Is Steve Nash becoming marginalized?
Over the past several games, Kobe Bryant has found out what every other chief perimeter player in Mike D’Antoni’s system has figured out: being the chief playmaker is how you lead the team. So, Kobe has moved off the ball to on it. He’s now calling for the ball earlier in possessions and actively seeking out a playmaking role. This is allowing him to dictate the terms of how this team will play from an active position, rather than a passive one. Furthermore, Kobe has also seemed to conclude that his individual game needed more balance, saying that he was looking to be a finisher too much and that he needed to help lighten the load on Steve (Nash) as the lone perimeter playmaker. Kobe is stepping up to help diversify the Lakers’ offense. And, so far, it’s working.
But where does that leave Nash? Lately, seeking his own balance as Kobe has slid in and taken some of his role for his own. Kevin Ding explains this nicely in his most recent column:
So Nash’s search will go on. He has the sweetest attitude of anyone, but Nash must find something for himself. Whether it’s making five 3-pointers every night or seizing a pick-and-roll time with Gasol early each game to play his old way, the guy who has made so many role players look so good in his career needs to find a role of his own. Nash’s mind doesn’t work like Bryant’s — always looking for something for himself, and thus indirectly the team — but it needs to start. Assuming Nash’s body is ready, he needs to go get something for himself and show everyone he’s not just the good guy willing to help his team, he can still be the bad boy crushing opponents’ hopes.
How Nash, and the team, find this balance will be key to how this season evolves and how successful the Lakers are. The formula they have now is a nice template, but as I’ve said since the start of the season, the goal is to get the most out of all the players in a way that maximizes both the individual and team’s production. Optimizing roles will mean getting them to perform great within the context of their singular roles while also finding a way for that role to fit into the team structure.
But, how do you do that for Nash while Kobe is evolving his game in ways that obviously help the team? I have one suggestion. Play Nash with Kobe a bit less.
This season Nash has played 733 minutes. Of those 733, Nash has been on the floor with Kobe for 706 of them. I don’t know about you, but I find that amazing. Don’t get me wrong, there are obvious benefits to playing Nash and Kobe together. They do a great job of creating shots for each other and providing spacing for each other. The perimeter offense flows much more smoothly when on either side of the floor you have a hall of fame player who can make defenses pay if the ball is swung in that direction. During the Lakers’ recent stretch of good play we’ve seen this in action as Kobe has held the ball on one wing only to pass the ball out, watch the ball find Nash, and then see him break down the defense and create an easy basket.
That said, getting the most out of Nash is more than simply having him and Kobe interact on the floor. Getting the most out of Nash has to be him creating offense for the teammates who can’t create offense for themselves. When D’Antoni was hired, what we envisioned was Nash operating high in the P&R and attacking the defense in a way that generated great shots for himself or a teammate. And while we’ve seen plenty of that since he returned, we’re seeing less of it now that Kobe has taken such a prominent role as an offensive facilitator. For Nash, though, the proper balance in his game means that he needs some of those possessions back. And not just for Nash, but for the rest of the Laker offense to really thrive.
The Lakers are slowly building towards their ideal output. In the past few weeks we’ve seen D’Antoni make some pretty daring moves to try and get the most out of his players. He’s moved Earl Clark to the starting lineup to better complement Dwight. He’s moved Pau to the bench to better maximize the Spaniard’s offensive skill set. Kobe has become more of a distributor to take advantage of his ability to manipulate defenses. The only player left to help find a smoother role for is Nash.
And, oddly enough, it may mean a similar fate for him that it has for Gasol. Not a move to the bench — that would be too drastic — but a separation from his backcourt partner. Because just as Howard and Pau can play together to good success but have found that less minutes together gives them their best output, Nash and Kobe seem to be headed in that same direction. It wouldn’t have to be for long stretches, but for short bursts where Nash is once again given the reins, and allowed to be Steve Nash. We may find it’s not just best for Nash, but best for the team.