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Even before the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers turned into one of the most disappointing teams in the modern history of the NBA, there were questions about just how quickly they'd be able to coalesce into a coherent unit (which, you know, hasn't happened yet). While the biggest issue in Lakers Nation has become the degree to which Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol can coexist, the earliest questions concerned how Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash would play together. Both players were used to handing the ball for long periods of time, and if they were going to be a success then one (or both) would need to change his style of play.
Through 46 games, it seems abundantly clear that Nash has had to change far more than Bryant. Aside from a recent stretch in which he's been a stellar facilitator, Kobe has been the ball-dominating scorer he's always been. Nash, on the other hand, has rarely monopolized possessions as he did with the Suns, probing defenses with the dribble and creating passing lanes where none existed. Instead, he's been a secondary part of the offense.
We've had time to get used to this structure. Still, the degree to which Nash has been marginalized can be startling. At ESPN.com, Tom Haberstroh broke down the numbers to explain Nash's minimized role (Insider access required):
We all knew Nash would have to learn to share the steering wheel with the ball-dominant Bryant, but how much has he sacrificed outside of the points and assists columns? To shed light on the issue, we've solicited the help of SportVU, a company that tracks the on-court movement of every player and every bounce of the ball with 3-D cameras installed in 15 NBA arenas this season. Phoenix is one of them. [...]
SportVU tells us that Nash and Bryant shared almost equal possession of the ball Wednesday (Bryant held it for nine more seconds). But as the primary guy bringing up the ball, Nash used considerably more dribbles than Bryant. But the key is that only a few of those dribbles came on drives.
Nash, one of the greatest pick-and-roll players the game has ever seen, recorded just four drives during the entire game (drives are defined by SportVU as touches that start at least 20 feet away from the basket and end within 10 feet, fast breaks excluded). And he scored an efficient eight points on those drives, compared to Bryant's mere six on eight tries.
It's just one game, but it's no secret why Nash said the Lakers needed to "work out" some kinks in the offense. With the game on the line, Nash barely made an imprint on the outcome. And much of that was due to Bryant trying to win it all by himself; he took seven field goal attempts in that final period, and Nash took one.
This is a small sample size, but it falls in line with our impressions of how Nash has played this season. On top of that, Haberstroh looked at five games worth of SportVU data (also a small sample size) and found that Nash is handling the ball for 3.8 seconds per touch, down from his 5.0 second mark of last season and even less than the marks of 2012 Lakers point guards Steve Blake (5.2) and Derek Fisher (4.5). The takeaway is pretty simple: Nash isn't assisting or shooting as much because he doesn't have the ball in his hands.
That's not to say that he's been bad, or that the Lakers offense is a disaster. In fact, Nash is one of two players currently shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep, and 90 percent from the free-throw line (Kevin Durant is the other). As former Suns scout Amin Elhassan explains in another ESPN Insider piece, Nash plays an important role in the Lakers offense:
The scouting report on defending Nash has been to be extremely physical with him out on the perimeter and hope to wear him down as the game drags into the fourth quarter (think of Bruce Bowen's array of karate-chop hacks and handchecks from playoff battles past). By moving Nash off the ball, the Lakers are sparing him from the constant physical abuse and keeping him fresher down the stretch. [...]
It's easy to assume that Nash sits on the weakside perimeter in a Steve Novak-esque fashion and is limited to either keeping a defender on him or knocking down shots, but the reality is Nash has been able to create numerous threats with his activity off the ball. On sets where he hits Bryant on the wing, he'll make a live cut from strong side to weak side, creating a vacuum behind him as the weakside defense reacts and allowing Bryant to attack the momentary one-on-one defense he now faces.
In truth, the observations expressed by Haberstroh and Elhassan are not contradictory. Nash can be less a part of the offense than he was in Phoenix and be effective in that role. After all, he's not just a dribbler and passer — he's a great shooter, a player who understands space, and generally an offensive savant. He's obviously capable of doing many things at the offensive end.
Yet the pressing question for the Lakers right now isn't if their players can be good in different roles — it's if they're allowing each star's strengths to compound the strengths of everyone else. In that sense, it's possible that Nash being put in a limited role is a problematic decision. He can do so much more to help an offense. No one would hire Michelangelo to paint a house because of what he did with the Sistine Chapel.
The question of Nash's role on the Lakers has never been about talent — it's about the extent to which everyone can put aside egos, adjust to new teammates, and form a system that plays to everyone's strengths. The Lakers have been a quality offensive team, but this lineup never expected to be merely good. They held promise well beyond that. If there are still complaints about the offense even as the defense looks like a much greater problem, it's because we still believe there's the possibility of something historically great within the team-up of Nash with the rest of the Lakers' stars. The more he's marginalized, the more it all seems like a wasted opportunity.