Adande: Steve Nash’s lost season

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Steve Nash has back and nerve problems that will sideline him for the 2014-15 season, and now Kobe Bryant‘s contract is no longer a leading candidate for What’s Wrong With The Lakers.

Bryant looks as if he can still drop 20 points a night this season. That might not be commensurate with the production expected from the highest salary in the league ($ 23.5 million), but the cost/stats ratio won’t be as bad as the steady stream of blank numbers that will accompany Nash’s $ 9.7 million. Nash will make more than Pau Gasol ($ 7 million), Shaun Livingston ($ 5 million) and Spencer Hawes ($ 5 million) and the same as Luol Deng, to name just a few free agents who moved this season. Any of them would have been more helpful than even the 2012-13 version of Nash.

So Nash’s salary looms as the bigger albatross, unless … the Lakers use his expiring contract as a trade chip. That could turn Nash’s contract from a detriment into a referendum on the mindset of the Lakers.

Teams only seek expiring contracts when they want to move long-term commitments that no longer appeal to them. For the Lakers to take two years or more of a contract back it would imply they were no longer committed to clearing as much cap space as possible in 2016. It might even mean they acknowledged they no longer view themselves as the top shoppers who can have their choice of free agents.

They could tolerate long-term contracts coming their way if draft picks came along with them to replenish their supply. Or perhaps they could nab a promising young player who’s still on his rookie scale contract. The question is whether they’d want to head in that rebuilding direction while Kobe is still under contract. It would seem out of character for this franchise, but it would make more sense than the treadmill than their current patched-together roster that’s neither dominant nor dismal, whose principle attribute is its financial flexibility after the season.

The Lakers are committed to only $ 36 million in 2015-16, and only $ 5.4 million the year after that. If they move Nash, it would signal a shift toward tangible assets rather than the promise of cap space. But if they value maximum financial freedom in 2016 over everything, it would be a tacit way of saying that maybe Kobe and his contract are impediments to the Lakers’ renovation project after all.

The Lakers’ position is that having Bryant in house helped them more than any player they had a realistic chance of signing. Neither LeBron James nor Carmelo Anthony was going to come to Los Angeles for an empty roster if the Lakers had cut Kobe loose. If nothing else, Kobe’s presence assures the Lakers will remain relevant in the NBA discussions, even if they’re not a part of the NBA playoffs. Honestly, the contract makes an increasing amount of sense the more you think about it.

Nash’s contract just grew more lamentable.

I don’t blame the Lakers for taking on Nash for $ 28 million over three years in 2012, just as I don’t blame them for taking the one-year risk on Dwight Howard. It seemed like a good idea at the time, right?

But history has no choice but to record it as a bad deal. For the money paid to Nash and the two first-round and two second-round draft picks sent to the Phoenix Suns in the 2012 trade to get him, the Lakers got Nash for 65 games – and he was limited in the vast majority of them by the nerve issues that developed from the leg injury he suffered in his first game wearing the purple Lakers road jersey.

The Nash deal goes in the same stack as the hiring of coaches Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni: The Bad Decision Pile.

The Lakers still have their lore. The league’s move to put little Larry O’Brien trophies on the jersey necks is a style touch that suits the Lakers particularly well, since there will be a “16X” to remind everyone how many championships they’ve won. What the Lakers don’t have is a run of recent good decisions made by the front office.

They’re in a slump. This puts even more pressure on rookie Julius Randle to develop into a better player than anyone selected after him in this year’s draft. Randle, the seventh pick, is the highest draft choice the Lakers have had at their disposal since they took James Worthy with the top overall selection in 1982.

If the Lakers are going to be The Lakers again, Randle needs to become an All-Star, the way Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel did in the 1990s. The lure of Los Angeles and the Laker lineage of centers wouldn’t have been enough to get Shaquille O’Neal to Los Angeles in 1996. He needed a playoff team if he was going to leave an Orlando Magic squad that had gone to the NBA Finals and Eastern Conference finals the previous two seasons.

Good moves can lead to other good moves. The Miami Heat‘s pick of Dwyane Wade in 2003 helped them get LeBron James in 2010. The Cleveland Cavaliers‘ abundance of lottery luck enabled them to get James back and add Kevin Love this summer.

The Lakers need to make a right move before they can make their next big move. Randle, who has looked both “lost” (Byron Scott’s term) and tantalizing in this preseason, is their best hope at the moment.

It won’t be Nash. In Phoenix he was a two-time Most Valuable Player who transformed the Suns into must-watch pyrotechnic basketball. In Los Angeles he’ll simply be another in a growing line of regrettable decisions.

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