This is part of SB Nation NBA's regular occurring theme sereis, where the entire SBN NBA network gets together to discuss a single topic. Today's discussion: "What if ...?"
The line between glory and disaster is often a thin one. In no sport is this concept more perfectly encapsulated than it is in basketball. When that orange leather sphere goes through that red brick hoop, you don't really think about how little margin of error there is, geometrically speaking. Basketball really, truly, and in no way metaphorically, is a game of inches. Inches decide whether every shot goes in or whether it doesn't. Inches can decide a game, which can decide a series, which can decide an entire season.
But inches can decide more than just a shot. Inches can decide whether or not two people running down court in roughly the same direction collide. Inches can decide where one man's knee hits another man's leg, and whether the force exerted by this action can do significant damage. That, too, can decide a season. Or at least, it can define one.
There is no other term for the Los Angeles Lakers' 2012-2013 season besides disaster. They started out the season as one of the favorites to contend for the title, and by the season's midway point, it looked nearly impossible for them even to make the playoffs. They did make the playoffs, but any small amount of merit that achievement might have had was lost because of what making the playoffs cost them, and by how they ultimately bowed out without leaving so much as a scratch on their playoff opponent. Now, Dwight Howard has left, Kobe Bryant is recovering from one of the most serious injuries an athlete can suffer, and the Los Angeles Lakers will once again be in a position where they will have to fight and scrap just to make the playoffs (though at least this time, it will not be unexpected). But was the line between glory and disaster thin for last year's Lakers team? Could the season have turned out very differently if not for a single random event?
What if Steve Nash never broke his leg?
Nash suffered the injury after a seemingly innocuous collision with Damian Lillard in the season's second game. Running back on defense and attempting to be a nuisance, Nash half-placed his body in the way as Lillard ran down court, and Lillard's knee hit Nash square in the side of the leg just below the knee, and somehow, despite all the skin and muscle and cartilage and veins that might have absorbed the contact, somehow the force of the collision managed to break Steve's leg without even moving it. A non-displaced fracture, an injury I had never heard of in a long career of watching sports.
Though we knew his Nash's injury was a blow, we had no idea just how much it would hurt. In a season in which everything went wrong, Nash's injury was the first, and the snowball effect was quick and all-consuming. The initial report said Nash might miss as little as 1-2 weeks. He ended up missing 2 months. In that time, Mike Brown was fired, Steve Blake also missed significant time (leading to the Lakers playing a large chunk of games with Darius Morris and Chris Duhon tag-teaming the point), Mike D'Antoni was hired after Phil Jackson was flirted with, Pau Gasol also went down, the beginning rumblings of "trouble in the locker room" were heard, and perhaps most importantly, the Lakers lost a lot of games.
By the time Nash came back, the team was already locked into a death spiral from which they could not truly recover. They might have won more games at the end of the season, but even that achievement was due to the insane will of Kobe Bryant, a will which saw Kobe take on too much prior to suffering the devastating injury that may linger with us for far longer than the failed abomination that was last year's grand experiment. Nash never looked himself, the team never grew comfortable letting him run the offense, and there wasn't time to allow Nash to incorporate his game to the team's because every game was just too damned important as the Lakers tried to scrape into the bottom half of the playoff bracket.
So what if it never happened? What if Nash made it through last season without serious injury? The Lakers' disaster of a season was the ultimate domino effect in which one thing led to another which led to another, so what would the season have been like if the first domino had never fallen? Would the Lakers still have gotten off to such an awful start that Mike Brown was fired after just five games? How much would the team have fared better if they had Nash while Steve Blake was out with an abdominal injury? Would Mike D'Antoni (if indeed he would even have been hired) have been able to incorporate his offensive philosophies easier with the star, ready and in good health, who made those philosophies famous in the first place? Would the Lakers, not already well behind the eight ball and desperate to scrap together some wins, have spent the time necessary to learn how to run the offense through a Nash/Howard pick and roll?
What effect does a healthy and influential Steve Nash have on the team's culture? Nash is known to be a great teammate, one of the most fun guys to play with in the league, but last year's team never looked like they ever had any fun. If Nash is on the court from the start, does he have a chance to infect the rest of the team with his selflessness. Do the issues between Dwight and Kobe still go on? Would that locker room rift have been dampened, or even extinguished altogether, if there were a few more additions to the win column and a more equitable spread of the offense as orchestrated by Nash?
Maybe the Lakers perform closer to expectations without having to rely on a D-leaguer and the league's worst veteran at the point guard. Maybe they don't have to fight quite so hard in the latter half of the season just to make the playoffs. Maybe Kobe doesn't have to play 48 minutes a night for two straight weeks, and maybe he doesn't rupture his Achilles tendon, and maybe the Lakers go into the post season with a high enough seed so as to avoid San Antonio and OKC, with their star power intact and properly integrated. Maybe they win a playoff series or two, hell, maybe they win them all (it probably wasn't likely, but lots of folks thought they had the talent). Maybe the prospect of playing with the same cast of characters seems promising to Dwight Howard instead of terrifying. Maybe, as part of a winning culture, Dwight listens to the lessons Kobe's tries to teach him instead of tuning him out and mocking him behind his back. Maybe he signs a new contract with the Lakers in July, instead of skipping town on the first flight out.
The Los Angeles Lakers had a lot of problems last season, and Steve Nash's injuries and poor form after returning from those injuries (keyword: return from ... not recover from) were hardly the only issue. Heck, Nash's failure to live up to his All-Star name probably wasn't even the most important issue affecting the team. But it was the first issue, and its hard to look back at the season and not pin point that moment as the start of all the problems. Nash's injury was the pin being pulled out of the grenade. If that pin had never been pulled, would the grenade still have blown up?
What if ...