The reunion of Steve Nash and coach Mike D'Antoni in Los Angeles last year was supposed to be the start of something good. The team's fortunes went south for a variety of reasons, injuries key among them. Nash was in and out of the lineup all season. The hope was that a summer of rest and rehab would put the 39-year-old veteran back on track. Now, the questions are back.
With the regular season about to start, rumblings among Lakers staff and players are starting to surface. Pau Gasol voiced concern after Nash sat out the second half of a preseason game against the Utah Jazz, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
“Steve hasn't been able to complete a practice yet, so that's the bigger issue,” Gasol said of Nash, who is averaging just 3.5 points and 3.5 assists in 16.7 minutes per game in the preseason, sitting out one of the exhibition games altogether. "I'm a little bit concerned because I want him to be healthy, I want him to play and I want him to do well. I want him to help us. I hope that he can.”
The essential question, obviously, is will the continuing fragile health of the league's oldest player doom the team's season before it even begins? That seems a bit of a stretch. It may, however, be part and parcel to an overall issue of age.
Nash, Kobe Bryant and Gasol represent the Lakers' nucleus. Bryant, of course, is coming off a devastating injury. Nobody knows when he'll return or what that will look like. Pau Gasol had a double knee procedure this summer. Put together, these three guys have 51 years in the league.
Steve Nash's health concerns are not new. The future Hall of Famer was plagued by back issues throughout his long tenure with the Phoenix Suns. Fortunately, that team's legendary training staff managed to keep the star point guard mostly on court. Those were the glory years for Nash. He racked up two MVP awards. He was a human highlight reel.
Nash's acquisition last summer by the Lakers was designed to complement the larger arrival of Dwight Howard. Nash, the consummate assist man, was supposed to deliver the ball to Dwight's sweet spots, as well as take some ball-handling pressure off Kobe Bryant.
The whole thing went to hell in a handbag. Coach Mike Brown was fired five games into the regular season. The media went ecstatic when rumors of Phil Jackson's return were reported by news outlets such as Sports Illustrated. Lakers management decided to buck public fanfare and instead hired D'Antoni, fresh off his New York Knicks debacle.
Nash broke a leg in the season's second game and didn't return for two months. It seemed to set an ominous tone. The losses mounted. Dwight Howard was trying to get back into form after coming back from back surgery. D'Antoni couldn't settle on a lineup.
Even Steve Nash's eventual return didn't seem to help. He never seemed comfortable running the offense. The chemistry clearly wasn't there with Howard. And then the cruelest blow of all—Kobe Bryant going down with a ruptured Achilles at the tail end of the regular season.
L.A. wound up getting swept in the first round of the 2013 playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. By that point, Nash was also sitting out. A team once expected to contend for a championship, now featured a starting backcourt of Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris.
The Lakers signed Jordan Farmar during the offseason. He won two rings with the Lakers early in his career and has skills that suit the current offense. The team also has Steve Blake, a guy who D'Antoni has had plenty of praise for.
The idea was that Farmar and Blake would bolster Nash in a potent three-headed point guard hydra. Nash could play less minutes, preserving his legs for the stretch run and potentially, a push deep into the playoffs.
This of course is part of a logical management move. The Lakers have been clearing salary for an expected big run at free agency in 2014. They have loaded up with younger, more athletic, minimum-salary players. Almost everyone is on a one-year deal. There are a number of draft bust reclamation projects. The team has shown good energy during preseason games, even if it is uneven at times.
Given all this, why are Steve Nash's shaky pins raising such a hue and cry right now?
The problem with the the three-headed hydra theory is this: Nash is supposed to be the head of that snake, and when you cut the head off, the snake dies. Plus, the noise isn't just coming from fans. Here, Coach D'Antoni speaks about not only Nash, but overall health concerns:
So the regular season hasn't even begun and the questions are back. Steve Nash, who turns 40 in February, is dealing with a nagging left ankle injury. It's starting to look like groundhog day.
The Lakers open their season on Tuesday night against the L.A. Clippers. The expectation is that Nash will probably play—emphasis on "probably." Lakers fans know, however, that for better or worse, history has a habit of repeating itself. In the words of Jim Morrison, who once represented the essential Los Angeles experience, "the future's uncertain and the end is always near." Let it roll.