Is Steve Nash Hurting the Los Angeles Lakers by Not Walking Away?

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Is Steve Nash Hurting the Los Angeles Lakers by Not Walking Away?
Jim Mone/Associated Press

Here’s a good question: When a sports franchise can claim 16 banners, 16 Hall of Famers and one of the world's biggest, most loyal fanbases, what is $9 million—really—in the grand scheme of things?

It’s certainly enough to keep a 40-year-old Steve Nash in the fray, even if it means compromised short-term flexibility for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Nash made waves last week by announcing he had no intention of retiring before his three-year, $27 million contract ran out next summer—despite being shut down for the rest of the 2013-14 season with lingering back issues.

Here’s what Nash told Grantland during one in a series of videos produced by the site detailing the veteran point guard’s often difficult road to recovery:

I’m not going to retire because I want the money. It’s honest. We want honest athletes, but at the same time, you’re going to have people out there saying ‘He’s so greedy. He’s made x amount of money and he has to take this last little bit.’ Yes, I do have to take that last little bit. I’m sorry if that is frustrating to some but if they were in my shoes they would do exactly the same thing. I wouldn’t believe for a minute that they wouldn’t.

Coming from a player who has cultivated a reputation as one of the NBA’s “good guys,” Nash’s bluntness struck many as decidedly out of character.

At the same time, Nash does make a good point: He, like so many professional athletes who command our love and loyalty, didn’t get to his position by quitting when the chips were down. By fighting his way back and leaving the game on his terms, Nash is setting what he must see as an admirable precedent that peers present and future alike might heed.

To what kind of team Nash eventually returns—whenever that ends up being—is a different matter altogether.

According to ShamSports.com, the Lakers only have three players under guaranteed contract for the 2014-15 season: Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Robert Sacre ($915,000) and Nash ($9.7 million), making for just over $32 million in committed salaries.

It’s likely the Lakers will bring back one-time castoff Kendall Marshall ($915,000), if only as proven point-guard insurance. Nick Young, meanwhile, holds a $1.2 million player option, although it’s unclear whether the quick-trigger shooting guard intends to exercise it.

Assuming Young bolts for greener pastures, this would leave L.A. with nearly $24 million in cap space with which to play. Deduct another $1 million for their forthcoming lottery pick, and the number drops to $23 million.

While Nash’s payday will most certainly limit what the Lakers are able to accomplish in free agency, it’s by no means the franchise’s most burdensome millstone.

That would be Bryant’s salary, which owner Jim Buss told ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Ramona Shelburne was decided upon based not on some kind of pristine salary calculus, but on something more nebulous.

We made him the highest-paid player in the NBA because we felt like it was the right thing to do. This wasn't about what somebody else would pay him or outbidding anyone for him. This was to continue his legacy [with the Lakers], our legacy of loyalty to our iconic players.

This is the same Kobe Bryant, mind you, who also saw his own attempt at a 2013 comeback—from an Achilles injury suffered last season—derailed by injury.

What if Kobe comes back a shell of himself? Will he have the humble wherewithal to walk away? Or will he do exactly what Nash did?

Consider this: Over 18 seasons, Kobe has logged a staggering 54,208 total minutes.

Nash: 42,270.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The difference is roughly equivalent to four full seasons of action—including the playoffs.

Yes, Nash is almost a full five years older than Bryant. But neither has Nash’s game depended so much on the kind of athleticism and violent verticality that Kobe’s has.

Would Kobe invite the same level of scorn and scrutiny if he chose to collect his checks from the sidelines? No, because he’s a Lakers legend who helped hoist a quintet of championship banners.

At $48.5 million over the next two seasons, is that fair? More specifically, is it fair to Nash, particularly if both players watch as their best-laid swansongs are drowned out by the curses of age?

Perhaps Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver said it best:

Any frustration directed towards Nash over his contract is obviously misguided. The final responsibility for any bad deal falls on the team writing the checks rather than the player cashing them, and Nash’s only obligation is to work as hard as possible to get back on the court, which he certainly seems to be doing. It’s simply unfair to make Nash the fall guy for a series of ill-conceived moves — or good ideas in theory that wound up backfiring — that were made by Lakers management in recent years.

And yet, we’re still talking about one of the most dedicated, health-oriented players of his generation—a guy who single-handedly transformed the dietary culture of his old team, the Phoenix Suns.

Even if Nash returns wielding something resembling this year’s productivity—7.6 points and 4.7 assists—would that really be the financial boondoggle for the Lakers that many fear? Of course it wouldn’t.

Building themselves back to relevance won’t be easy for the Lakers. But to declare the effort DOA because of $10 million for a two-time MVP and surefire Springfield inductee is a little like blaming the spinning rims for why you wrecked your uninsured Bentley.

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