Steve Nash has locked in his contract for next year, as noted by Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, after playing just 10 games so far this season. Naturally, his previous injury began to act up in his last game, and he could miss significant time. The nerve irritation has led to serious pain and struggle for Nash, but with the outcry from the Lakers fanbase, it's hard for me to understand the disdain.
Still, none of this should be a surprise. Read my article from December and you'll see that it didn't take a crystal ball to see the likeliest path for Nash, his back and his role with the Lakers.
Nash is actually like a photographic negative of Andrew Bynum. It's more than short and tall, black and white. It's mostly about desire. Bynum, an athletic talent, simply doesn't care that much, with was echoed by this quote from a league source tweeted out by Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
About Bynum suspension, league source tells Yahoo: "He doesn't want to play basketball anymore. He never liked it that much in first place."— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) December 28, 2013
Nash is fighting pain and old age just so that he can play in a limited fashion for a team he knows won't improve his legacy. To me, that's someone to look up to.
To a point, that is. Nash's back problems have left him a shell of himself. The two-time MVP's nerve root irritation, reported here by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, is a chronic condition that won't be cured and can only be controlled. It took the Lakers' medical staff almost half of the season just to get it under control. The fact that it's come back so quickly doesn't suggest it can be pushed aside easily.
Plenty of non-athletes can understand both the pain and the chronic nature of a lower back injury. For many, that's a reality the moment they wake up each morning. Due to poor posture and a lack of focus on both core muscles and back extensors, lower back injuries are among the most common and most serious in the general population. Time lost for back injuries, treatment and surgery suck billions out of the economy each year.
For an athlete like Nash, it can be even more debilitating. Any movement, any jump, even any step can aggravate the back, leading to an increase in the pain/spasm cycle. An inflammation inside the back that impinges or even irritates the nerve is going to accelerate rapidly with every stress, and the game of basketball creates an environment that subjects participants to those stresses.
At this stage, the Lakers are pot committed to Nash. The training staff has to figure out a way to keep him as medically stable as possible while the coaching staff figures out how to use him on the court that still benefits the club. It won't be enough to control his minutes; the Lakers will need to focus on matchups, game situations and the rotations Nash is used in to maximize his effectiveness.
While Nash is unlikely to be able to play extended minutes at any point, he has shown in his limited outings that he can be useful. If Nash is only a steadying influence or even a contributor off the bench that allows his teammates a few minutes to refresh, there is value in that. It may not equal the value he's being paid, but fans should ignore that. The money is spent. Instead of focusing on whether it's a loss, they should hope the team can mitigate the loss.
However, with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and others waiting in the lottery, mitigating loss could actually be amplifying loss in the long term. Teams don't openly tank in order to get more balls in the lottery, but it's done. While Kobe Bryant is getting closer to returning from his broken tibia, the team realizes that his quick return isn't going to help anyone.
As I warned when Kobe first went down with the injury, it will be difficult to tell when he comes back how much the team is simply being conservative with an older player with a knee injury and how much the knowledge that each loss helps the Lakers' draft position plays into their decision-making process with Bryant's playing time.
Keeping Nash healthy won't have the same effect as getting Bryant back and healthy for the 2014-15 campaign, but using Nash as a bridge to that has value. The Lakers medical staff will have to focus on getting him back and keeping him at a level at which they can maximize the value left.