We saw the Lakers up close in May. Western Conference semifinals, after the Lakers survived Denver in seven first-round games. The Thunder dispatched LA in five games; two blowout OKC victories, in Game 1 and Game 5, and three competitive games that went down to the final minute, with the Lakers winning Game 3 and the Thunder winning Games 2 and 4.
The Lakers looked tired. You still could see the flashes of greatness. The magnificence of Kobe Bryant, albeit in less bulk than the old days. The power of Andrew Bynum, albeit partly neutralized by Kendrick Perkins. The incredible skill of Pau Gasol, albeit marred by the frustration of diminished chemistry.
Watching the Lakers was like watching a stately home slip slowly into disrepair. Or the vibrant look of a classic car slowly pale as weather takes its toll.
The Lakers were in need of a major overhaul. Deals galore were suggested. Bynum traded for Dwight Howard. Gasol traded for Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola. Nobody knew what needed to be done, but everybody knew that something needed to be done.
Then on Independence Day, the Lakers did a most remarkable thing. An old team got even older. The Lakers looked Father Time in the face and raised him. The Lakers traded four draft picks for Steve Nash.
The Lakers found a point guard older than even Derek Fisher, the 37-year-old they cut loose in February. You know, back when the Lakers thought fresh legs was important. Nash is 38 and will turn 39 in February. Which means the Lakers come playoff time in 2013 will trot out Nash, 39; Kobe, 34; Gasol, 32; Bynum, 25 going on 16; and whoever fills the wing position. Grant Hill (40 in October), Metta World Chaos (33 in November), James Worthy, the ghost of Elgin Baylor. Too early to tell. Trade Bynum for Tim Duncan and sign Hill, and the Laker starting five will be older than the Rolling Stones.
So what to make of the new-look Lakers? Well, absolutely the Lakers will be fun. They’ll rank with the Heat and the Thunder as can’t-miss TV. A Laker-Sacramento game on a Tuesday night in January? You’ll have to stop and watch.
And no doubt the Lakers will be better with Nash, for the simple reason he makes any team better. The 2012 Suns were a far cry from Mike D’Antoni’s turbo teams in the mid-’00s. Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, Joe Johnson, Jim Jackson, Quentin Richardson, all gone. Yet Nash remained, and so did the Suns’ competitiveness. Phoenix was a playoff contender until the final week of this past season, with its second- and fourth-leading scorers Jared Dudley and Shannon Brown.
That was thanks to Nash and his remarkable quarterbacking. The most unique player in the NBA. A point guard whose court vision and passing skills are unique in basketball history.
Of course, Nash’s arrival in LaLa Land raises a couple of questions. How will Kobe respond to such a point guard. He’s never played with a point guard like Nash, though to be fair there is no point guard like Nash. But Kobe’s never played with a point guard period.
Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense doesn’t really use a point guard. We saw Fisher, who spent three months with the Thunder, for what he is; a shooting guard. In the couple of years Fisher left the Lakers in the mid-’00s, Smush Parker filled the role of point guard. In the late ’90s, Nick Van Exel was the Laker point, and Van Exel is a shoot-first point guard. Kobe never has played with a point guard of Nash’s mentality. No reason why it couldn’t work, it’s just never been tried by the Lakers in the Kobe era.
And my goodness, how are the Lakers going to stop anybody. For all the delightfulness of Nash, he can’t guard at all. When the Thunder plays the Lakers, Nash will start out at on Thabo Sefolosha, I assume, so Kobe can track Russell Westbrook. But James Harden will play 30something minutes. When the Thunder has Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Harden on the court, who’s Nash going to guard? Perkins?
You know how the Thunder is specifically designed to beat the Lakers? A dogged defender (Thabo) for Kobe, a girthy big man (Perk) to lean on Bynum, the athletic Serge Ibaka to counter Gasol? And how the Heat is uniquely built to counter the Thunder, with all those perimeter defensive dynamos (LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers) to throw at the Thunder young guns?
The opposite is true for the Lakers. They are not well-built to beat the Thunder. LA will give problems to all kinds of teams in the league, and the trade for Nash most assuredly solidifies the Lakers in the top three of the Western Conference. But signing Nash really doesn’t get the Lakers any closer to beating the Thunder.
The Lakers suspended their rebuilding mode, and as the Celtics and Spurs keep teaching us, that’s probably not a bad way to go. The Celtics and Spurs, written off as too old, both made the conference finals in 2012 and with a difference bounce here or there, it was possible to picture them squaring off for the NBA title. It’s not crazy to see the same thing for the Nash Lakers. I just think someone else would have to take out the Thunder.