Limits always existed to what the two could do for each other, restrictions that consistently became more constrictive and have been adjusted accordingly since last season.
Where the Lakers once saw a savior, they now see a 40-year-old with nerve damage who, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, will be lucky to play again this season:
Mike D'Antoni says he "doubts" Steve Nash plays again this season, but wouldn't rule him out— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 3, 2014
Age and injuries have rendered Nash little more than an expensive impediment that's hamstringing Los Angeles' finances and future. Owed $9.7 million next season, he's a contractual burden who prevents the Lakers from making the most of their highly touted 2014 cap space.
But the Lakers have an out, and while using it is tempting, keeping Nash has the potential to aid future plans more than bidding him farewell would.
Stretching for Flexibility
The stretch provision was created for situations like these, where a financial albatross can be converted into flexibility. By waiving Nash, the Lakers can spread his salary over three seasons, creating more cap space in time for 2014 free agency. That is, if they decide to actually waive Nash.
According to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, Nash is expected to get one last chance to salvage his Lakers tenure since Los Angeles is "not planning a free-agent spending spree this summer" and is "therefore thinking it does not make sense to use the stretch provision to waive Nash."
There are going to be those who disagree.
This year has been nigh insufferable for a Lakers franchise that prides itself on winning, averting disaster and skipping rebuilds. Not one of those things has happened this season.
Losses have piled up amid excessive injuries, putting the Lakers on pace to win fewer than 30 games for the first time since 1959-60 and third time in franchise history. In lieu of winning and playing for something meaningful, the Purple and Gold has regressed into a vessel that no-name and offbeat talents are using to secure their next contract.
As bad as this season was supposed to be, it wasn't supposed to play out like this, with unhappy accidents and recurring injuries overshadowing deliberate attempts to remain mediocre. The Lakers always ran the risk of missing the playoffs after losing Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets, but few could have anticipated them dwelling at the absolute bottom of the Western Conference.
Regardless, whatever 2013-14 was supposed to be, whatever it inevitably became, this summer was supposed to be the reward.
Cap space like the Lakers haven't had during the Kobe Bryant era was supposed to culminate in the arrivals of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or another superstar. Summer 2014 would be when the Lakers reclaim the contender status they lost midway through 2012-13.
Keeping Nash doesn't kill that dream. The Lakers can still sign a top-tier free agent while carrying his salary. But his continued presence does make them a tougher sell.
Offering a max or almost-max contract leaves the team with no financial plasticity, effectively preventing it from wedding Bryant and the star to be named later to a competent supporting cast.
For the money Nash will be earning, he should be a selling point instead of the deterrent he's become. The extra $6 million or so the Lakers free up by using the stretch provision on him is more valuable to an offseason identity change than Nash himself.
Impairing their already-hindered sales pitch makes little sense. Bryant's 35 and battling injuries, and the Lakers are thin on paper, even with the addition of another star. Keeping Nash could be the difference between landing a top-flight free agent and enduring another season similar to this one.
And for what? One more year of constant scrutiny fueled by a player who might not even play? For Nash to maybe leave the league on his own terms and inject some positivity into his largely negative stay in Los Angeles?
"If the Lakers release me this summer this is it," Nash said in the second episode of Grantland's The Finish Line.
Nash is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer and stand-up guy, but the Lakers cannot afford to do favors if they wish to make the most of Bryant's remaining time. Waiving Nash is sad, depressing and emblematic of everything that's gone wrong since he joined the Lakers, but it's necessary if the team wishes to build something spectacular before next season.
Which they don't.
Bigger Than 2014
Hopes that extend beyond this summer and next season may keep Nash in Los Angeles.
For the time being, Nash's comeback attempt aligns with the Lakers' current plans.
Once again, Ding makes it clear the Lakers aren't about 2014 free agency in the below video:
Ding is basically saying the Lakers aren't going to sign Anthony, Chris Bosh or another star free agent. He mentions names such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol, who are all projected to hit 2015 free agency.
That's what the Lakers are all in on: 2015. It's then they have a legitimate opportunity to land a fortunes-reversing superstar. This summer, they would be chasing ghosts in a shallower-than-advertised free-agency class.
Shifting gears to 2015 demands Nash return. Yes, demands.
If the Lakers aren't going to spend freely this summer, there's no sense waiving Nash and paying out his salary over the next three years. Allowing him to come off the ledger entirely in 2015 gives them even more spending power than if they were to owe him north of $3 million courtesy of the stretch provision.
Does it also mean the Lakers are playing toward another season similar to 2013-14? Absolutely. But even after curbing their offseason activity, 2014-15 still has the potential to be better.
Bryant will hopefully be healthy, and if Nash can somehow provide them with steady playing time, the Lakers have helped end the career of legend on a high note during a season in which they were never going to win a championship anyway.
Limiting Now to Open Up Later
None of this is to say the Lakers shouldn't consider parting ways with Nash.
Bringing him back fits within their current scheme, but plans change. If James decides to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat, then the Lakers can always revisit this situation.
What should the Lakers do with Steve Nash?
But that's it. James is the only player worth manipulating 2015 flexibility for. If all indications are he's remaining in Miami or going somewhere else, waiving Nash isn't worth the additional cap hold that will be placed against the Lakers through 2016-17.
"So, it's either back with the Lakers next year or I'm done," Nash reiterated to Grantland.
He's not done. Not with the Lakers, anyway.
In a predictable turn of events, the Lakers have bound their future and Bryant's swan song to 2015. Retaining Nash limits their immediate pliancy, but it increases the flexibility of an outlook being confined by choice, not Nash himself.
*Salary information via ShamSports.