What Does Steve Nash Have to Prove by Playing This Year?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2014

Mar 21, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash (10) during the first half of the game against the Washington Wizards at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Steve Nash's unexpected return to the NBA hardwood Friday night was inspirational, uplifting, surprisingly productive...and ultimately puzzling.

Thought to be out for the remainder of the season just days ago—a notion apparently confirmed by Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni—Nash's astonishing appearance should've elicited a collective "Wow" from the basketball world.

It didn't. Instead, the news was received with a different "W" word: why.

Why did the 40-year-old feel it was necessary to drag his broken body out onto this sinking ship? Why would the Lakers, who owe Nash $9.7 million for next season, even give him the option?

"Steve always kept in shape," D'Antoni said after L.A.'s 117-107 loss to the Washington Wizards, via Joe Resnick of The Associated Press. "He wanted to play and he was getting there, so it made sense to go ahead and get him in there."

Oct 6, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni (left) stands with guard Steve Nash (10) during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

If the Lakers wanted an all-risk, no-reward outcome, I suppose it made some sense.

Giving Nash those 19 minutes of action didn't keep L.A. from suffering its 46th loss of the season (second-most in the Western Conference). It also didn't impact the point guard's permanent position on the team's injury report:

Nor did it move the training staff any closer toward finding an answer to the problem that's cost Nash all but 11 games of the 2013-14 campaign:

Considering it had been more than a month since he saw any activity (he last played on Feb. 11), the future Hall of Famer looked awfully impressive. He tossed out a team-high 11 assists and filled the rest of his stat sheet with five points, four boards and three steals.

Again, the appearance was nothing short of mesmerizing—and potentially hazardous:

The Lakers entered this season with both eyes on the future.

That focus has only been forcibly sharpened. Between Nash's nagging nerve issues and Kobe Bryant's season-ending battle with his left leg, L.A.'s priority list dwindled to its current state: Improve odds for stacked 2014 draft lottery, make good with the basketball gods to avoid another catastrophic injury and see if anything can be salvaged from the flotsam roster.

The present has become so putrid—the Lakers' .324 winning percentage is their lowest in more than 50 years—that uncertainty now stands as the sole source of optimism. That hope-fueled future is really just Bryant's cap-chewing extension, a few tertiary support pieces, an unnamed draft pick, a slew of to-be-determined roster spots and Nash's salary, which may or may not be gradually wiped off the books with the stretch provision.

Jan 20, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash (10) talks to guard Kobe Bryant (24) against the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Lakers 108-103. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

That provision would release Nash from this roster and spread his $9.7 million cap hold across the next three seasons. It would also effectively end his playing career.

"If the Lakers release me this summer this is it," Nash said during the second episode of The Finish Line, the documentary he's doing with Grantland. "You know, I finally got my kids here in L.A. I'm not going to move them again, and I'm not going to be without them for another year. So, it's either back with the Lakers next year or I'm done."

Waiving him this summer would lessen his cap hit for 2014-15 but also limit the team's spending power for what's shaping up to be a star-studded crop of 2015 free agents. Of course, paying nearly $10 million for a part-time player with per-game averages of 7.4 points (on 36.7 percent shooting), 5.3 assists and 22.2 minutes (Nash's 2013-14 marks) isn't ideal, either.

The Lakers have options with Nash, but none of them is great. Unsurprisingly, the team remains undecided on his fate.

"We have to see where we are next summer," general manager Mitch Kupchak said, via ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "A lot of (sic) is going to be based on what Steve says and what we see. If he's out there playing at a high level and he's working during the summer at a high level, that'll be a factor in what we do."

Nash has been upfront about his intentions to play next season. There are a couple things fueling that fire.

On the business end, he's admitted the money left on his contract is a massive motivation.

"It's just a reality," he said during the third episode of The Finish Line. "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."

There's also the matter of penning the final chapter of his roundball story, a gift not always afforded to heroes of the sports world.

"I'm just going to stay the course, keep battling and try to enjoy it as much as I can, because I realize now what I may not have realized when I was younger: It doesn't last forever," Nash told B/R's Kevin Ding earlier this season.

As for how long it will last, that's something both Nash and the Lakers will have to decide.

If one—or both—sees the end coming next season, then there's no reason for him to play again this year.

Nash isn't going to play his way out of the possibility of L.A. exercising the stretch provision. That decision will likely come down to where and when the Lakers can make the most of their money.

No one doubts his ability to be effective. This season has been an unmitigated disaster, and he's still putting up 12 points and 8.6 assists per 36 minutes.

He has to prove that his body can withstand the daily wear and tear of the NBA struggle. He deserves the chance to pass that test, odds that, if they can even improve at this point, will only get better by shutting it down and preparing his body for next season.

Quixotic displays might soothe his basketball soul, but they won't help with his ultimate pursuit. They won't bring him any closer to extending his career—if he's not careful, they might push him farther away.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.


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