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Sad but True: Steve Nash's Injury Allows LA Lakers to Finally Move on

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 24, 2014

AP Images

The Los Angeles Lakers needed closure.

They didn't want it. No one in the basketball world wanted it for them.

But on the heels of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Lakers needed a clear sense of direction. And despite all of the intrigue that followed two-time MVP Steve Nash to Hollywood, the reality of his situation always cast a cloud of uncertainty over the organization's road ahead.

That cloud has now been lifted, though the basketball gods chose a particularly painful method to clear the skies. After suffering through two injury-riddled seasons with the Lakers, the 40-year-old couldn't make it to the opening night of the third.

The Painful Loss

As first reported by Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding, lingering nerve damage in his back has cost Nash what would have been his 19th—and quite possibly his final—season in the league. The Lakers later confirmed the news in a press release shared on the team's Twitter account:

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Putting a positive spin on any of this isn't easy.

When athletes show signs of vulnerability, it forces us all to face uncomfortable questions about our own mortality. Losing a supremely talented player—whether for a single season or for good—is always an excruciating exercise.

For a player cut from Nash's cloth, the knife digs even deeper.

He had a once-in-a-generation gift for the point guard position. If the curtains have closed on his playing days, he'll walk away with 10,335 career assists, third-most in league history. He's also the NBA's all-time leader in free-throw percentage (90.43) and one of only 14 players to have multiple MVP awards on his resume.

Yet it's that same glowing track record that brought the silver lining to light for the Lakers. Without it, they could have accepted fate a while ago and acted accordingly.

But because they knew precisely how good he could be, they tried avoiding reality at every turn.

Nash's injury issues surfaced almost immediately upon his L.A. arrival. He suffered a broken bone in his left leg during his second regular-season game with the team and subsequent nerve damage in the same area. The nerve condition flared up in both his back and hamstrings, limiting him to 50 games in his first year and only 15 appearances in his second.

He was set to be the league's oldest active player, but the Lakers held on to the hope that he could elude both Father Time and the injury imp long enough to play a significant role for them this season.

L.A. avoided the point guard position in free agency despite several notable names being up for grabs. The Lakers could have taken shots at Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors) or Eric Bledsoe (Phoenix Suns), but their offseason haul of floor generals instead included the likes of Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price and rookie combo guard Jordan Clarkson.

That didn't happen by accident. The Lakers still had Nash penciled into their immediate blueprint—and on their books with a $9.7 million salary, per ShamSports.com. Head coach Byron Scott said in early September he had already identified four of his five starters, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. Despite the obvious warning signs, Nash was among those four.

SAN DIEGO, CA- OCTOBER 6: Byron Scott, Head Coach, and Steve Nash #10 of the Los Angeles Lakers speak during a game  against the Denver Nuggets as the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Denver Nuggets at the Valley View Sports Arena in San Diego, California o
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Nash could have walked away during his frustrating 2013-14 season. He didn't, at least in part because he admitted he wanted the money left on his deal during an installment of his video series The Finish Line with Grantland.com.

The Lakers could have eased his contract off the books by stretching the remaining money owed to him over the next three years, about a $3.2 million annual salary. They passed on that option so they wouldn't be, as Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times put it, "taking up precious cap space in the summers of 2015 and 2016."

Both parties had their reasons for keeping the relationship alive, but Nash's body officially brought it to an end. Now that he's out of the equation, the Lakers can take a long look at their other point guard options.

The Short-Term Benefits

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Acquired in an offseason trade with the Houston Rockets, Jeremy Lin brings over career per-game averages of 11.9 points and 4.8 assists in 27.3 minutes.

With an improving perimeter game (a personal-best 35.8 three-point percentage last season) and the ability to create plays off the bounce, he should be a boon for this offensive attack.

"Jeremy makes a huge difference," Kobe Bryant told reporters earlier this month, "creating shots for others. We've got somebody else who can penetrate, make plays for others and put pressure on the defense. It's a really big difference."

At the very least, Lin has the opportunity now to live up to the hype that has followed him for the last few years.

More importantly, this chance comes at a critical juncture for him and the Lakers. Lin is working on an expiring contract, so the way he handles what could well be the largest role of his career should determine the market for his free-agency foray.

As for the Lakers, this will help determine whether Lin is a stopgap solution or worthy of a long-term investment. This roster is light on prospects, so it could use another developmental piece if he can play his way into securing that type of commitment.

"Lin is one of the few players on the Lakers' roster who could be worth maintaining into the post-Bryant era," wrote Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver. "Nash's injury starts that clock immediately, and it removes any questions about role, lineups or anything else."

For all of the buzz Lin has created in his career, this will only be the third time he enters a season with a solidified rotation spot in hand. So much about his ceiling remains unknown, especially if he can keep bringing his three-point stroke along to complement an already potent dribble-drive game.

There should be a trickle-down effect behind Lin, too.

The defensive-minded Price should move into the primary backup slot, according to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. This could also free up some minutes for the 22-year-old Clarkson, who Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman noted "has a sharp set of physical tools that help drive his upside and versatility at both ends of the floor."

If the Lakers aren't entirely comfortable with that three-man rotation, having clarity on Nash's situation could allow them to look outside the organization for extra help.

"The Lakers could apply for a disabled player exception for up to half of Nash's salary, or $4.85 million," noted Bresnahan. "The exception could be used to sign a player for the remainder of the season or trade for a player making up to $4.95 million in the final year of his contract."

Whether they could actually find someone they like, though, could be a different story.

"The pickings are pretty slim as far as point guards left on the market," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote. "We're talking Eric Maynor, Bo McCalebb slim."

Assuming the Lakers stick with what they have, they can evaluate the futures of Lin and Clarkson while getting Scott some needed defensive help on the perimeter with Price. It's a net loss in terms of talent but could be a necessary evil that leads to a net gain over time.

The Big Picture

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: Jeremy Lin #17, Kobe Bryant #24, and Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers pose for a portrait during the Los Angeles Lakers Media Day at the Toyota Sports Center on September 29, 2014 in El Segundo, California. NOTE T
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Lakers might not know what their next move will be, but the biggest takeaway from all of this is that they should now be fully focused on plotting that path.

The franchise had its reasons for trying to make things work with Nash. The Lakers paid a heavy price to bring him on board in the summer of 2012—first-round picks in 2013 and '15 (top-five protected) and second-round selections in '13 and '14—but it seemed justified at the time.

During his eight seasons with the Phoenix Suns, he averaged 16.3 points and 10.9 assists. He was an All-Star during his final year in the desert and the only player other than Rajon Rondo to average double-digit points (12.5) and assists (10.7) that season. Nash's odometer was high at the time, but his motor seemed to still be running fine.

Once they added him and Dwight Howard to a core already featuring Bryant and Pau Gasol, they appeared destined for championship greatness.

Obviously, those dreams never made it to reality. Howard stayed for a single season before bolting to Houston. Gasol left for the Chicago Bulls in free agency this summer. When Nash was healthy enough to play, he was never the player the Lakers thought they were getting. During his two-year tenure, he averaged just 11.4 points and 6.4 assists across his 65 games.

The Lakers' fantastic four disbanded without a single playoff victory to its name.

Coming off an abysmal 55-loss season, the Lakers needed to give themselves, their fans and their franchise face something to look forward to. Finally seeing a healthy Bryant and Nash together would have been that prize.

But the reward was never going to be as good as it sounded.

Nash would have made this team better, but there was a low ceiling on just how high it could rise. The Lakers finished 28th in defensive efficiency last season, and despite Scott's focus on that end of the floor, that number was going to be tough to improve with the personnel on hand.

A valiant effort from both aging stars could have pushed the Lakers into the ranks of mediocrity—the worst possible place for an NBA team to be.

Priorities need to change for the Lakers, or as much as they can with Bryant still on the roster. Rather than pointlessly pursuing a championship road that has been closed since Howard departed, they need to work on constructing a new one by acquiring assets and developing the young pieces they have.

If that means losing this season before it even starts, so be it. At least then they would have a shot at retaining what could be a very valuable draft choice.

The Lakers need more pieces to their puzzle. That would have been the case even if Nash had suited up this season.

The fact that he won't should make it easier to prioritize the future. That won't make the present any more enjoyable, but it's a step this franchise had to take sooner rather than later.

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

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