Steve Nash and the Lakers: A match made in hoops heaven?
The strange pairing of Steve Nash and the Lakers after so many years as rivals could be a marriage of convenience.
If things work out, rings will be exchanged in June.
That would entail Nash getting his new teammates the ball where they want it and the Lakers delivering the NBA title Nash has long coveted, allowing everyone to be happy for eternity . . . or until Nash retires, whichever comes first.
As the honeymoon starts Sunday night in Fresno with an exhibition game against Golden State, there’s something old (Nash, 38), something new (Kobe Bryant as an ally), something borrowed (the Princeton offense) and something blue (Phoenix Suns fans).
Nash left the Suns feeling jilted after 10 seasons and two stints together that included a quick breakup and a heartfelt reconciliation. They never fulfilled their vow to deliver a championship, making it as far as the Western Conference finals.
Then, in early July, the Lakers caught Nash’s eye with a roster that included Bryant and Pau Gasol.
And that was before they added the league’s best center in Dwight Howard.
“I’ve been on some very good teams,” said Nash, who agreed to sign with the Lakers for three years and about $27 million, “but to have a front line like this and have Kobe Bryant on the roster as well is phenomenal. This is probably the best chance I’ve ever had” at a title.
No offense to Derek Fisher or Smush Parker, but Nash is undoubtedly the best point guard the Lakers have had since, oh, Magic Johnson during the Showtime era.
Trying to decide what’s most remarkable about the two-time most valuable player is like determining how to best defend his trademark pick and roll. Good luck.
There’s his unguardable dribble. There’s his ability to make deft passes in congested areas with either hand. There’s his incomparable shooting accuracy, which has allowed him to make at least 50% of his shots, 40% of his three-point attempts and 90% of his free throws in a season four times, while no other NBA player has done it more than twice.
The list goes on.
“He’s an incredible ballhandler, an incredible passer and by the way he’s probably the best shooter in NBA history and that’s not even the focal point of his game,” said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who was general manager of the Suns from 2007-10. “Statistically, it’s easy to make the argument that he’s the best shooter in the history of the league.”
You won’t get any argument from Bryant, who spoke up quickly when Lakers Coach Mike Brown asked his players whom they wanted to take a series of three free throws at the end of their first practice. Players would be forced to run if any of the shots missed.
“I said, ‘Nash, Nash, Nash,’” Bryant recalled. “I’ll take that 92% free-throw shooting any day.”
Nash is actually a 90.4% career shooter from the free throw-line, but Bryant made a good pick. Nash stepped to the line and, predictably, made all three shots.
He will take some pressure off Bryant once the season starts, serving as the dynamic facilitator that Bryant has long lacked by his side. Nash will initiate the Lakers’ offense, which is expected to be a blend of pick and rolls, backdoor cuts and more traditional plays.
“The beauty of this team is that we have a lot of guys that can make the defense pay if we play together and we space the floor and read and react,” Nash said.
Nash’s mastery of the pick and roll has cost opponents plenty. At its core, the play involves one of Nash’s teammates setting a screen and then quickly “rolling” toward the basket, allowing Nash several options that include passing to that teammate for an easy basket, pulling up for an open jumper or finding another teammate who has found a gap in the defense.
“His ability in the pick-and-roll game to shoot the three, make unorthodox finishes in the lane and pass with both hands and the ability to also keep his dribble alive and keep probing the defense until he finds an opening makes him unparalleled,” said Jeff Van Gundy, the former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets coach who is now an analyst for ABC and TNT.
Nash’s top pick-and-roll partners with the Lakers will probably be Howard, Gasol and Bryant.
Not that there aren’t some potential snags.
Kerr said having the 7-foot Gasol and the 6-11 Howard on the floor at the same time could create spacing issues for a point guard who is used to having his teammates mostly spread on the perimeter.
“I think you’ll see Steve become more of a spot-up shooter than we’ve seen in the past,” Kerr said. “They’re going to play some inside-out stuff where he’s spotting up, so that’s a big adjustment for him but one he’s obviously capable of making.”
Nash called having two big men “a luxury” that increases the team’s versatility.
“I’m going to stand my butt out there outside the three-point line and give them space to operate,” he said.
If Nash has even an average year by his standards — he’s tallied at least 717 assists in each of the last seven non-lockout-shortened seasons — he could ascend to No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time assists list around the All-Star break in February. He will open the season in fifth place with 9,916 assists, needing 225 to catch Johnson for fourth place and 418 to equal Mark Jackson for third place.
John Stockton’s NBA record of 15,806 assists is probably out of reach for Nash, who will be 41 by the end of his Lakers contract.
Nash’s advancing age was a talking point when General Manager Mitch Kupchak called him in July to discuss joining the Lakers. Kupchak asked Nash if he was going to make Kupchak look bad for giving the point guard a third year on his contract, prompting a spirited response in which Nash detailed his efforts to stay in shape.
“Halfway through, I had to say, ‘Steve, I’m kidding. You got the third year already,’” Kupchak recalled.
Nash will spend at least the first two seasons alongside Bryant, whose contract runs through the 2013-14 season. Even though Bryant and Nash engaged in several heated playoff battles, with Nash’s Suns twice eliminating Bryant’s Lakers in the first round, Bryant unequivocally signed off on his nemesis becoming a Laker.
“He made no qualms about the fact that he thought we’d be a great fit together and could really help each other,” Nash said.
Sounds like the start of a beautiful relationship.
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