The 2013-14 NBA season has been a roller coaster for Kendall Marshall, to say the least. The Phoenix Suns traded him to the Washington Wizards on Oct. 25, who promptly waived him three days later. After the D-League's Delaware 87ers picked him up in early December, the Los Angeles Lakers called him up on Dec. 20. He made his first start for the Purple and Gold on Jan. 3 amidst the carnage that became of their point guard rotation.
That carnage has yet to abate, which makes Marshall's role as a Laker all the more crucial for however long he stays in Los Angeles.
Perils at the Point
As was the case before Marshall came to town, the Lakers' point guards are once again dropping like Spinal Tap drummers. Steve Blake ruptured an eardrum in his first game back. Jordan Farmar re-aggravated his prior hamstring strain in his second. Steve Nash succumbed to shooting pain in his third.
In some ways, Nash is probably right to think that the latest flare-up of nerve root irritation in his left leg isn't and won't be "a long term thing at all," per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin.
As Nash went on to explain to the attendant media after the Los Angeles Lakers' 92-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, his third-quarter collision with Kirk Hinrich didn't appear to do any more damage to the region in question:
It wasn't like I broke it again. I just kind of irritated the nerve and I'm hopeful that all the stuff that I've been doing will be able to overcome that little bit of irritation. It's kind of transient and hopefully I'll wake up tomorrow and feel better.
That sort of hope, that optimism, has likely kept Nash going through his trying season-and-a-half in LA. It might also serve as a coping mechanism of sorts, shading the more ominous truth of Nash's ability to play basketball without frequent incident by focusing more on the immediate term and less on the bigger picture.
This injury of Nash's is anything but new. It stems from a fracture of his left fibula that he suffered during his second game as a Laker, in a collision with then-rookie Damian Lillard. Nash sat out a month-and-a-half immediately after the initial setback, and hasn't been the same since.
More importantly, the discomfort isn't going away any time soon—if it ever goes away at all. Nash's fitness was a matter of considerable delicacy well before he ever donned the Purple and Gold, and has only been thrown further out-of-whack by the nerve damage left behind by that original fibula fracture.
And, at the age of 40, with well over 40,000 minutes (between the regular season and the playoffs) of NBA wear-and-tear on his body, Nash will never be "100 percent" healthy and, conversely, will always be one leg bump away from crippling pain.
In a contact sport like basketball, such vulnerability is all but guaranteed to yield further flare-ups. Some may collide with Nash accidentally, simply as a matter of happenstance. Others may target the sensitive spot, not necessarily out of malice, but rather out of competitive zeal.
Either way, Nash is going to succumb to that nerve root irritation again...and again...and again, until he either calls it quits or his contract, which runs through the 2014-15 season, expires.
At this point, the Lakers' best (if not only) bet is to do whatever they can to take care of Nash in the hope that he can, indeed, play through the nerve damage in his leg and his back. He's one of five players under contract with the Lakers beyond this season, and one of only three, along with Kobe Bryant and Robert Sacre, whose salary is guaranteed for 2014-15.
Blake and Farmar are both ticketed for free agency this summer, as are six other members of Mike D'Antoni's roster. Nick Young can join them by opting out of his deal. According to ShamSports, rookie forward Ryan Kelly will be eligible for a qualifying offer of just over $1 million.
As for Marshall, his salary for next season ($915,243) isn't guaranteed. Yet that relative sliver of the Lakers' cap pie could be the most important of all. He'll be tasked with watching Nash's back should the future Hall of Famer choose to play on, and, perhaps, take over full time if his predecessor slides into retirement.
So far, Marshall has outpaced expectations by leaps and bounds. If he'd played enough to this point to qualify for statistical titles, Marshall would rank second in the NBA in assists (9.3), behind only Chris Paul and ahead of All-Stars Stephen Curry and John Wall. According to NBA.com, Marshall ranks third in assist percentage (i.e. the share of teammates' field goals on which a player has assisted while on the floor), even though he uses a far smaller share of his team's possessions (16 percent) than do those ahead of him.
And that's not counting the other 2.1 scoring opportunities per game created by Marshall, either through another teammate's free-throw attempts or by way of a "hockey assist," per the NBA's SportVU stats. Those same motion-tracking cameras have caught Marshall making the sixth-most passes per game (68.7), creating the sixth-most assist opportunities per game (16.0) and generating the second-most points by assist per game (21.4).
All told, Marshall has gone from D-League afterthought to one of the most prolific passers in the NBA. His profile as a pure point guard has made him a perfect fit for D'Antoni's fast-paced, free-wheeling style of play in LA.
But Marshall's passing prowess was never much of a mystery. He racked up 9.8 assists per game as a sophomore at North Carolina—the second most of anyone in Division I in 2011-12. The Phoenix Suns brought him on with the 13th pick in the 2012 NBA draft, hoping that his ability to run the break and find his running mates for easy hoops would compensate, in part, for Nash's inevitable departure.
Marshall, though, never quite caught on in Phoenix. He shot poorly (.371 from the field, .315 from three, .571 from the free-throw line) and struggled defensively in the limited minutes he garnered as a rookie amidst the Suns' chaotic circumstances last season.
What's most surprising about Marshall's play this time around, and what's probably helped to solidify his spot in D'Antoni's rotation, is the extent to which he's improved those aspects of his game. Those who doubt the efficacy of Marshall's shot need only note that he's leading the league in three-point percentage at the moment (.494) and ranks second among point guards in overall field-goal percentage (.465).
To hear Marshall tell it, not much has changed about his actual shooting prowess. “I think it’s the confidence to take the shot,” Marshall told Lakers reporter Mike Trudell. “I used to be known as a shooter my whole life, but then I became a power point guard sophomore year in high school always trying to get to the rim.”
Granted, his sample is a small one; he's attempted just 89 treys this season. For comparison's sake, renowned sharpshooters like Kyle Korver (257), Wesley Matthews (321) and Stephen Curry (399) have all attempted more threes than Marshall has shots from anywhere (198).
But nobody's asking Marshall to be a perimeter specialist. Even if/when his percentage drops (which it will), Marshall will come away as a credible three-point threat in the eyes of opposing defenses, which should be enough to open up the floor a bit for his dribbling and passing.
As for defense, Marshall is far from a force, though he's clearly made strides in that regard as well. He'll never be particularly quick or athletic, but what Marshall lacks in those departments, he more than makes up for in height, length, intelligence and on-court awareness. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he's limited his assignments to just 0.78 points per possession on 37.4 percent shooting (28.1 percent from three).
Not bad for a guy who's been thrust into a huge role with a Lakers squad that ranks toward the bottom of the NBA in defensive efficiency. Marshall's got a long way to go before he can be considered a "plus" defender, but he's done enough to this point to prove that he's not quite the drag that critics previously made him out to be.
The Marshall Plan
These steps could make Marshall a part of L.A.'s plans—if not over the long haul, then at least over the next year or so.
The Lakers will be active on the open market this summer, if only out of necessity. They'll have roster spots to fill and (potentially) plenty of cap space with which to do so. If the Lakers renounce the "Bird rights" of their impending free agents (i.e. the ability to re-sign their own players beyond the salary cap), they'll have close to (if not upward of) $30 million to spend on new acquisitions.
That doesn't mean Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss will blow most of it on one marquee guy. The odds of potential superstar free agents like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony opting out of their current contracts and changing addresses at all seem slim. Perhaps even less so for the Lakers, who, at 18-33 this season, don't offer much in the way of immediate championship potential for big-name players seeking to capitalize on their respective primes.
Instead, the Lakers could look to second-tier options—like, say, Luol Deng or Lance Stephenson—to upgrade the supporting cast around the still-sidelined Kobe Bryant without clogging the cap sheet entirely. That way, the team will be able to maintain some semblance of financial flexibility for what could be eventful forays into free agency in 2015 and 2016. If not for Nash, the Lakers might be serious players for Eric Bledsoe (restricted) or Kyle Lowry (unrestricted), both of whom fit into that aforementioned pay grade.
Should the Lakers keep Kendall Marshall beyond this season?
Marshall's emergence could play a part in that as well. He's nowhere near the athletic, defensive bulldog that either of those guys can be. Nor has he proven that he can run a winning outfit to the extent that those two have. But, as far as competent point guards are concerned, Marshall fits the mold, perhaps even better than either of those two could, in the context of a D'Antoni-coached club.
Better yet, the price tag attached to Marshall's services is right in the Lakers' wheelhouse. Kobe Bryant's two-year, $48.5 million extension will choke up a sizable chunk of LA's cap space, leaving the Lakers with decidedly less wiggle room from which to fashion the foundation of a championship-caliber team before Kobe retires.
Marshall doesn't project as a point guard on that level, but if he can hold the fort through 2014-15, either as Nash's backup or as a starter in a pinch, the Lakers can then redirect more of their resources toward recruiting superstars and bringing in other building blocks to flesh out the rest of the roster.
Assuming, of course, that Marshall continues to perform as well as he has. It's entirely possible that he'll hit a wall at some point, that he'll stop racking up double-doubles, especially now that Blake is healthy and Nash is due back in time for Tuesday's game against the Utah Jazz, per Mike Trudell.
So long as D'Antoni trusts in Marshall to play freely, that shouldn't be too much of a concern. At 22, Marshall only figures to get better from here on out if he works hard on his game and gets to play regularly.
He's no savior, to be sure, but if Marshall capitalizes on the opportunities to come as well as he has on the ones he's encountered so far, the 2013-14 season might just be the beginning of a surprisingly wild ride.
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