As we discussed on the Silver Screen & Rollcast last week, the concern surrounding Steve Nash's health has gone through the roof. The former two-time MVP has looked like a shell of himself this season, which is no doubt a symptom of ongoing leg, hip and back problems stemming from a broken leg he suffered one year ago. At best, he's not active on defense, which has always been the case. But now, his lack of mobility has hindered his ability to operate an offense and his shot--once arguably the best in the league--looks like it's completely left him. Check out his stat line for the year:
6.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 4.8 apg, .261 FG%, .385 3P%, .917 FT%, 22.5 minutes in just 6 out of the Lakers 8 games
Right now the former two-time MVP is at best a league-average point guard who can't play back-to-backs, can't crack the 25-minute mark on the floor, can't play active defense and most surprisingly, can't even crack 30% on field goal attempts. It's jarring to see just how ineffective he's been on the floor this year. Worse yet, all of this information might be irrelevant: Nash left the Minnesota Timberwolves game last night after the second quarter with a back injury of unknown severity.
At age 39, there are real concerns that this could be the end of the road for Nash.
That all being said, what can the Lakers do with him? Trade him? Waive him? Bench him? Or is it too early to make any decision like that?
The Great Mambino
Let's get this out of the way: writing about this makes me sad and even sadder still when I realize none of it is at all exaggerated.
Right now, Steve Nash looks like the fourth or fifth guard on this Lakers team, which is saying a lot considering the luminaries I have ahead of him: Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and depending on the day (or quarter), Nick Young. Nash is a less mobile ball handler than Blake, a less consistent shooter than Meeks and Young and a less physically able slasher than Farmar. Even at nearly 40, I didn't expect to write any of that about Steve Nash this season.
This all being said, if he's able after this latest setback, the Lakers still need to play him simply because within this very clearly injured man is still a man with basketball skills that will withstand the ravages of age. His ever-reliable shot looks extremely compromised right now, no doubt a consequence of ongoing nerve problems in his leg, hip and back. His ability to get around the court is painful to watch, but if given the willing components, a Steve Nash at 75% can run the pick and roll better than 90% of the league--which is problematic, because he looks like he's only operating at 50% right now. The alternatives here aren't worse than how Nash is playing right now: Blake, Farmar, Meeks and Xavier Henry can certainly hold the fort until Kobe Bryant returns.
In my non-medical expertise, it looks like these are injuries that aren't going to be allayed with rest--after all, he had five months over an extended summer and looks perhaps even worse than he did in April. Nash needs to see if he can find a way to be effective even in a compromised state. If he continues to look as dilapidated (I feel just awful using that word) as he's been, then it's going to be time for the Lakers to sit him for an extended period of time.
From the looks of things it seems Steve Nash's body is doing all of the talking for us. The Lakers put a "plan" in action to rest him one game during back-to-backs, what, three games into the season? He has already missed two full games and one half game because of his health, and from the sound of things that isn't going to improve immediately, or maybe ever.
If Nash intends to continue his career -- if this latest nerve issue with his back is something salvageable -- then a role off the bench in limited minutes is best for him. Over the summer I could have imagined a scenario where the team wound up trading him to Toronto, or New York, or to any front office city can that could enjoy the "Token Nash trade" like Los Angeles did that fateful Fourth of July, but with his struggles on the court and continued injury issues, it seems unlikely another team will jump into that bed of lava.
Maybe the Lakers use the stretch provision on him this summer, allowing them to space out the salary hit from the final $9.7 million he's due for the 2014-2015 season. Maybe he files for voluntary retirement. Maybe medical experts conclude playing further is a medical risk and the nerve damage he's dealing with could be considered a career-ending injury. That's something Nash will have to decide for himself, and if it comes to that, we'll certainly delve into the details on how that affects the Lakers' salary structure going forward.
Either way, the situation is depressing. Nash came to the Lakers in spirit and name but never in body. Surely a frustrating situation for anyone who competes, and especially for someone who has excelled at the highest level. He isn't himself. He has become a shell of the shell of himself he was last season.
As depressing as it is to discuss, considering last night's revelation that Steve Nash missed the 2nd half due to back pain, and plans on seeing the same back specialist who assisted with Dwight Howard's recovery, it seems foolish to entertain any possibilities of Nash recovering enough to make an impact on the Lakers ever again. Nash's time in Los Angeles has been tragic, and the initial injury which led him down this disappointing path was flukish, but there can be no downplaying the situation: It's been a year since that initial injury, and Nash looks and moves worse than ever. He has complained of nerve damage that has not healed, and now he has back pain bad enough to miss time, and all this is happening despite his playing only 24 minutes a night AND skipping the second game in back-to-back situations. The Lakers have taken every precaution they could possibly take with Nash, and this is the very beginning of the long, grinding NBA season, all of which means Nash should be as healthy right now as he can possibly be, and yet here we are. The writing is on the wall, and all that is left is for Nash to read it, or for the Lakers to read it for him.
What can the Lakers do with him? A trade is impossible; no NBA team could possibly be foolish enough to take on Nash's salary without the Lakers having to give up something that isn't worth losing. And benching doesn't make sense. If the Lakers are to admit that Nash is so poor that he does not merit time on the court, then they need to go a step further and do whatever they have to in order to avoid having his salary cost them any additional money. While in no way intending to denigrate Mr. Nash, paying $10 million a year for his sadly lackluster services is bad enough; the additional money his salary will cost the team in luxury tax and the additional obstacle his 2014 salary represents towards having the cap space necessary to make a run at top tier free agents are both untenable. I'm no expert on the exact best way to go about things, but if Nash does not absolve the Lakers of responsibility through retirement, the team will need to consider all their options in removing Nash from the books. Whether that means waiving him or using the stretch provision on him or some other legal wizardry, I have no idea. All I know is that I will be shocked if Steve Nash is on the Lakers roster, or any other NBA roster, by the start of next season.
Given Nash's uncertain status after the Minnesota game, this question has become somewhat elementary: Nash is either going to retire or the Lakers are going to waive him in the offseason. There currently is nothing definite, but the impression one gets from the media reports on Nash's condition is that this is possibly something that is going to sideline him for quite a while. One doesn't consult a back specialist -- the same one that did Dwight Howard's back surgery, no less -- if something with serious consequences isn't on the table. And even if it's not necessarily something that requires surgery or sidelines Nash for a significant amount of time, it is clear at this juncture that Nash's body is severely compromised and simply won't allow him to perform at an adequate level on the court. He lacks the burst to get by defenders, even nominally slow-footed hedging bigs, and his once incredibly reliable jump shot appears to have finally deserted him. One can argue that he is the least effective of the three point guards on the roster and in light of the solid play of Jodie Meeks and potential of Xavier Henry, should be relegated to fifth guard duty.
As a result, his trade value, already incredibly limited because of the fact his contract goes into next season at nearly $10 million a year, is practically nonexistent at this point. Ideally, the Lakers would trade Nash in order to clear him off their cap for the summer, but that simply isn't going to happen right now. The team lacks any other attractive assets to add an incentive for teams to take him; remember they can't trade their first rounder this year because of the Stepien rule, not that they should ever trade it in the first place since it's partly the reason this season might end up meaning something. The remaining recourse available to the Lakers is the one most have been discussing ever since it became apparent that 2014 cap space was a paramount concern: the Lakers will waive Nash in the offseason and using the stretch provision, spread his cap hit equally through 2016. It's one the team would rather avoid because of the extended cap hit beyond 2015, but it is a necessary one to help out their free agent plans.
The other possibility, Nash retiring, is possible and very well could occur should Nash view continuing in the NBA in his current condition as simply an undesirable situation. This takes the impetus out of the Lakers' hands and should it be proved to the league that this is a career-ending condition, the Lakers can get Nash's salary off their cap. Taking into account his current condition and the unlikelihood that he'll ever contribute something positive for the Lakers on the court from this point forward, this is probably the best path forward for all the parties involved: Nash gets to leave on his own terms with dignity rather than slog through a lost season and the Lakers can eventually get some financial relief from what has proven to be an once highly regarded acquisition gone awry.