Will Steve Nash Be Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest X-Factor in 2014-15?

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Will Steve Nash Be Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest X-Factor in 2014-15?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Steve Nash still matters to the Los Angeles Lakers.

For the most part, this aging and fading 40-year-old star matters because of what he can't do. He has played in only 65 games since 2012-13, including just 15 last season. The Nash Los Angeles thought it was getting in 2012 is gone, supplanted instead by this enfeebled, mortality-marred version of a point guard who can't remain healthy enough to run pick-and-rolls, let alone triumph over Father Time.

And because of what Nash can't do, he is but a number—9,701,000, to be exact. That's what Nash will be earning next season ($9.7 million). That's money the Lakers could have used to line their makeshift model with permanence. That's what Nash, a future Hall of Famer and one-time logic-killer, has been reduced to: a cap-clogging, reputation-maiming number.

Only what if Nash matters because he becomes something more? What if there is some fight left in those timeworn legs and nerve-nuked back of his? 

What if Nash contributes to the Lakers' 2014-15 campaign as a player—as an X-factor—and not as a mercifully expiring contract?

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Months ago, when forcibly formed rumors left Nash to debunk imminent retirement, the thought seemed overly optimistic. After missing just 21 regular-season contests through the previous five seasons, Nash has been absent for 99 over the last two.

Returning from these tragic series of setbacks wasn't possible. This regression would last. 

Slowly, surely, away from the typical spotlight, though, Nash has apparently steadied his course, strengthened his workload and positioned himself to play next season.

Said Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, via NBA.com: 

"All my conversations with (Nash) are that he has absolutely no neural issue at this point. He's playing full-tilt, unrestricted soccer. He's doing all the corrective injury and performance exercises he's supposed to be doing, and right now he's 100 percent healthy."

To believe that "100 percent healthy" guarantees Nash's return to prominence and dominance is to enable the absurd and weird. Forty-year-olds don't make prolific contributions or embody durability.

Six players in NBA history have managed to appear in at least 50 single-season contests after their 40th birthday. Of those six, only three averaged 20-plus minutes per game. Nash is up against that, up against the undefeated time.

And yet it wasn't long ago—two seasons, to be exact—that Nash was seemingly winning. He led the league in total assists for 2011-12 while flirting with another 50/40/90 season, missing only four games during a lockout-truncated crusade. That was also the year he piloted a top-10 offense and nearly pushed the talent-sapped Phoenix Suns into the playoffs.

Even 2012-13 saw glimpses of Nash being Nash. Appearing in only 50 games didn't prevent him from falling less than half a percentage point short of his fifth 50/40/90 campaign. Only last year did he start showing signs of aging and see his shooting efficiency plummet, and he still managed to dish out nearly six assists a night.

When Nash plays—even during his failed stint in Los Angeles—he's been mostly productive. All he has to do is take the court semi-consistently to have an actual chance at helping the Lakers. And, if healthy, he can help the Lakers.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Nash fits Los Angeles' offense-heavy model.

Byron Scott will chirp about defense and the importance of accountability, but these Lakers, from top to bottom, are built to score.

Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young, Jeremy Lin and Julius Randle aren't the material top-five, top-10 or even top-15 defenses are made of. The Lakers are going to rely heavily on their offense, hoping they boast enough firepower to surprise people.

Nash, and his lifetime 42.8 percent three-point clip, is firepower. Nash, and his penchant for double-digit assist totals, is playmaking depth. Nash, and his pick-and-roll intelligence, fits what the Lakers will try to do.

Pick-and-rolls are staples of Scott's (admittedly simplistic) offensive systems. In Nash, the Lakers still have one of the best pick-and-roll point men ever. Not in recent memory, but ever.

Just once in the last five years has Nash ranked outside the top 50 of pick-and-roll ball-handling efficiency, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). That was last year, when he still qualified for a top-60 finish.

Shooting hasn't ever been an issue for him, either. Not even last season when his efficiency flushed itself down the toilet. Spot-up shooting remains his forte, and it can help the Lakers—they of little floor spacing—drastically.

All of which brings us back to availability. 

Ability isn't, nor has it ever been, the issue. Nash still has some dimes and treys left in that 40-year-old body. We saw it last season. We saw it the season before last season.

Minutes are the enemy. Setting realistic expectations is the task. Scott can curb Nash's playing time or sit him on back-to-backs all he wants, but it won't mean his point guard isn't at the mercy of unpredictable limbs.

To that we turn toward a higher power—one Bleacher Report's David Murphy identifies as will: 

"Steve Nash will turn 41 in February and has delivered some of the game’s most memorable moments. The past two seasons won’t determine his ultimate legacy to the game. But he wants to leave more than a question mark behind in Los Angeles."

Determined to make the most of his last season, Nash, if close to healthy, will be dangerous. He is the San Antonio Spurs of paling superstars. He has nothing left to prove, nothing left to lose, and that makes him dangerous.

"I think this is my last season," Nash said during an interview with Sport TV in late July, via Jason Pratt of SB Nation. "But I still love to play, practice and work on my game."

Actually play, and Nash stands to contribute, surprising even the most relentless critics, surprising even himself. He is Los Angeles' biggest X-factor because he is their most marginalized unknown.

Bryant hasn't been reduced to a number; Nash has.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
If Nash is able to play at all, the Lakers are that much better a team.

Who will be the Lakers' biggest X-factor next season?

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Think of what the Lakers could be with a healthy Nash. Probably not a playoff team, but most definitely a watchable group that wins some games and turns some heads they shouldn't. Nash can have that impact. He can transform the Lakers offensively, with or without Bryant.

For that, we cannot write him off. Not now.

There is no greater threat than a player who knows he has no tomorrow. This being Nash's last chance to finish his storied career on a high note, he could be one of the Lakers' most dangerous weapons, their biggest X-factor, if only because his production would represent contributions the team isn't supposed to have.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.


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