It took a little while, longer than we might have anticipated, but yesterday, it finally happened.
Did the Los Angeles Lakers finally land a point guard of the highest caliber? Did the Lakers pick up another star to show their intention of competing with the dynasties of youth and athleticism developing in Miami and Oklahoma City? Did they take a major step forward in putting together pieces that make sense in a post-Triangle world? The answer, in some variation, to all of these questions is yes. But none of them describe the "it" I am referring to.
Yesterday, after years of curious, though not necessarily poor, decision making, we finally have proof that Jim Buss, heir apparent to the Los Angeles Lakers throne, gets it. He understands. Finally, I have complete confidence that the Los Angeles Lakers will remain the Los Angeles Lakers for at least one more generation. This isn't about spending money, though the deal all but ensures the Lakers will remain in luxury tax hell for the next few seasons. It isn't about flexing big market muscle, though that is the only way such a deal could come to fruition. It's about recognizing the opportunity for greatness, and seizing that opportunity at all costs.
The Los Angeles Lakers, already one of the league's oldest teams, have just acquired a 38-year-old point guard. The Lakers, who have been torched by terrible point guard defense since time immemorial, have just acquired one of the league's worst defenders at the position. The Lakers, already up to their ears in long-term contracts to players on the downsides of their careers, will now be paying Steve Nash until he's 40. The deal doesn't guarantee the Lakers will win a championship. It doesn't guarantee that the twilight of Kobe Bryant's career will be successful. There are tons of negatives to this deal, tons of legitimate reasons why it might not work.
None of those reasons matter. In trading for Steve Nash, the Lakers have only guaranteed one thing. They will be explosive, they will be brilliant, and over time, they will consume themselves until nothing is left. The Los Angeles Lakers have gone supernova.
The Lakers are this close to having an offense that is inconceivable. They have one of the best creating point guards in the game's history. They have one of the best scorers in the game's history. They have the best low post offensive threat in the game today. And they have the best passing big man in the game as well. None of these pieces are without their flaws. Nash's advanced age means he could fall off the cliff, hard, at any moment. Kobe Bryant's mileage gives him the same possibility, with an added dose of stubbornness which could easily make the process uglier than it needs to be. Pau Gasol hasn't looked to be close to the same player he was two years ago, and Andrew Bynum often doesn't look to be the same player he was two nights ago.
But the positive side of this "what if" equation is too powerful to ignore. Nash, in limited minutes, has been as good as ever the past couple seasons, and has shown no signs of slowing down. And if Nash is right, he has the potential to save the other three from their dark sides. He will surely ease Kobe Bryant's transition into the off-the-ball player he must become in order to get the most out of the twilight of his career, both in the sense that Nash will create easier looks for Kobe to make, and in the sense that only to somebody of Nash's caliber is Kobe likely to relinquish control of play-making responsibility. Andrew Bynum is probably too slow to make for an effective dance partner in Steve Nash's weapon of choice, the pick and roll, but he is still certainly capable of converting all manner of awkward looking "just throw it up anywhere near the basket" lobs, and Nash is as equipped as anybody not named Chris Paul in orchestrating those chances.
But the real miracle of Steve Nash's acquisition lies in the possible revitalization of Pau Gasol. For Gasol, Nash offers the promise of a return to the type of offensive flow in which the Spaniard is a prime asset. There are many, many examples throughout basketball history of how sharing the ball can be infectious, and with both Nash and Gasol, the chances are that much greater that the Lakers will "catch the bug". Nash has long been one of the best pick and roll point guards in the league, and now he has a roll man who's nearly as adept a passer as he is. A Gasol-Nash pick and roll attack, with Kobe as a backside cutter and Andrew Bynum as a black hole for any pass within 5 feet of the hoop has the potential to be devastatingly efficient.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. That may be a portrait of how this move can be successful, but it is in no way guaranteed to come to fruition. What is guaranteed is that the Lakers, and Jim Buss in particular, have outlined a mission statement in clear and permanent ink.
Win now, or die trying.
It's a message that has been lacking in some of the previous moves the front office has made. In trading Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, the Lakers appeared to be making moves to cut costs without much apparent thought for the effect on the roster. The hire of Mike Brown was sold as a long-term solution, despite the fact that the Lakers are very much a short-term problem to solve. The talk out of the front office in recent years has been as much or more about avoiding luxury tax penalties and bemoaning more strict revenue sharing as it has been about competing for championships. Sure, the Lakers have continually tried to improve over the years, most noticeably in almost trading for Chris Paul at the start of last season, but that's the kind of move which is a no-brainer, making the team better in both the short and long term. Before now, before this trade, there was distinct lack of commitment to the present if it meant sacrifice to the future.
No more. The Lakers are now locked in to nearly 75 million dollars for just four players next year. The only player who isn't included in that figure for 2014 is the one player the Lakers will want to lock down long term, Andrew Bynum. And the Lakers may not be done yet. Trading for Nash is such a commitment to the present that a deal for Dwight Howard now might make sense, even if it is only to rent his services for the year. If trading for Nash makes the Lakers contenders, trading for Howard would instantly make them favorites. Howard has communicated a desire to only play in one place, and that place is not with the Lakers. But Nash is a strong selling point, and if the Lakers were to win a title, could Howard really walk away from that?
There is also lots of talk that Grant Hill might follow Nash to Los Angeles. Apparently there is only that possibility or retirement for the 39-year-old who just underwent the same complex German platelet procedure that Kobe Bryant did last season. Or talk of acquiring Rashard Lewis, whose only relevance the past few seasons has been his obscene salary, but might still be effective at knocking down an open three pointer. If you thought last year's Lakers were too old, you ain't seen nothing yet.
But regardless of what additional moves are or are not made, the beginning of the story has been irrevocably written. Fast forward a couple seasons, and Steve Nash will be 40, Kobe Bryant will be top 10 in minutes played in a career, and Pau Gasol will be a mid-30s big man who wasn't very athletic to begin with. There's no guarantee that the team's young center, whether it be Drew or Dwight, will still be around. The team will fade into nothingness, and the Lakers will move on to a different era, built around a different star than the one who has been at the center of their universe for the past 15 years. This part of the story was already guaranteed, was already occurring slowly before our very eyes. Now, the end of this era is sure to be brilliant, consuming itself in a fire we can only hope will be hot enough to burn everyone else as much as it will end up burning us. In many ways, it is the only fitting end to the Kobe Bryant era: An all-consuming flame that saves its brightest burning for a grand finale.
Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers have indeed gone supernova. And all it took was the addition of a Sun.