Can Steve Nash Erase Stigma of Last Two Seasons?

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 4: Steve Nash #10 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on April 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
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At age 40, Steve Nash is entering the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers and in all likelihood, his last season of basketball. This isn’t how he wanted it to end. Not with a dark cloud as the closing refrain.

Is there a way to rewrite the ending? Yes, although it may not be an obvious hero moment. Nash—a two-time league MVP, five-time assists leader and eight-time All-Star—probably won’t capture that most important and elusive title—an NBA championship. But redemption can show itself in different forms.

First, there is the matter of health. Nash is finally back to a state of physical well-being that has eluded him for nearly two years. Per NBA.com and Lakers team trainer Gary Vitti:

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.

How did it all come to this—a closing chapter that seems so stigmatized?

Nash was still an effective player during his final years with the Phoenix Suns but he wasn’t a part of their forward-looking rebuild. In July of 2012, an opportunity presented itself to finish things out in Los Angeles. It would mean being closer to his children, geographically, and it would also mean making a difference on a basketball level.

A month later, Dwight Howard was traded to the Lakers and the two players became forever linked and identified by a doomed experiment.

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LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks with teammates Kobe Bryant #24 and Steve Nash #10 during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on February 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO
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Two games into the regular season, Nash fractured his leg when he collided with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers. It didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time.

After the Lakers’ fifth game, they had yet to collect a win. Mike Brown was fired and Phil Jackson was considered.

And then in a surprise quirk of fate, the team hired Mike D’Antoni and it seemed as if some cosmic realignment was about to begin—Nash and his former coach would transition a post-centric team with stars like Howard, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, into a new Showtime era.

As an upbeat D’Antoni said during his introductory press conference, per Lakers.com:

I can’t wait to get him (Nash) back there. I think he has another two or three years there. He didn’t have a whole lot of speed when he was in Phoenix and he hasn’t lost anything. But he’s smart, he’s smart and he can play. Nobody works harder than him. We just got to get his legs well and I think the people of Los Angeles will come to appreciate an unbelievable player.

But a series of unfortunate events had been set into motion and unbelievable playing did not take place.

Nash started and played in 50 games, averaging 12.7 points in 32.5 minutes per game—on par with his previous season in Phoenix. Points and minutes don’t tell the whole story, however. Nash had always succeeded by making those around him better, but in Los Angeles, his assists were dropping precipitously.

The team was clearly not playing in unison, and was ultimately knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, losing in four games straight to the San Antonio Spurs.

By that point, a team packed with All-Stars was in shambles and the worst of it was Bryant’s ruptured Achilles tendon, suffered during game No. 80 of the regular season. 

Howard ultimately joined the Houston Rockets as a free agent after just one season, and the Lakers were left trying to sort through the broken pieces.

As for Nash, his fractured leg had never fully healed and triggered a slowly developing chain reaction of related structural issues. But more than anything, he had become part of a growing malaise that made it easy to associate his frailties with the failure of others—with Howard, with D’Antoni and with a rash of team injuries in general.

And when the following season ushered in an absolute and utter team collapse, it became even easier to point at Nash’s deteriorating body and the fact that he only played 15 games. Plus, what about that $9.7 million annual salary?

Two seasons became rolled into one giant unforgivable mistake—a future Hall of Famer had become a symbol for all that was wrong in Lakerland, and he even had the audacity to collect a paycheck!

But is it fair to stigmatize one player for the vagaries of age and injuries when the entire roster plus coaches and management share culpability for a 27-55 season? Doesn’t a guy who is arguably one of the best point guards to ever play the game deserve better than that?

If the 18-year veteran remains healthy and is able to play meaningful minutes, he’ll be doing so within a more measured, post-centric offense that will cater to Bryant—a member of the same draft class of 1996 and the only Laker to actually miss more games last season.

It’s not realistic to expect that Nash can turn back the hands of time, even if he does begin the season in relatively good shape. But the team would certainly benefit if he could provide solid minutes off the bench and lend leadership skills.

And reparation can also come in other ways, leaving an imprint as a mentor to Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson—two of the newest Lakers and part of a new generation of NBA players.

Lin spoke about learning from Nash during his introductory press conference, per Lakers.com; “Now I have this opportunity. I can’t wait. I still remember him in Phoenix and he was 20 and 10 every night. I look forward to learning quite a few things from him.”

Nash can teach about playing off the most effective angles, about flawless footwork and the art of the perfect pass. The third all-time assists leader behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd, Nash has always had uncanny court vision and the ability to hit the open man, seemingly without even looking.

Nash is also a deadly shooter with a .428 career percentage from behind the arc as well as owning the best all-time free-throw success rate at .904.

As Nash recently said in an interview with Sport TV, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News; “I think this is my last season. But I still love to play, practice and work on my game. I’m going to spend hopefully many, many years living this life without basketball. It’ll be nice to play one more year.”

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.  

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