LOS ANGELES -- In the 20 years after Magic Johnson retired, the Lakers either could not find an elite point guard, or did not believe they needed one. They went through Nick Van Exel and Brian Shaw, Derek Fisher and Smush Parker, Jordan Farmar and Ramon Sessions, along with so many others, like Rumeal Robinson and Derek Harper, Tyronn Lue and Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and Jannero Pargo. They had Ron Harper, but he was past his prime, and Gary Payton, but so was he. Fisher was among the few who stuck, in part because the Lakers ran the triangle offense, and they did not require a driver to initiate it.
But the NBA has become a point guard league, and this summer, the Lakers finally landed one. Steve Nash, more than Dwight Howard, was going to bring back Showtime. He was going to assume the ball-handling duties from Kobe Bryant. He was going to lead the fast break. He was going to run pick-and-rolls with Howard and Pau Gasol until Staples Center needed new rims. "He's high-octane gas in a Ferrari," said Mike D'Antoni, Nash's former coach in Phoenix.
D'Antoni claimed it would not matter what system the Lakers ran because Nash could operate them all. But it was obvious, from the past eight years of Nash's career, what offense suited him best: an up-tempo attack featuring loads of pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands. Lakers head coach Mike Brown went a different way, implementing elements of the the Princeton offense, which relies more on spacing and cutting. Obviously, judgment cannot be rendered after one game or even one month, but Nash bore no resemblance to rocket fuel on Opening Night. The Lakers completely marginalized him in a mortifying 99-91 loss to the Mavericks.
Before introductions at Staples, Bryant grabbed the microphone from the public address and hollered to the crowd: "Let's get this party started. Enjoy the show." It was a dud. The Lakers may have four Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, but they were embarrassed by a fringe Western Conference playoff team missing power forward Dirk Nowitzki and center Chris Kaman. The Lakers, with their 28 All Star appearances, were essentially undone by the likes of Brandan Wright, Eddy Curry and Jae Crowder. Given the state of the Mavericks' front line, as opposed to the Lakers', it was hard to imagine how they'd come away with a rebound. They ended up with 40, just six fewer than the Lakers. Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who predicted that the Lakers would struggle to build chemistry this season, sat gleefully on the bench.
The 2010 Heat taught us not to overreact to the early struggles of a super team. After all, the Heat started 9-8 before bulldozing their way to the Finals. The problem is not that the Lakers went 0-8 in the pre-season or even that they dropped the opener. More troubling is the way they used Nash -- or failed to use him -- in the new system. Instead of maximizing the point guard they waited so long to obtain, the Lakers treated him like a new incarnation of Fisher, watching him dribble the ball up the court, launch a few 3-pointers, and do little else. Nash finished with seven points and four assists, a stat line that would have been unheard of in Phoenix.
The Lakers tallied seven fast-break points, a total that would have made D'Antoni shudder. Steve Blake, Nash's backup, had more assists. So did Gasol, a seven-footer. It was as though Brown slipped lead weights into Nash's sneakers.
"Steve has the ability to do Steve," Brown said. "Every time down the floor in early offense he has the ability to play pick-and-roll with Dwight. He can do that whenever he wants or he can get us into offense....He's thinking some. He knows he can come down and go get his, but he's got Kobe here and Metta [World Peace] here and Dwight here and Pau here. He's trying to find the balance of what to do and when to do it. His job by no means is easy. He's an intelligent enough guy and a good enough leader where he'll figure it out."
In a typical Lakers play, Howard sets a high screen, and Nash must determine whether to run an immediate pick-and-roll or guide the team into its offense. He opted for the latter Tuesday and became a bystander. "I'm caught trying to get the ball moving and get us into different sets," Nash said. "Tonight I didn't get a lot of pick-and-roll. There are growing pains and there will probably be more."
If Nash was to be the catalyst for the Lakers offense, Howard was to fill the same role on defense. The Mavs, even with their flimsy frontcourt, managed 46 points in the paint. Howard's timing was understandably off, given that he is recovering from back surgery, but he was also worse than usual at the free-throw line. Howard went 3 of 14 from the stripe and one of those was a bank. After it went in, the crowd cheered mockingly, and Howard missed the subsequent free throw. He gathered the rebound but air-balled a short runner.
In the past three months, anticipation built for this night, when the Lakers would unveil their best center since Shaquille O'Neal and their best point guard since Magic. For a decade, nobody in the NBA has been able to slow the one-man fast break known as Steve Nash. Except, perhaps, the Lakers.