So much of the Lakers’ off-season has focused on unknowns.
What will Dwight Howard decide? When will Kobe return and, when he does, what type of player will he be? Will Pau Gasol still be on the team? If so, how will his role change? If not, what will he net in a trade?
Due to their importance as centerpiece players on the Lakers’ roster, these are natural questions. However, one player whose name hasn’t much come up when talking about the transition to next season is Steve Nash.
Nash was added nearly a year ago, seemingly out of nowhere. At the time, there were questions about how Nash would fit next to Kobe, how much he had left as a player, and how the team would compensate for him defensively. But even with those questions, his signing was almost universally hailed as a win for the Lakers.
What transpired wasn’t the win that many imagined it would be. In the 2nd game of the year Nash broke his leg, ultimately starting a season of regretful injuries and lost chemistry that served as the dark cloud over his inaugural campaign as a Laker. Further, when he was healthy enough to suit up, he had to adjust to a shifting role that took him off the ball more, becoming more of a spot up shooter when Kobe handled the ball and a diligent screener when Pau facilitated from the elbow.
When he did have the ball in his hands, Nash showed more and more of his 39 years, lacking that extra burst to shake free from defenders or turn the corner out of his favored pick and roll set. This made it harder to escape hard traps defenses threw at him and harder for him to create the separation that he typically uses to do damage in isolation.
That said, Nashe’s numbers were eerily similar to the ones he posted his final year in Phoenix. While he showed the affects of a drop in usage statistically, his efficiency mostly held up with his career norms, just missing another 50/40/90 shooting season by .03% on his shooting percentage from the field. Where you saw the biggest dip was in his assists, but he still averaged 6.7 per game while posting an assist percentage of 32.8 (which is in line with his early career numbers with the Mavs). Some of his missed shots and his dip in playmaking were surely magnified by the decline in usage, but for the most part he played well if you were able to divorce his overall game from his rash of injuries and the fact that he had the ball in his hands less.
Next season, however, Nash has an interesting challenge in front of him. The perception of him is a player in decline. He’s 39 and will turn 40 a week before the all-star break. He’s coming off a season that only saw him play 50 games (and some of those he clearly could have sat out too) and a shift in his role that saw him perform less as the Steve Nash we’ve all grown to love.
That said, though there are clearly questions about how Nash will perform next year, he also heads into this off-season as one of the few certainties. Of the big four, Nash is the only one who’s nearly assured to begin the year on the active roster. With Kobe’s achilles, Pau’s uncertain status, and Dwight a free agent, Nash is the guy who enters the summer most certain that he’ll be back wearing a Lakers’ jersey as a player and a leader.
What will be required of him is more than what he was able to give last year and he’ll need to be ready to provide it. The Lakers will need more production, more leadership, and, mostly, more games. He’ll need to be in the lineup providing the type of game that he was brought to the team to provide. Whether or not he can give it is still an open question, but if you listened to him in his exit interview he more than implied that he would be able to provide it, noting that with a full summer to get healthy and train he could get back to not only feeling great, but playing that way also.
The skeptics will be out in full force and after some of the troubles he had this season it’s hard to blame them. However, the as the lone star whose role next season is already clearly defined, Nash will need to blow those skeptics away and play at the level that reminds those of us were so excited about his arrival why we felt that way to begin with. Nash has made a career out of defying expectations, but this upcoming season may provide his biggest test ever in that regard.