Steve Nash (back) out at least two weeks, but how much will Lakers miss him?
Nash, 39, met with the specialist on Monday after leaving Sunday's 113-90 home loss to the Timberwolves during the second quarter with nerve-related back and hamstring pain. Now the NBA's oldest player, Nash has already missed two of Los Angeles' eight games this season.
A two-week injury recovery timeline will sideline Nash for at least six games. His rehabilitation will include an epidural block, which he will receive on Tuesday.
The persistent pain and injury issues of late date to a non-displaced fractured fibula that Nash suffered in his left leg early last season. That injury sidelined Nash for nearly two months, and he was unable to complete the Lakers' 2013 playoff series against the Spurs because of hamstring pain.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Nash was feeling down and out after L.A.'s loss to Minnesota.
"I hesitate to even talk about it now because it's probably not a good time, I'm feeling a little emotional, but it's hard," Nash said. "I really want to play and I really want to play the way I'm accustomed to playing, and to be so limited is frustrating. And also to not know where a clean-ish bill of health is is a little daunting too."
"It's just when you're so limited and you're limping, you're trying to get off your left leg the whole time, then you just can't be effective and you're making it worse. I tried to play through it, but to what diminishing returns."
ESPNLA.com reported coach Mike D'Antoni's reaction, which was similarly downcast.
"I'm concerned," D'Antoni said. "He was struggling physically tonight. You could just see it on his face. That's why I took him out and we shut him down, more or less.
"I just see his face. I've known him forever, and when he looks like that, he's trying to battle through something and just couldn't do it."
Just last week, Nash told CBSSports.com that he was hoping to "get over the hump physically" and that he "wasn't there yet" when it came to contemplating retirement. Nash is under contract through the 2014-15 season, earning $9.3 million this year and $9.7 million next year.
The state of the rebuilding Lakers and the crumbling state of Nash's game should remove the urgency factor as Nash stares down these issues. This isn't last year's group, which eagerly counted down the days until Nash's return as it struggled to deliver on mammoth expectations. This year's Lakers are off to a 3-5 start and franchise guard Kobe Bryant still doesn't have a return date as he recovers from a torn Achilles; a ninth straight postseason trip would be a nice way to salvage the season, but nobody should be banking on it.
As for Nash, it goes without saying that he's been a shell of himself, even compared to last year, when he missed 32 games and never found the proper fit in a Bryant-centric offense. This year, Nash is shooting just 26.1 percent from the field -- which is little more than half of his career average -- and he's yet to play 30 minutes in any game. His eight-time All-Star form is firmly a thing of the past, and the following chart illustrates his steady decline since 2007, when he guided the Suns to the No. 1 offense in the league.
That decline has reduced him to a virtual copycat of Steve Blake, who steps into his shoes when he's sidelined, during the opening few weeks of the season.
2013-14 Steve Nash: 89.2 offensive rating, 103.3 defensive rating
2013-14 Steve Blake: 89.1 offensive rating, 102.7 defensive rating
Remember, the two players weren't all that different last season, even with a healthy Bryant and Dwight Howard on the roster. Nash still enjoyed better raw numbers, shooting numbers and per-minute production, but their top-level contributions shared a similar impact profile.
2012-13 Steve Nash: 106.2 offensive rating, 104.9 defensive rating
2012-13 Steve Blake: 104.6 offensive rating, 102.6 defensive rating
The optimist might conclude that the Lakers needn't panic about losing Nash, at least as long as Blake is healthy and waiting in the wings. That's true to a degree: The drop-off from Nash to Blake is way steeper in name recognition and theory than it is is play-by-play reality. The loss of any rotation player hurts the Lakers, whose thin roster relies on a number of minimum-salary contributors, but there just isn't much upside to having Nash in the lineup in a limited form. This is, generally speaking, a matter of losing with or without him. Only a full return to health for Bryant can change that.
Thanks to a fully guaranteed contract, Nash controls his own future. He can take as long as he needs to rehabilitate, and the Lakers should be in no major rush this season. The key thing to watch with Nash, as with any player entering the latter stages of his career, is whether his desire to continue fighting to get back on the court starts to wane. His admission that his struggle to get healthy is "daunting" could have simply been a moment of dejection, or it could be a legitimate crack in that wall.
While it's impossible to forecast ahead to next season, it is time to start wondering about the end game here. What will it take for Nash to decide that he's ready to weigh the retirement question? A particularly bleak diagnosis from his doctor? Going through the entirety of a second straight injury-riddled season? A 2014 offseason that doesn't dramatically alter the Lakers' chances next year, thereby removing the carrot of a deep postseason run? If this setback hasn't prompted those questions, they are coming sooner or later.
From the Lakers' standpoint, if they can't have a reasonably healthy Nash, then it would almost certainly be better to have no Nash at all. The future Hall of Famer was brought in to run an offensive attack that disintegrated before it ever truly formed, and the vision of a title window that opened in the summer of 2012 has long since been shuttered with boards and nails. L.A. will need to fork over big dollars to extend or re-sign Bryant, and the roster is otherwise stripped to the bone. Nash's salary is the only significant money on its books for next season; a mutually agreed-upon retirement or buyout could increase L.A.'s financial flexibility next summer.