Lakers can turn full attention to future after Steve Nash's back injury
The Lakers announced Thursday that point guard Steve Nash will miss the 2014-15 season due to ongoing nerve damage in his back.
Although season-ending injury diagnoses are never welcome news, particularly when the season hasn't even started yet, obtaining certainty about Nash's status qualifies as a blessing in disguise for the Lakers. That's true even though Nash was one of the most exciting players of his generation, a star who powered perhaps the most distinctive style of play seen during the post-Michael Jordan era. That's true even though his recent years have been spent in an endless, and truly unfortunate, cycle of rehabilitation. That's true even though he's reached undisputed iconic status in Canada and will be a no-brainer selection into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Perhaps Nash's influence on the league didn't quite warrant a Derek Jeter-esque year-long sendoff, but watching him thread the needle and manufacture passing angles out of thin air was ageless, pure entertainment.
The NBA is worse off without Nash, period. The Lakers, however, are not.
Nash, 40, was set to be the NBA's oldest active player this year. A two-time MVP and eight-time All-Star, Nash averaged 6.8 points and 5.7 assists in just 15 appearances last season and appeared in two preseason games this month, logging a total of 32 minutes. Although the prospect of retirement was raised, Nash instead decided to play through the end of his contract, which expires at the end of the 2014-15 season. He is on the books for $9.7 million this year, making him L.A.'s second-highest paid player.
Acquiring Nash in 2012 was a risk. Getting Nash was a sensible risk despite the big questions like how would he mesh with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard and when would the wheels fall off? Swapping out coach Mike Brown for Mike D'Antoni was similarly logical; to have any chance at fulfilling massive expectations, Nash needed to be empowered and comfortable, and the arrival of his old coach seemed to offer both. Age intervened, in malicious and unforgiving fashion, and the window closed before it truly opened, slammed shut one extra time with D'Antoni's departure this summer. Over the course of his three-year, $27.9 million contract, Nash will have played just 65 regular-season games and two playoff games. The Nash era was a failure on the court, and SI.com argued back in Nov. 2013 that the situation was broken beyond repair.
Unfortunately for Lakers fans, their management did not acquire a point guard of the future in the draft, free agency or via trade over the last year, despite the writing on the wall. Los Angeles did add Jeremy Lin, who will now formally take the reins in Nash's absence. Even if Lin doesn't quite qualify as a blue-chip, long-term solution at the position, there is plenty of value in seeing how he plays alongside Bryant this season. Both players theoretically need the ball, and Lin previously had issues meshing with shoot-first stars in Carmelo Anthony and James Harden. Does LA's pairing find better success? At 26 and in the final year of his contract, Lin is one of the few players on the Lakers' roster who could be worth maintaining into the post-Bryant era. Nash's injury starts that clock immediately, and it removes any questions about role, lineups or anything else. The ball is now in Lin's court (metaphorically speaking, anyway, as the ball will mostly remain with Bryant).
Similarly, 2014 second-round pick Jordan Clarkson, 22, can now bank on regular minutes. Although the 6-foot-5 guard might be more of a combo guard than a pure point guard, he should now get the opportunity to play all the minutes he can handle. With no real hope of making noise in the Western Conference and no future for Nash, even in a best health-case scenario past this season, any minutes for Nash over Lin and Clarkson would have been a mistake. Nash's injury prevents coach Byron Scott from ever getting the chance to fumble that one.
Nash's $9.7 million expiring contract also looms as an attractive trade chip. The season-long nature of his injury will allow the Lakers to receive insurance protection, and you never know when that added financial relief might come in handy during trade talks with penny-pinching teams.
More important than either the lineup implications or the trade possibilities is the symbolic cutting of ties. The Lakers have expressed no clear long-term plan, even though they've needed to establish a direction since Howard departed. Removing Nash from the equation for good should help focus the organization's attention on the future and on the acquisition and development of young assets. Indeed, Nash miraculously returning to form to help prop up the Lakers to 40 wins would have been the Lakers' worst-case scenario in the big picture. Los Angeles is way better off being terrible than mediocre, because they would have a chance to keep their 2015 first-round pick (which is top-five protected) and because it will be a wake-up call for everyone, including Bryant, that it's time to get serious about what comes next.