Steve Nash is gone.
In all actuality, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard is still here, in the NBA. In Hollywood. He's still making the occasional practice appearance, sporting a grizzled beard, attempting to break a sweat and prove to himself and Lakers fans there's still something left.
But he's still gone. The Steve Nash the Lakers thought they traded for is long gone. Age pilfered his health. Time filched his effectiveness.
Reality hijacked his career.
Before January was out, the Lakers welcomed Nash back to practice, though the term "back" must be used loosely.
This isn't Nash they're getting back. Not the real Nash.
The real Nash wouldn't have missed 41 of the season's first 47 games. Injuries wouldn't have kept the real Nash out of Los Angeles' last 39 contests. Nash—the real Nash—would have never watched helplessly from the sidelines as his team's initial championship vision regressed into an expensive tank job.
That Nash is gone. Forever.
What the Lakers are welcoming back is a splintered version of a senescent superstar destroyed by time, barely fit to take the court for a team he was supposed to help save from dissolution.
Any hope of watching Nash, the NBA's oldest active player, lead the Lakers is gone.
The Lakers will turn to Kendall Marshall before him. They'll turn to Kobe Bryant (upon his return) before him. They'll turn to so many others before they count on Nash to provide any kind of offensive impetus.
The days of him consistently seeing 30-plus, or even 25-plus, minutes are figments of the past. Nash is too fragile for such a workload. Nerve damage has ruined his back, turning the seemingly harmless, like home life, into physical peril.
"I can withstand more demands," Nash said of his improvement after returning to practice, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "More contact, more unpredictable factors—change of direction, playing against somebody—those are all things that the nerve and the spine weren't able to handle two weeks ago."
There's a difference between "more" and "normal." Nash's situation is atypical for the player who was once the pinnacle of durability, having missed more than 10 games just three times before joining these Lakers.
As he attempts yet another comeback, there's a new normal, a new precedent that must be set.
Coach Mike D'Antoni cannot run him ragged. Playing him extensively puts him at risk, and it puts Los Angeles' backcourt in further disarray. A minutes cap will have to be set. Extra precautions must be taken.
This new version of Nash is human, old and delicate, and he must be treated as such.
Marshall is the Lakers' best point guard. That's as true now—when Los Angeles' floor-general corps is a skeleton crew—as it will be when Nash returns.
Talk of retirement has dominated Nash's ongoing rehabilitation. He won't suddenly go from potential career-ending pain to a starting point guard who increases the potency of the Los Angeles offense.
If his return is unsuccessful after playing 10 games and there's a medical retirement later in the season, his 2014-15 salary will remain on the Lakers' cap for a full year from his last game played—which would reduce the team's flexibility over the summer.
A three-game trial for Nash won't affect the Lakers financially, but any longer, with an unsuccessful result, would take away some of the team's spending power in July.
An NBA-assigned doctor would need to sign off on a medical retirement. Nash would receive his full salary in either case.
That Nash's ability to make it through four more games—seriously, just four—is even a question speaks to how far he's fallen as a player and asset. And while the expectation shouldn't be for him to retire, logging minutes as a point guard in D'Antoni's offense is unrealistic.
Los Angeles ranks third in possessions used per 48 minutes, playing at a pace Nash used to call his own. Speed is now the enemy, for fear of aggravating any one of his injuries.
Assuming he remains fit for duty—which could be classified as overly ambitious—Nash should spend his days as a complementary scorer instead. A spot-up shooter whose sole responsibility is to knock down three-pointers, not create for himself and others while on the move.
It's possible Nash could be valuable in such a role. He's shooting 42.8 percent from deep for his career and knocked down 47 percent of his spot-up treys last season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Playing what I like to call the "Steve Novak role" minimizes Nash's movement, allowing him to remain an effective and integral part of the offense without demanding more out of his body than he should be.
Simply traveling up and down the floor will be a challenge in Los Angeles' offense. It may even be too much to handle. Asking him to play the part of an undersized, stationary 2—perhaps alongside Marshall and Bryant (when he's healthy)—increases the likelihood some production and purpose can be extracted out of his remaining days.
However, many days are actually remaining.
Finding Something to Play For
What will the duration of Nash's NBA career look like?
Nothing we could have ever imagined.
Individual expectations be damned, the championship-less Nash should be competing for a title nearly two decades into his career. That was the plan when he came to Los Angeles. That's been the plan for over 17 years.
But plans change.
For Nash, his original plans have been revised to reflect his current situation and physical condition.
There is no title to be won by the Lakers between now and summer 2015, when Nash's contract expires. More than $20 million in cap space this summer isn't enough for the Lakers to make the jump from accidental tanker to calculated contender. It will take more than one superstar, more than just Carmelo Anthony to successfully treat Los Angeles' laundry list of flaws.
One free agent can save this team; one player can help Nash and the Lakers contend for a title. His name is LeBron James, and he's about as likely to leave the Miami Heat for Los Angeles and agree to bolster Bryant's ring count as he is to break bread with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
No other free agents will alter Los Angeles' current course enough, and the Lakers might not have it any other way. Kevin Love's impending free agency in 2015 is too enticing to ignore. Between now and then, another contingency plan may be put into place, where the Lakers deliberately embrace mediocrity for the chance of salvation in a little over one year's time.
That leaves Nash with one thing to play for: pride.
Nash doesn't want to retire. He would have quit already if he wanted to be done. One of his previous comeback attempts would have been the last straw. The sobering and somber swan song.
Persistance has reared its head instead. Nash has continued to fight, sticking out recurring setbacks and injuries. Where he could have folded, he vowed to return.
"I'm really excited, just to be part of the team again," Nash said of his imminent return, via Pincus.
Why exactly? Certainly, not for a chance at winning a championship. That's not going to happen in Los Angeles. The Lakers are tracking toward something entirely different.
No, the final stage of his career won't be dedicated to him chasing the one distinction that's constantly eluded him. It's about him reclaiming what he had for more than 15 years and has since left him: dignity. Honor. Prestige.