Nash, who turned 40 in February, may have played his last game of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday. Or perhaps, he may not have.
You just never know.
It seemed as if the legendary point guard had been shut down for the remainder of the schedule in mid-March. Instead, he surprised many by coming back. This past Friday, it appeared that once again, his season was coming to a close.
But as Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles wrote after the game, that might have changed:
By the end of the night, after seeing Nash do his thing for 19 minutes, if you didn't know that No. 10 for the Lakers was a 40-year old who has been ravaged by nerve damage in his back and hamstrings the last two years you would say L.A. had a promising backup point guard on its roster.
The Lakers could use another body—Xavier Henry will have left wrist and right knee surgery on Friday, while Kent Bazemore will have surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right foot from an injury suffered during Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
It has been that kind of season for the Lakers, and then some.
Over his last 10 games Nash has averaged 5.8 points and 8.5 assists. His point average for 14 games so far this season is 7.1, compared to his career average of 14.1. But while those scoring numbers place him toward the bottom of the Lakers' shoot-happy squad, they don’t paint a total picture.
Nash still has eyes in the back of his head and the uncanny ability to thread the needle with pinpoint passes.
That is, when he’s actually able to play. Again, there’s that whole roulette wheel thing, which should perhaps be categorized as Russian roulette given that the slightest wrong move or bump can send Nash hobbling back to the trainer’s table with excruciating back pain and numbness in his legs.
So what kind of player will he be when he turns 41 next year? Will he be in a uniform or retired?
Nobody knows, and that’s not just another fence-sitting cop-out.
Not even Nash knows what comes next.
During a series of documentaries by Jonathan Hock for Grantland entitled The Finish Line, the future Hall of Famer reflects on two seasons filled with injuries and setbacks that have led him, potentially, to the end of the line.
In episode three, facing a barrage of criticism over the size of his contract and a stated decision to play it out, Nash questions his basketball mortality, expressing frustration over having played only 10 games during the season and wondering if he’ll ever play again. He also says that it would be nice to shut some critics up.
Since then, he’s managed to play four games. Not a lot, but it’s something. And, it’s more than the vast majority of athletes at this advanced age.
Over the course of the NBA, there have been 22 players who were still active at age 40 or older. Nash is the only one on the list still playing. Of the graybeards, nine have played at age 41 or older.
Who’s the granddaddy of them all? Nat Hickey was the oldest player to lace them up, finally retiring just two days short of his 46th birthday, way back in 1948. His final team was the Providence Steamrollers.
The vast majority of the 40-and-over crowd have been frontcourt players—maybe it’s just a little harder to run around screens on old legs. The three point guards who preceded Nash were Bob Cousy, John Stockton and Jason Kidd.
Of those three, Cousy, the “Houdini of the Hardwood,” has to be tossed out, as he retired at age 34 after a long career with the Boston Celtics and returned seven years later with the Cincinnati Royals, playing just seven games for five minutes per game.
That leaves Stockton and Kidd, two players who were significantly more durable than Nash.
Kidd started 48 out of 76 games for the New York Knicks last season, averaging six points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals. He also played 12 games in the playoffs, where his shooting fell apart. So maybe his stats weren’t great compared to a career average of 12.6 points and 8.7 assists. Still, he logged 2,290 minutes for his final season before retiring at age 40, and that's not bad.
As for Stockton, who played his entire career with the Utah Jazz, the numbers were solid—82 starts during his final regular season plus five postseason appearances. The highly consistent point guard averaged 10.8 points, 7.7 assists, 2.5 boards and 1.7 steals during the regular season, relative to a lifetime average of 13.1 points and 10.5 assists.
That's a fairly subtle drop-off for a 41-year-old baller. Stockton called it a day after the Jazz lost in the first round of the 2003 Western Conference playoffs.
What can we expect from Nash in his final campaign? Success will be measured by degrees. Nobody in their wildest dreams would bet on all 82 games. His body is breaking down badly—that has been all too evident the past two seasons. But he has also shown a remarkable perseverance and desire to continue.
The Lakers are on the hook to Nash for one more season at $9.7 million. It’s highly doubtful they’ll waive him and eat the salary, even using a three-year stretch provision to spread it out. It would be more in line with their forward-thinking rebuild to clear the books all at once in 2015.
In the meantime, they will need him. To qualify that a little, they need anybody they’re paying $9 million to, especially given that at present, next season’s roster consists of three guaranteed contracts, with two of them being Nash and Kobe Bryant.
This is a team in total rebuild mode, and trying to do it within the confines of a restrictive collective bargaining agreement, not to mention the premium dollars committed to Bryant for his final two seasons.
If Nash can come back after the summer with healthier legs, play a handful of games and then perhaps a handful more, if he can do Steve Nash-type things with absurdly awesome passes, if he can mentor some younger players and be an inspiration for his dedication and love of the game, then that’s something.
That’s enough to hope for.
Wait, so you seriously want an actual prediction? About a guy who will turn 41 next season and can barely walk sometimes?
Fine. I’ll go out on a limb and pick 41 games—that’s half the schedule and one for each of his 41 years.
Is it a case of irrational exuberance? Perhaps. Or maybe just hope, and taking a spin on the roulette wheel.