By every quantifiable metric, from the stat sheet to the training room to the league standings, this was far and away the worst season in Steve Nash's Hall of Fame career.
He played in just 15 games during the regular season, 25 less than his previous career low...which took place during the strike-shortened 55-game 1999 season. His notoriously stratospheric shooting percentages plummeted to career lows across the board with the exception of his stroke from the free throw line. Offensively, his numbers cratered to near career-lows across the board, performing at a similar rate to his rookie season. Obviously all these numbers come with a huge caveat as they're all a part of a very small, sporadic sample size, but perhaps that's just the point.
Nash strung together consecutive games a scant few times during the season, including a five game stretch early in the year and a three-gamer in February. It was the most injured that he'd been in 17 years as a professional, with back, hip and hamstring problems stemming from a broken leg he suffered at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season. His absence was a primary culprit behind the Lakers' 27-55 record, as the team was without a capable lead ballhandler in a Mike D'Antoni system for large stretches. At times, it looked like a sad end to the career of one of the greatest point guards of all time. He was literally and figuratively a shell of himself, looking like a spry youngster trapped in the body of a 40 year-old man. With Nash on the books for roughly $10MM next season, there're serious questions as to whether or not he'll ever take the floor again.
But here's the dirty little secret: he can still go. And it might be the worst possible thing for the Lakers.
As hampered as Nash was last season, it seemed that in the limited time he spent on the court, he still looked halfway effective. For a guy as skilled as Nash, running at half-mast is better than most people's full throttle.
Most onlookers would point to his 19/4/5 performance in Philadelphia on his 40th birthday in February as a season highlight, but the truth is that Nash had a handful of games like that during the year. Against Washington in March, he registered 11 assists and 5 points in just 18 minutes of play. The next month against the Portland Trail Blazers, Nash notched his only double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 assists, looking stunningly spry after many thought he'd be done for the remainder of the year. In those games, there were glimpses of what Nash could be capable of if his body cooperated with him. We still saw his trademark stop and starts in the lane, all a prelude to that scoop shot that brought back nauseating memories of the eviscerations he provided the Lakers all those years in Phoenix. He'd needle passes through the lane towards a crashing Wesley Johnson, a sad vision of an alternate present where Nash would have made his team of journeymen into borderline All-Stars. Even if it only boiled down to a play or two for any of the 15 games he played, there was almost undoubtedly a moment in each of those contests where you thought "There you are Stevie."
As Nash has mentioned in his Finish Line documentary produced by Grantland, he has full confidence that he can still play at a high level. However, the big problem is that he can only do that once or twice a week rather than the three, four or five required for most NBA players. Even that statement from Nash is slightly misguided, as an appearance once or twice a week would have been nice compared to the paltry production we saw this past season. In that same documentary series, he pointed to the game in Philly as a reminder to him that he still can compete at the highest level if only he could get his body right. That one great vintage performance was fantastic at the time. Ultimately, however, it may only serve to hurt the Lakers.
Let's be clear: there's no longer a cap-related benefit to Steve Nash never playing another game. That time has passed, as Nash laced up his sneakers for the 10th game this past season, which controversially surpassed the threshold needed to secure a medical retirement (which, as I noted in his post a few months ago, wouldn't have been as easy as it seemed). As far as it stands right now, if he's not waived by the Lakers via the stretch provision (which would allow the team to cut Nash and spread his $10MM cap hit evenly over three seasons), Nash fully intends to try and play for the team next season.
However, the truth is that the former two-time MVP is fighting against a rising tide to get back on the court. Everything about his injury suggests to me that it's not necessarily something that can be corrected with rest or even surgery--"nerve root irritation" is a culmination of back pain he's played through for years and the broken leg he suffered over 18 months ago. While Nash will surely spend another three or four months of this offseason trying to find a solution for the pain, a solution that's eluded him for two seasons, I'm very skeptical that a such a solution is available.
But let's not be pessimistic for one or two seconds here. Let's say he can find a way to manage the pain and play 60 games next season. He'll still be 41 halfway through the year, making him twice as old as the team's forthcoming lottery pick. His already suspect defense will abate even further, a huge problem for a team whose ability to stop opposing teams was one of the worst in the league this past year.
What this is going to come down to is three factors, two more important than the last:
Can Nash stay healthy? This is a question that only he can answer. He'll undoubtedly continue to find a salve to this issue that's completely sullied his time as a Laker, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can answer the riddle. If he can't find a solution early on in the year and the same problems keep him to playing one of every five or six games, I have no doubt that Nash will just call it a career.
Will his value as a teammate and mentor outweigh his playing time blocking other developing players? Nash will always be able to provide intangibles as a leader of men in a clubhouse, That's not the issue. The real problem could potentially be if his presence blocks the new generation of Lakers from truly blossoming. As long as Nash is offsetting his lack of contributions on the court with how much he gives off of it, this won't be an issue. But it's hard to say right now with such limited knowledge of how healthy he'll be.
Will the front office waive him even before the season begins? I suspect that Nash will most likely be a Laker next year, if for no other reason than I believe that Kupchak and Buss value future cap space more than available space this year. If the Lakers have the wherewithal to draw a premium free agent, such as Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James or Chris Bosh, I have no doubt that the front office will waive Nash via the stretch provision to do so. However, with those goals being nothing more than a pipe dream at this point, I don't see him going anywhere.
Those little glimpses of Nash looking like the player of yore may well have not been worth the nostalgic warm feelings it produced. Not only did it prod him into continuing to play last season (thus eliminating any possibility of his cap figure being wiped off the Lakers' books), but it emboldened him to continue his career, which seems to be more likely to be burdensome than helpful. Scratching all the logical reasons why this would be bad for the Lakers, emotionally, it's been very painful to watch one of the all-time great competitors be reduced to a sympathetic figure.
The Steve Nash we saw last season was a sad sight, even in the games where he excelled. But it's even sadder to think that it may only get worse before the end.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino