After getting taken out to pasture by a younger, hungrier OKC team, the aging Los Angeles Lakers appeared ready to go quietly into the night. Retired for good along with the 1987 Celtics, 1989 Lakers, 1991 Pistons, and many other former champions whose window had effectively closed.
This would have been the obvious takeaway…at least to anyone who has completely ignored recent Laker and NBA history.
Each of the Lakers’ last 3 dynasties in the past 30 years – from Magic/Kareem/Worthy to Shaq/Kobe to Kobe/Gasol has been marked by stunning Houdini-esque Laker front office maneuvers. How else to explain the acquisitions of Kareem, Worthy, Kobe, and Gasol for – wait for it – a collection of talent that includes: Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Myers, Junior Bridgeman, Don Ford, Chad Kinch, Vlade Divac, Marc Gasol, and Javaris Crittenton. For those keeping score at home: that’s 2 all-time greats, 1 other Hall of Famer, and a perennial All-star power forward for a group of misfits headlined by two lumbering Euro centers. In acquiring Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns, Mitch Kupchak and crew are attempting to repeat history once again.
A Big 4 delivered on the 4th of July. Kobe. Nash. Gasol. Bynum. So the question now is: can the Lakers win the title with Nash?
Let’s cut to the chase: the prevailing opinions tend to slice one of two ways:
(1) Yes! The Lakers got the point guard they finally needed. He will make Gasol and Bynum better and deliver in the clutch.
(2) This still doesn’t solve the Lakers’ primary issues. Kobe is aging. There are too few balls to go around (and this exacerbates the problem). Gasol and Bynum are soft and Mike Brown is not the right coach.
Every article you read over the next few days will essentially boil down to 1 of these 2 points of view. So what are we to really make of this trade?
1. Nash will make Bynum and Gasol better.
This is undeniable. As a point guard that Kobe actually respects, Nash will be able to better control game flow and ensure that Bynum and Gasol get touches at areas of the court where they can be effective. Whether or not you believe he is the greatest offensive player ever, Nash’s ability to break down defenses should also increase the number of easy buckets each big man gets. Lastly, Nash’s career has been dotted with his ability to make the big men around him look much better than advertised: from Boris Diaw to Amare Stoudemire. There is no doubt he will be able to do the same in LA.
2. This in no way solves the Lakers’ athleticism problem.
To anyone who watched the Lakers/OKC series during this past year’s playoffs, it was immensely clear that the only way the Lakers could hang around was by neutralizing the Thunder’s immense edge in athleticism. Will Nash allow the Lakers to play faster at times? Sure. Will he make them more efficient on offense? Probably. But still fundamentally, the Lakers will look like old men against the Heat and Thunder. If fact, this trade just makes them slightly older. While a well-coached Laker team may be able to hold off the physical freaks that represent Lebron, Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka for finite periods, as Charles Barkley likes to say, “No one beats Father Time”.
3. Kobe and Nash will get along.
Anyone who uses the line that Kobe can’t play alongside Nash because he needs the ball, doesn’t really understand Kobe. From 2000-02, Kobe played alongside Shaq extremely effectively, putting up big numbers while allowing Shaq to get his own. Things turned sideways only when Kobe really lost respect for Shaq, amidst his conditioning issues and contractual demands. On the other hand, Kobe respects Nash immensely and will be happy to co-exist in an environment where Nash is the primary ball handler while on the floor. Expect a similar relationship to the early Kobe-Shaq days, where Kobe consistently deferred to Shaq for the first 3 quarters, while demanding the ball in the 4th.
4. Contrary to popular belief, Dwight Howard is not the final piece.
As a Laker fan, I don’t believe the line of reasoning that this trade is only effective if the Lakers subsequently acquire Dwight Howard. I just didn’t see Bynum as the problem in last year’s playoffs. Was he as consistent as you would like him to be? Surely not. But his averages of 17/11 with 3 blocks per game don’t suggest someone that drastically underperformed either. The Lakers’ loss was due to several factors plain and simple, none of which had anything to do with Bynum or Howard: (1) Kobe not playing well in two 4th quarters that would have had the Lakers up 3-1, (2) Gasol shrinking once again when needed most, (3) OKC’s athleticism, and (4) the Lakers’ inability to get anything out of Sessions or their bench (especially from the outside). Trading for Nash will alleviate some of the pressure for Kobe to deliver in the 4th quarter, and it seemed as though the Lakers were able to effectively neutralize OKC’s athleticism for large chunks of their playoff series. Gasol and the bench however are two persistent and serious problems – neither of which gets solved by acquiring Nash or trading for Dwight.
5. All this being said, the pressure is now truly on Kobe.
With a top 10 all-time point guard, one of the game’s best power forwards, and a top 3 center – Kobe’s legacy will be under greater scrutiny than ever. Even if these pieces are each individually imperfect (Nash is too old, Gasol is too soft, Bynum is too immature, etc.), another early playoff exit with this roster would inflict great damage on our impression of the latter stages of Bryant’s career.
This is a tough one to draw a conclusion on – at face value: it still seems like there may not be enough here to put the Lakers over the top. Adding Grant Hill, and upgrading the bench would go a long way however and the jury is still out on Mike Brown.
A Nash Equilibrium is a game theory concept conceived by mathematician John Nash, loosely meaning “a set of strategic choices between two parties in which neither party has anything to gain by changing their strategy alone” (thank you, 3rd year college Econ class). However you may criticize the state of the Lakers’ post-Nash acquisition, it truly seems as if acquiring him (despite arguments against his age, need to handle the ball, lack of defense, etc.) was something they couldn’t pass up. Conversely for the Suns, another year with Nash wouldn’t have made sense for a team being rebuilt – and the Laker outcome was certainly better than an alternative with Toronto where no compensation was received at all.
In the end, it may turn out that this equilibrium with Nash was exactly that. The best choice out of a limited set. One that may provide just a brief flicker of life for the Lakers’ Kobe era over the next couple of years, but not much more than that.