Steve Nash is in an interesting position on this particular Laker team.
He is the team’s point guard and, simply due to his position, one of the de facto leaders. Furthermore, because he is one of the best players on the team he is positioned as someone who others will look to for guidance. So, even though Nash is a newcomer and someone who came to the Lakers as a secondary player (not only to Kobe, but, arguably to Pau as well) he is still one of the most important players. When the coaching change occurred and Mike D’Antoni was hired, Nash’s stature on the team only grew as the head coach singled him out as a difference maker.
At this point in the year, Nash has lived up to his reputation in a lot of ways. He has been a point guard in the truest sense. When the Lakers started out running the Princeton Offense, Nash was one of the players voicing his buy in the loudest. He spoke of process and his own willingness to step back in order to accomplish more as a team. On the floor, he has played as a man more interested in getting the most out of his mates rather than someone who is concerned about himself. He makes the extra pass, looks to set up a teammate who has a mismatch, and has willingly given the ball up in order to be a worker away from the action in order to spring someone else for a chance at a shot. The term “floor general” was created for a player who goes about his business this way.
However, in Nash’s pursuit to help make his teammates better, it seems he may be giving up too much of himself. It goes without saying that Nash is doing a lot to help the team play well (or, at least well within the context of what’s been an awful season to date), but it’s also arguable that what the Lakers need is for him to stop worrying about his teammates so much and to start calling his own number more.
Consider the following:
- Per 36 minutes, Nash’s scoring is down from 14.2 points last year to 11.7 points this season. Two seasons ago, that number was 15.9; three seasons ago it was 18.0.
- Per 36 minutes, Nash is shooting nearly one and a half fewer times per game and attempting a shade over one less foul shot per game.
- This season, Nash’s usage rate is a paltry 15.0. That number is 4.6 points lower than last season and represents his lowest usage since the 1999-2000 season where he only played in 56 games (only starting in 27).
Taken individually, none of these numbers are too alarming (except the decline in usage, which we’ll get to).
It’s not some sort of big surprise that Nash might score less this season. Playing with scoring threats like Kobe and Howard automatically affect any players’ point totals. As Kobe mentioned the other day, he and Dwight are “finishers” and are going to be the players who end plays taking shots whenever they’re on the floor. With this being the case, it’s also not a surprise that Nash’s FGA’s and FTA’s are also down. As the Lakers’ offense has evolved (under both the Mikes), Nash has been playing off the ball more and that’s led to him spectating as Kobe, Dwight, and (to a lesser extent) Ron take the shots. It was always going to be the case that Nash, operating with more individual talent than he has in recent seasons, would see a decline in certain stats.
However, it’s fine line between surrendering some of your individual numbers for the betterment of the team and not doing more with the ball when given the opportunity to do so. This season (and especially lately with Pau and Dwight out injured), the latter describes Nash better than the former. This may not be the Lakers’ biggest problem this season (it’s not close, actually) but it’s a problem all the same.
It can get lost in the discussion of Nash being able to create for others so well, but he can also do a pretty good job of creating shots for himself. As one of the best shooters in the game (Nash is shooting 53% from the floor this year and has a TS% of 61.7%), he can take advantage of even the tiniest slivers of space with a quick flick of the wrist better than most other players in the league. We’ve seen it this season multiple times: Nash probes the defense, escape dribbles to either hand, fades and hits a jumper; Nash drives by a closing out defender and hits a scoop shot at the rim; Nash comes off a pick, keeps the defender on his hip and then hits a floater/hook shot before the secondary help comes; Nash pulls up in transition and buries a long jumper.
We just haven’t seen it as often as I think we’d all like to.
Constructing an offense can be a delicate balance. Few understand that better than the best point guards in the league. Ever listen to Magic Johnson talk? Or Chris Paul? Or John Stockton? They all understood the value of getting guys looks and how, as the point guard, it was their responsibility to make it happen. Keeping your teammates engaged offensively is one of the surer ways to keep them engaged in other facets of the game. Nash, like those other all-timers, is in that mold and I’ve heard him make similar comments over the course of his career.
However, one of the reasons the Lakers’ even pursued Nash is because they’ve had a hole at point guard for several years. Taking nothing away from Derek Fisher or even Ramon Sessions, but they were not able to control the reins of an offense and be critical scorers for their team at the same time. Nash, for all his pointgod-ly ways, has not had that problem in his career. As Lakers’ fans, we’ve had front row seats to Nash not only creating for others, but hitting countless big shots of his own and controlling the game with both his passing and his scoring.
This season, however, Nash has become a player too willing to let others finish. Usage rate is a measurement of how often a play ends with a shot, free throws, assist, or turnover when a player is on the floor. As mentioned earlier, Nash’s is 15.0 this season. For comparison’s sake, Darius Morris’ is 15.7, Jamison’s is 16.7, and Meeks’s 19.7 (last year, Sessions’ was 20.5). I understand that Nash is a playmaker and that he’s moving the ball on to the open man and that may not lead to anything more than another pass. My point is that Nash needs to take it upon himself to shoot more; to look to be a finisher more, even if he has to force the action a bit to do so.
When completely healthy and playing to their abilities, the Lakers are a team with four all-star level players at the top of their roster. For the Lakers to be at their best, they need all of those guys playing to their strengths. And while Nash’s primary strengths are that of a playmaker for others and a person who can organize the offense, he’s also one of the game’s best shooters whose scoring is key part of his skill set. The Lakers can only be their best if Nash is taking it upon himself to do a bit more with that latter skill.
If that comes at the expense of an additional shot from Kobe, Ron, or Meeks, I don’t think anyone will mind. I know I won’t. I also think it will help the team.