Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Los Angeles Lakers: The NBA's Great Gatsby

         It was brought to my attention recently that one of the greatest point guards ever to play the game had no nick name. His name is Steve Nash. Who better to dub him than one of the greatest shooting guards of all time, Kobe Bryant? He recently spoke to the Los Angeles Times about his time with Nash.

        "I'm not working too hard, to be honest with you. The shots that I made were all jumpers. It doesn't take much energy to knock those jumpers down," he said. "Bringing the ball up and having me kind of initiate the offense and score and stuff like that, it's making me work a little more than I will when Gatsby gets back. When Gatsby gets back, I don't have to do that. The game's going to become even more easy for me."

        Nash is a two time NBA MVP, winning them back to back in 2005 and 2006. He led a resurgence for the Phoenix Suns, putting them on the map after years of futility. He was the conductor of the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense designed by the coach he was recently reunited with, Mike D'Antoni. In the two seasons he won the MVP award, Nash averaged 10.5 assists per game. The team averaged a record of 59.5 wins and 24.5 losses, while also averaging 109.3 points and 26.2 assists per game. Both ranked first in the league. They eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs in both years.

        The franchise had not been relevant since the the days of Charles Barkley. But Barkley did one thing that Nash could not which was get the Suns out of the Western Conference Finals and to the big stage in June: the NBA Finals. They gave the Bulls all they could handle in six games of the 1992-1993 NBA Finals, but alas it was not to be with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in their own primes. It was interesting to note only once during the series did a home team win, when in Game 4 the Bulls won 111-105.

      Eventually though "The Hip Check Heard Around the World and Felt by Steve Nash" seemed to doom that era of Phoenix basketball. It occurred in Game 4 when Nash brought the ball up and former Spur Robert Horry stepped into his path in a semi-aggressive fashion, causing Nash to fly out of bounds. How much of it was due to Nash's leaping ability will never truly be known. The Phoenix bench was in an uproar as Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw stood to observe, breaking an NBA rule of leaving the bench. Even though they had not been involved in the skirmish, the two players were suspended amidst plenty of controversy. They eventually returned after a one game suspension, but all momentum was lost and the Spurs defeated them four games to two.

      Nash went on to play six more seasons with the Suns making the playoffs only twice, one of which was a 2010 appearance in the Western conference Finals when they lost to the Lakers. That season also marked the last time they finished a season above the .500 mark.

      Stoudemire suffered through multiple injuries and eventually signed as a free agent with the New York Knicks in 2010. Fans, pundits and writers all cried for Nash to get traded, as the Suns organization seemed to be content in wasting a once in a lifetime talent. Ever the company man, Nash never disparaged the franchise. He showed up everyday to play even while the Shaquille O'Neal tour bus came through town. Shaq came, he saw, and he sat. He was rarely healthy and when he was productive it was shocking. He suffered through cameos by Vince Carter and Jason Richardson. They were guys who put up stats and made a fan's eyebrow raise as they saw the acquisition along the bottom line of ESPN, then quickly remembered their best days of dunking and scoring were behind them.

        “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”  - The Great Gatsby

      Fast forward to the summer of 2012 which will forever be remembered as  the "Summer of the Dwightmare." Nash made the first splash when he was part of a sign and trade to the Lakers on July 7th. This was his invite to the lavish Gatsby-like party that is Los Angeles Lakers Basketball. Playing for the Mavericks and Suns for sixteen years, he looked over the fence like Nick Carraway while the Lakers moved and shook their way to multiple titles in that span.

      The party only got bigger as Dwight Howard gets traded to the Lakers on August 10th. People cried foul that somehow the Lakers did it again, scoring another all star like they did in 2008 with Pau Gasol. The early edge on the Western Conference representative in the Finals goes to the Lakers, as the Thunder traded away third wheel James Harden who is flourishing in Houston.By adding Nash and Howard, the Laker's life as perennial playoff contenders seemed to start again. It opened a new window for a franchise that resents stagnancy and regression as well as anything close to the dreaded term "rebuilding".

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

       The season began and Nash was hurt in his third game, fracturing a small bone in his left leg. Building team chemistry is tough enough. Players not being able to play and gel with their new team makes it even harder. The Lakers struggled and former coach Mike Brown was fired after a 1-4 start. Bernie Bickerstaff held down the fort until D'Antoni arrived, hobbled knee and all. Kobe has played like he always does, to the tune of averaging 27 points. While on the bench, Nash dressed in a dapper manner,  sporting a vest and sports jacket. His 200 dollar haircut with a part to the side was reminiscent of Jay Gatsby and  caused Bryant to dub him simply "Gatsby".

         Maybe it's because we all know the talent of Steve Nash  and it is assumed he is still great. No need for Kobe to add the adjective. Less is more. Yet at the moment we have only seen a small sample during his three games with the Lakers. We have no idea how great Nash still is, and how greatly he can improve. All that is certain is that with Nash at the helm, the Lakers are bound to improve, barring any other major injury of course.

         What the Lakers lack is consistency and stability and that's what  a healthy Nash can provide. His return would signal a new phase for the Lakers, even in such  an early part of an 82 game season. He can direct an offense like the back of his hand, finding the open man at any given time. He knows when to take his man off the dribble and drive to the basket, beating him by one step using his quick finger roll to slip pass the outstretched hand of the defender. His other trademark includes circling the basket and bringing it inside, sensing trouble and resetting until he finds a shot he wants to take or a pass he wants to make. This creates openings for Kobe and frees up Dwight, not to mention Gasol on the elbow.

         The timetable for his return is not definite, as he is ruled out for tomorrow's game versus the Pacers. He is improving, performing agility drills and jogging and progressing in the right direction. The Lakers can only hope it is sooner than later. Nash wants back in to the party, and if he can get close to one hundred percent, he'll be the life of it.

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