The L.A. Lakers need Steve Nash perhaps more than they realize.
The Purple and Gold currently reside at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, which means L.A. will more than likely end up in the NBA draft lottery unless they go on some magical and unlikely run (the team would have to go undefeated after the All-Star break) that takes them to the postseason.
Nash has only appeared in 10 games this season due to injury, and he has not played to his usual standards. Still, when healthy, there is little doubt that he look like a good player.
That puts Nash in a tricky spot. He has demonstrated that he can still produce and look really good by virtue of his shooting and playmaking (look at the video below), but an argument could be made that his production harms the Lakers’ shot at a great draft pick.
Nash’s leadership abilities as well as his propensity for making teammates feel part of the big picture are practically worthless on a team that is built for this season only.
Future Clouds the Present
Should Steve Nash rejoin the Lakers this season, he will find it incredibly difficult to leave an imprint on a team that has very little interest in the present. If anything, L.A. is concerned about the future of the franchise.
The Lakers arranged their player contracts a few yeas ago to ensure they would have cap room to rebuild through free agency in the 2014 offseason. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak confirmed this to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:
Several years ago, we made a conscious decision to line contracts up for this coming year of free agency. If you look at our payroll a year ago, with the exception of Steve Nash, we didn't have anybody under contract (for 2014-15). That didn't have so much to do with who was going to be a free agent in 2014, but more a function of some planning of how our roster (looked). You really have to be conscious of when players get to a certain age.
The financial landscape of the franchise changed a little this season when Kupchak signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year $48.5 million extension, but the Lakers still feel confident in their ability to sign guys going forward. Kupchak added: “Obviously we broke ranks to sign Kobe to an extension, but we still feel like we have significant flexibility this summer and next summer.”
Bryant and Nash have the only substantial guaranteed deals for next season. Robert Sacre’s contract is locked in for 2014-15 per Sham Sports, but his cap figure of $915,243 makes him expendable (trade or waive).
Nick Young has a $1.3 million player option that he probably will not exercise because he has produced a career-high PER of 14.5 (tied with his 2010-11 season with the Washington Wizards). He stands to cash in by becoming a free agent this summer.
Put it all together and Nash’s intangibles are essentially useless for the Lakers this season. When healthy, Nash helps his teams win games and play in unity as evidenced by his stints with the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns.
Nash guided both squads to the Western Conference Finals. However, this Lakers team is heading nowhere, and one has to believe that a small fraction of the players without contracts at the end of this season will be back in 2014-15.
It's worth noting that Nash simply has not been available to the Lakers since relocating to the City of Angels last season. Since joining the franchise, he has participated in 60 contests. Keep in mind, the Lakers struggled to make the playoffs last season and will more than likely miss the postseason this year.
If Nash is going to contribute anything to the Lakers, it will occur next season.
Cry Now, Laugh Later
Steve Nash brings several things to the hardwood, but his injuries have made it difficult for him to do as such this season, which means his value is now attached to Lakers' future.
The former league MVP rejoined the lineup in early February but was sidelined because of nerve irritation in the leg according to Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times. Nash is currently battling self-doubt with respect to whether he can ever be the player he once was.
He shared as much with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, who relayed his thoughts of the future Hall of Famer:
A once-great athlete, trying to hang on, searching for a rare talent that may or may not have vanished from his body. He doesn’t know if it’s gone. Neither do you. Neither do I.
The trepidation regarding Nash’s season and future led to the production of The Finish Line, a series of episodes detailing the steps Nash must take to get back to the court and play three to four times per week. Have a look at the first episode:
The Finish Line provides a glimpse into the mind of Nash, and the result is a man unsure about his future with the Lakers. Simply put, his body is failing him.
With that said, his work ethic coupled with his determination make it hard to root against Nash. The rigors he is putting himself through to rejoin the Purple and Gold suggest that he will rejoin the team at some point this year or next.
That’s an important factor for the franchise given that Nash is universally beloved around the league. Former teammate Joe Johnson offered these remarks to Stefan Swiat of Suns.com:
The thing that stands out about Steve is the way he carries himself on the court and off the court. He’s a great teammate, a great guy and he always looks to get guys involved. He breeds that cohesiveness for a team. (I thought he’d still be playing at 38). He works hard. His work ethic is tireless. So he could probably play until he’s about 45. He was more mentally prepared than anybody, always in great shape and he’s probably the ultimate teammate.
Considering that L.A. will have roughly $26 million in cap space this offseason to splurge on free agents, Nash’s health will be an important factor when it comes to acquiring talent.
Players have always enjoyed playing alongside Nash because he keeps them involved and looks out for them. Nash’s constant unselfishness prompted Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding to label him as the greatest teammate ever.
That will come into play this summer when free agents are deciding if the prospect of playing with Kobe Bryant is an attractive idea. Henry Abbott of TrueHoop explains:
The second reason the Lakers may struggle to get a free agent is that Bryant has gained a reputation as a difficult teammate. The Lakers have been a fine destination of late for role players, but not for would-be stars such as Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal and Andrew Bynum, none of whom get the ball as much as they'd like, and all of whom, despite playing well, become targets for media scorn.
A healthy Nash gives the Lakers balance. If this were Star Wars, Bryant would play the role of Anakin Skywalker, who favors the dark side of the Force, while Nash would even things out by conducting himself as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the man responsible for teaching proper use of the Force.
Abbott consulted Amin Elhassan of ESPN.com (former assistant director of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns) who corroborated the balance theory in sharing his thoughts about the pairing of Nash and Bryant:
The perfect marriage of good cop, bad cop. Kobe's the guy who gets on guys -- which some people would criticize and say Steve didn't do enough of in his career. And on the other hand you have Steve to kind of build guys up and build their confidence up, which obviously has been a criticism of Kobe. ... I think it's a perfect, perfect marriage.
Both offer contrasting leadership styles, but ultimately, Nash makes the Lakers situation far more appealing because he takes away a bit of Bryant’s bark.
Get the Point
For all the talk about Steve Nash’s qualities as an individual, it’s worth noting that he is still a solid point guard.
Nash is a terrific ball-handler and possesses uncanny court vision. With those skills, Nash gets to various spots on the court where he finds teammates for easy scores. The former league MVP is one of the greatest floor generals the league has ever seen.
The Lakers will need that kind of point guard play going forward. Kobe Bryant’s health remains a question mark of sorts, which means that his game might be diminished when he finally rejoins the Purple and Gold.
Nash’s contributions will help offset some of the deficiencies in Bryant’s repertoire. The five-time champion will not need to orchestrate the offense or spend an inordinate amount of time working for shots because Nash will handle those tasks for him.
Instead, Bryant can concentrate on what he does best: score. Nash will also provide terrific floor spacing because he is one of the best shooters in NBA history. He is a career 49 percent shooter form the field and 42.8 percent from three-point range.
That kind of shooting will always be welcomed, especially when accompanied by terrific playmaking instincts.
The Lakers need Steve Nash to be healthy enough to play. When the former Phoenix Sun takes the court, he brings with him production and all of the intangibles that many have gushed about over the years.
Nash is a leader of the highest order given his insistence on understanding what buttons to push with his teammates for the sake of extracting their very best. Grantland’s Bill Simmons has the juicy stuff:
For instance, Nash didn’t just play with Stoudemire. He wondered why Stoudemire behaved certain ways in certain situations, and what internal and external forces contributed to that behavior. He wondered how to make him happy and keep him happy. He tried to figure out every conceivable way to make Stoudemire better at basketball, both on and off the court. And a lot of times, it didn’t have anything to do with basketball. Amar’e Stoudemire was a complicated puzzle that Nash never stopped trying to solve.
Nash has spent 18 years in the league majoring in chemistry. The Lakers need him to teach that to newcomers and apply it within the framework of the team.
In the event Nash can return for the final month of this season and prove he will be a contributor for this year and the next one, Nash will open the door for several players to consider the Lakers as their future employer.
Nash will demonstrate that he can still play at an NBA level and that he can keep Kobe Bryant at bay so to speak. Players have always enjoyed sharing the floor with Nash, and that makes the Lakers an intriguing landing spot provided he is healthy.
On the flip side, a broken Nash gives Los Angeles next to nothing, and the Lakers certainly do not need that.