Is Steve Nash's Contract Key to LA Lakers Landing Another Star?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash passes the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Friday, March 21, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill

The Los Angeles Lakers roster may look radically different next season, but there will be at least one constant in addition to franchise face Kobe Bryant. According to the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan, the organization is planning to keep veteran point guard Steve Nash:

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

That's consistent with what Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding indicated nearly a month ago, writing, "The Lakers would rather be done with the entirety of Nash's $9.7 million salary next year if they're not planning on spending much next season, as opposed to stretching that money across the next three seasons if they waive him and suffer future burdens."

The news will no doubt provoke a mixed reaction from Lakers fans. This may be the best thing for the franchise's long-term star power, but it could also mean a fairly subdued summer, a failure to rebuild rapidly. 

While Nash has certainly endeared himself to fans leaguewide, his contributions to the Lakers have fallen far short of expectations. The 40-year-old superstar has played in 12 games this season and in just 50 games a season ago. When actually playing, he's remained a formidable shooter, but his use value has diminished without the ball constantly in his hands.

He averaged just 6.7 assists last season, the fewest since 1999-00.

Nevertheless, another season with Nash in purple and gold may be a small price to pay for a legitimate shot at someone of Kevin Love's ilk.

Cutting Nash would leave the Lakers with a cap hit of a little over $3 million in each of the next three seasons, including in 2015 when Love becomes a free agent. The only certifiable superstar who will be available in 2014 is Carmelo Anthony, and the chances of him leaving the New York Knicks decreased markedly with the arrival of Phil Jackson as president of basketball operations.

The Lakers will owe Bryant an even $25 million for the 2015-16 season, but they have little else on the books, giving them tremendous cap flexibility when Nash's contract expires in full—perhaps enough flexibility to attract two stars at the same time. Bryant may not be the draw that he once was, but the notion of two younger stars coming in to win him one more ring would be quite the story.

Love remains the target that seems most attainable. He is reportedly intrigued by the idea of playing in a bigger city, Los Angeles or otherwise, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. But the Lakers have a history of doing whatever it takes to build a winner, and that's probably not lost on Love. The franchise also has every incentive to hurry things along with Bryant arriving at the end of an iconic career. 

Guys who like big cities usually like to be part of big stories, and none would be bigger than one or two last hurrahs for the league's most accomplished personality since Michael Jordan.

Signing Love isn't a slam dunk, but nor is it at all unlikely. He was born in Los Angeles and played his college ball at UCLA. Most importantly, the Lakers can turn a great player into an unrivaled superstar. Regardless of the whole "win one for Kobe" subplot, Love would be a treasured centerpiece on a storied club. It's hard to beat that.

The more open question is whether the Lakers could find someone else to team up with Love and Bryant, especially in 2015. There's always the possibility that LeBron James could terminate his contract early, and a Kevin Love sighting in L.A. may be all the impetus he needs.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MARCH 26: Kevin Love #42 of the Minnesota Timberwolves looks on during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on March 26, 2014 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloa
David Sherman/Getty Images

Much will of course depend on how things go in Miami between now and then. How will Dwyane Wade's knees hold up? Can the Heat continue to attract ring-chasing veterans to fill in the gaps? Has younger talent such as Norris Cole already reached its ceiling? Is Ray Allen's defense too great a liability to keep him on the floor for long stretches.

Despite having won back-to-back titles, the Heat have enough questions that it's not unreasonable to dream about James once again packing up his talents and moving on. A lot can change in a season's time.

Short of James, Rajon Rondo could also be a free agent in 2015 if the Boston Celtics don't lock him up. The dream of teaming Bryant with a pass-first point guard could be alive and well, especially if Rondo tires of Boston's rebuilding act and opts to pursue greatness with his franchise rival. Rondo hasn't been linked to the Lakers in the same way Love has, but that doesn't mean his arrival would make any less sense.

There are also smaller names that could make big impacts—particularly restricted free agents Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight, two young point guards who can flat out score. While Walker's Charlotte Bobcats have finally entered the playoff picture, he may well see a brighter future in Los Angeles—not to mention legitimate star potential. And it likely wouldn't take much to convince Knight that there's a better place than Milwaukee.

Again, those names don't carry the star power you'd expect from a Lakers spending spree, but don't count them out. They don't play in huge markets, and they're still young. That doesn't mean they can't become Lakers-caliber stars in the right situation.

Lost in any discussion about star acquisitions is the fact that stars usually like to play for teams where solid role players will accompany them. Think of it as the Shane Battier effect. 

The $3 million Los Angeles manages to save by keeping Nash around also makes it more possible for the Lakers to go after those kinds of role players. That's why there's such a premium on cap flexibility. It's not just about having the money to pay Kevin Love—it's about having enough money to build a team around Kevin Love.

Los Angeles' shopping list will include names big and small. General manager Mitch Kupchak understands that team-building is about assembling a mosaic, finding pieces that actually fit together with one another. This isn't just about adding star power. The Lakers have to add the right star power and complementary pieces that will help those stars shine.

Having dead money counting against the cap would make that more difficult.

Moreover, rushing to sign the first available free agent in 2014 would be a mistake. This is no time to spend money for the sake of spending money. The more money Kupchak has to spend, the more reason he has to be judicious, to wait for the right opportunities to emerge. Patience is always a virtue, but all the more so when trying to get a return on $15 million investments.

In turn, Lakers fans will have to be patient too. Their team should be better in 2014-15 by virtue of health alone, but it won't be the season everything changes. It will just look a little more like the 2012-13 campaign—mediocre.

But one season of mediocrity is better than a decade's worth. That's why keeping Nash one more season is essential. When the time comes to spend, the Lakers will do it the right way. There's too much on the line to do it any other way.