The Los Angeles Lakers haven't looked particularly potent on offense without Kobe Bryant. That shouldn't be too surprising, as the Mamba has always been the centerpiece of that team's point-scoring abilities.
But now Steve Nash is out, and things get even worse without the Canadian floor general in the lineup.
According to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Nash is out for at least two weeks while dealing with a complicated injury: "Suffering from nerve root irritation, a problem that began when he broke his leg a year ago in the second game of the season, Nash's efforts will now be focused on getting healthy enough to fulfill his contract with the Lakers."
The injury was especially noticeable against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when Nash was thoroughly outperformed by Ricky Rubio before exiting with a limp. It was clear that he just didn't have it that day, as his back was seriously acting up.
Now it's going to be at least two weeks before a Lakers team already starved for upper-level talent gets Nash back. Again, "at least."
With that in mind, let's take a look at how Nash's absence will affect Mike D'Antoni's offense.
The Beginning of the End
It's not looking good.
Nash has been less than effective when he's on the court, and everything points toward him sitting out for an extended portion of the 2013-14 campaign. This could very well be the beginning of the end, and while it pains me to say it, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see him retire after playing only a handful more games for the Lakers.
Pincus wrote the following about medical retirement emerging as a possibility:
Should the Lakers' back specialist, Dr. Robert Watkins, determine that any additional effort by Nash to play would constitute a medically unacceptable risk, the veteran point guard may end his career via forced medical retirement.
And as the aging point guard told Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times, "The pain is always there." He continued by saying that he was worried about diminishing returns, and that's an important concept for a player always known as one of the more cerebral guys in the NBA. There's more than the ability to play being tossed about in Nash's mind; he's thinking about what he adds to the team.
So far, it hasn't been much.
Nash was supposed to be a crucial piece on last year's superteam, and while his inability to stay healthy and effective was massively overshadowed by the Dwight Howard drama and the near-constant state of flux on the sidelines, he was still massively disappointing.
This year has been no different, as he's averaging only 6.7 points and 4.8 assists per game.
But even in his diminished state, the 39-year-old point guard's absence from the rotation does cause a few problems for a D'Antoni offense that is already struggling to remain effective. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz have offenses boasting ratings below the Lakers mark of 96.8 points per 100 possessions.
Without Nash, it's quite possible that the team bottoms out before Kobe's return sparks a little life back into the offensive unit. There are two primary reasons.
Less Three-Point Shooting
Nash is incredibly adept at ensuring that the Lakers hit a lot of three-pointers, whether he's dropping the ball through the net from the outside by himself or finding teammates for open looks from downtown. Although he's been less impressive than Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake in other facets, this is the area of the game at which he excels.
And under D'Antoni, that's quite important.
Courtesy of NBA.com's statistical databases, we can determine just how many points each point guard generates per assist:
|Player||Assists per Game||Points Created by Assists per Game||Points Created per Assist|
How do we know that those extra points per assist are coming from three-pointers that Nash is generating?
Well, he's creating free-throw assists (passes that lead to shooting fouls) with less frequency. He and Farmar each average 0.3 per game, and Blake comes in at 0.5 each contest. Therefore, he has an even bigger difference to make up, and that can only come from the triples.
On top of that, Nash averages the most secondary assists per game, defined by NBA.com as "quantity of passes made by a player to the player who earned an assist on a made shot. Assister must make a pass within two seconds and one dribble for passer to earn a secondary assist."
Nash's 1.3 per game top Blake and Farmar's marks of 0.9.
This is also readily apparent when you look at lineup data, courtesy of NBA.com's stat site (subscription required).
Up to this point in the season, the Lakers have used eight five-man lineups that have spent at least 10 minutes on the court together, and Nash has been a part of four. In terms of three-pointers made per 48 minutes, his lineups rank No. 1, 3, 4 and 8.
Nash has played under D'Antoni before, and he understands the premium that is always placed on shooting from beyond the arc. He's a master at maximizing the team's ability to capitalize on those shots, even in this relatively decrepit state.
Shallow Guard Rotation
Beyond the three-point shooting, though, there isn't much of a difference between Nash and Blake at this stage of their respective careers. In fact, the biggest difference might just be their last names, as they each share that "Steve" that doesn't show up on the front of the jersey.
Because of that, there really isn't as much of a drop-off in production while Nash is out of the lineup. That's Ben Golliver's thesis on Sports Illustrated's Point Forward blog:
The optimist might conclude that the Lakers needn’t panic about losing Nash, at least as long as Blake is healthy and waiting in the wings. That’s true to a degree: The drop-off from Nash to Blake is way steeper in name recognition and theory than it is is play-by-play reality. The loss of any rotation player hurts the Lakers, whose thin roster relies on a number of minimum-salary contributors...
He's exactly right.
If you can divorce yourself from the name on the back of the purple-and-gold jersey, the absence of Nash really isn't too big a deal for the Lakers. Except...they need every healthy body.
Without the future Hall of Famer on the court, L.A. is literally relying on a two-man rotation at point guard, one comprised solely of Blake and Farmar. The latter may only be 27 years old, but the former is 33 and shouldn't be counted on to play 30 minutes per game as a primary ball-handler at this stage of his career.
Beyond that, D'Antoni is left relying on a shooting guard like Nick Young or Jodie Meeks to run the show at the 1, and that automatically inhibits any semblance of offensive flow. You know, the very thing that makes his offense function at a high level.
Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico reports that many league executives are expecting to receive calls from general manager Mitch Kupchak in the very near future. And they're already preparing counter offers, Amico was told by one anonymous source.
However, as Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster points out, that search for an external replacement is complicated by the Lakers need to maintain financial flexibility next summer.
While he notes that the Lakers may well just play it out with a two-man rotation at the point, Foster speculates that the team could also look to the limited free-agent pool and sign a young guy with upside. Someone like Rodrigue Beaubois, Scott Machado or Kendall Marshall, for example.
That in itself is a little bit troubling for L.A.'s hopes this season. Names like those that comprise the aforementioned trio are already being legitimately tossed around as fixer-uppers.
Nash's absence itself might not affect too much for the D'Antoni offense, except that it could wear down the rest of the team as the season progresses. His status as a healthy body is just as important as his ability to create three-pointers for a team in dire need of an offensive spark.
It's sad that we've reached that point, so here's hoping that NBA fans get to witness a vintage Nash at some point during the remaining portion of the 2013-14 season.
The Lakers need it to happen.