," Farmar said, per Ding.
Still without Kobe and forever waiting on Nash, the challenge in Los Angeles will be keeping it that way.
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