Steve Nash will be a Laker.
It’s still sinking in so I just keep repeating it to myself. It rolls nicely off the tongue, I must admit.
The Lakers have added one of the marquee players at his position but with the deal there are variables to explore, questions that need to be asked and answered. And, so, lets get to it…
What Did It Cost?
The Lakers used their trade exception from the Lamar Odom trade to acquire Nash. Reports put his salary “in excess of $25 million” over three years. This would have Nash earning upwards of $9 million by the end of his contract at the age of 41. Time will tell if this is an investment worth making but if there’s a player that can still be productive at that age it’s likely Nash – a man that’s highly conditioned, an extremely hard worker, and whose primary skills (shooting & court vision) don’t erode the way other skills do. That said, there’s obvious risk in giving Nash the three year contract he sought – a length that the Suns reportedly did not want to offer – as players rarely remain highly productive up to that age.
The Lakers also surrendered four draft picks in the deal – two 1st rounders in 2013 and 2015 and two 2nd rounders in 2013 and 2014. The Lakers certainly hope that these picks will be in the last few selections each round but they do run the risk of surrendering quality picks should the team not achieve at the levels they hope to. What also deserves mention is that draft picks should only become more valuable in this new CBA. The draft offers cheap talent and we’re entering into an era where luxury tax payments will punish payrolls that aren’t controlled and revenue sharing will impact the bottom line. This is something to keep in the back of your mind.
I’ve also read that the Lakers sent $3 million in cash to the Suns as part of the this trade. This may not seem like a big deal but the new CBA has capped the amount of money a team can send out in trades in any season, and that amount is $3 million. So, if the Lakers did indeed give the Suns that much cash, they can’t sweeten any other trades this year with cash. This may not end up being important, but it’s also worth remembering when looking at potential trades the Lakers may still be working on.
All in all, the Lakers did exactly what you’d hope they would in acquiring a player they think can be a major difference maker. They avoided using any tangible, in house assets (i.e. players on their roster) and pulled off a major deal. Mitch Kupchak spoke of hitting a home run this off-season and this deal certainly qualifies as that. The trade does limit what they can do in the future but, again, they’re in win now mode and they’ll cross those bridges when they come to them.
What Did They Get?
Stating the obvious, the Lakers just got a lot better at point guard. No disrespect to Ramon Sessions – who played fantastic when he first arrived and then struggled in the playoffs – but Nash is a historically great PG that continues to put up fantastic numbers. He’s one of the best shooters the league has ever seen (5 times he’s been a member of the 50/40/90 club and flirts with those percentages yearly) and was first in the league in total assists for the past 3 seasons. He’s one of the best ball handlers in the league and is a master floor general. He can play both an open court and half court game, is a leader, and is an extreme competitor. Based solely off his offensive production, he’s one of the most impactful players in the league, possessing the ability to prop up an offense the way Dwight Howard can a defense. The Suns were 8 points better per 100 possessions when Nash was on the floor versus when he was on the bench last season, or about the difference between the 1st and 23rd ranked offenses this past season.
How he fits into the Lakers is both obvious and open to question, however. His play making, shooting, and decision making all represent key skills the Lakers need more of. He can lessen the burden on every offensive player simply by being a primary initiator and floor spacer. Post players will have more room to operate when Nash is on the floor and defensive schemes will have to figure out alternative ways to double team the Lakers big three because they can’t leave Nash. Plus, when teams do double team – even when they don’t leave Nash – he’ll still get plenty of open shots simply because when the extra pass is made he’ll likely end up with free shots against a rotating defense.
Nash’s ability to make his teammates better is also a key factor. His passing acumen and skill are nearly unparalleled. He reads defenses as well as anyone and delivers passes on time and on target. This allows big men to finish at the rim easily and allows shooters to better find their rhythm. When watching the game, he makes things that are extremely difficult look amazingly easy. Pocket bounce passes and cross court feeds are executed seamlessly and the confidence that pumps into an entire offense can be devastating to an opponent.
There will be an adjustment period too, however. Kobe’s never played with such a ball dominant guard before and even if you’re someone that thinks he’s more than willing to share, it will still take time for both players to get used to one another. Great players often find a way to work well together but that comfort comes from reps – both in practice and games – where mistakes can be made then corrected. These two will need to get things sorted out, find ways to work with and off each other, and help raise their collective games. I’m sure it can happen, but right now it’s all only on paper. It will need to happen on the hardwood too.
There will also need to be an adjustment from the coaches. This past season showed that even with a P&R heavy guard in house (Sessions), the team often still went to Kobe-centric and post heavy sets that didn’t capitalize fully on all the skills their non-big 3 players had to offer. More creativity will be needed from Mike Brown and his staff as Nash must be more than a spot up shooter to space the floor. That would be a waste of his floor vision and ability to create easier shots for his mates. Nash will need to be set free on offense, allowed to push the pace when he sees fit, given opportunities to play P&R more often, and be allowed to create in isolation when he has the advantage. For years we’ve gotten the best of Nash because his coaches have given him the keys to the offense and let loose.
That said, this Lakers roster offers more talent and different types of players than the ones Nash has become accustomed to playing with. This will require adjustments from him and his team in order to strike a balance between the freedom that Nash thrives on and the more traditional structure that will play to the strengths of his teammates. Basically, Nash won’t be handed the keys to the team but will be integrated into the team that’s here. All sides will then need to mesh and find a style of play that suits everyone. The talent is so great that it’s difficult to see them failing, but the coaches must make this work.
What About The Defense?
The common perception is that Nash is a bad defender and in looking through the stats, there’s more than a little bit of truth there. Per My Synergy Sports, Nash ranked 147th in points allowed per play, proving especially poor in guarding spot up chances where his limited athleticism made recovering to the perimeter to challenge shots an issue. Nash also has issues defending in isolation for the same athletically challenged reason. Defending on an island against some of the best players in the league (as PG’s are asked to do nightly) is a difficult task for any player, but it’s especially so for an aged player whose athletic peak is in the rearview mirror.
That said, where Nash was better than expected was in defending ball handlers in the pick and roll. He was 80th in points per play when his man took a shot in the P&R, and his man only shot 40% in these situations. Don’t get me wrong, these numbers aren’t stellar but they speak to a certain level of effectiveness that surprised me. It’s also important to note that from a team perspective, the Suns’ Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 3 points worse when Nash sat versus when he was on the floor. This stat, along with his P&R stats, tell me that while Nash may struggle as an individual defender he’s better within the team concept. This is another area where the Lakers’ coaches will need to find creative ways to work Nash into the defensive schemes while finding individual match ups that limit his exposure.
(Sidenote: I was long under the impression that Nash and Sessions were similar defensive players but that opinion appears to be selling Nash short. Sessions Synergy numbers are much worse in every defensive play type and from a team perspective, the Lakers performed better on D when Sessions sat versus when he was on the floor. I don’t want to bury Sessions here, but Nash looks to be the superior defender – even at his advanced age – and one can only assume that with better defenders flanking him, it will only help Nash further.)
A Risk Worth Taking?
This is certainly a gamble. Nash’s age, the contract he’ll be paid (and its affect on payroll), and the potential for it to not work out are all risky. But, the Lakers have a history of taking chances and swinging for the fences with a success rate that a lot of franchises would envy. They want to win now and they just got a piece that can help them do so. Nash is a star player who’s still incredibly productive. There will need to be adjustments on his end and from his teammates/coaches, but with a proper training camp and practices throughout the season I don’t see why they couldn’t get on the same page.
Beyond this, though, with this trade the Lakers have given themselves a shot in the arm. The team, as constructed, had grown a bit stale. And while there were changes made last year, they came in the form of subtractions (Odom, Fisher) rather than an addition that the team (and the fans) could rally around. Acquiring Nash has changed that. His pedigree, reputation, and hunger are all big additions to this team and these intangibles will be meaningful just as his tangible production will be. In that regard, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss just gave the Lakers a dramatic makeover and did so with the acquisition of a single player. There’s an excitement in the air again. Steve Nash is a Laker. Wow.
*Statistical support for this post from NBA.com