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Friday, July 6, 2012

Steve Nash Unbelievably Traded to the Los Angeles Lakers (7.6.12)

I waited an extra day to write this, you know, just in case David Stern decided to use his supposed prerogative to rip away another star player from the "evil big market Los Angeles Lakers." Nothing will be official until July 11, 2012, the date when free agents can officially sign the dotted lines on binding contracts. However, unless something crazy happens, Steve Nash is a Los Angeles Laker.

Soak it in. 

Let it permeate. 

Lakers fans, let it reach deep within your fiber, and when the time comes, rejoice. Such an unexpected signing takes a while to fully absorb and comprehend.

This move came out of nowhere.

Who, other than Mitch Kupchak, imagined Steve Nash donning purple and gold? I certainly didn't. While hanging out with family and friends on the Fourth of July, I received a call from my friend, and fellow Lakers fan, Tom. Here's how that transaction went down:

"Hey, did you hear?"

"Hear what?"

"Nash signed with the Lakers."

"What, no way! Are you messing with me? For real, are you messing with me?"

"No, seriously dude, Nash just signed with the Lakers!"

"Wow, I can't believe it!"

"I know man, he agreed to a sign and trade for three years around 25 million."

The conversation eventually wrapped up, but my initial response of shock lasted much longer. Like many, the Nash deal caught me off guard. At first, I thought Tom was messing with me just for kicks, but his rebuttal to my question was full of excitement and giddiness. Clearly, Tom was not messing with me; in actuality, he was excited to spread the news. 

I felt that same excitement as I spread the news to my friends at another gathering later that night. Responses ranged from excitement, disbelief, shock, and jealousy. Simply put, who could have envisioned Nash as a Laker?

Nash has long been an adversary to the Lakers in the post-Shaq era. After Kobe Bryant dropped 48 points on the Suns in the second week of the '12 season, Bryant stated, "I don't like them. They used to whup us pretty good and let us know about it. I won't forget that." With Nash as the only holdover from those mid-2000 Suns' teams, Bryant let his distaste be known. Bryant certainly enjoyed dismantling the Suns as a whole that night, but he also appreciated handing Nash his own whupping. 

Bryant's strong words hold some credence. In the post-Shaq, pre-Gasol era, Bryant was a one man wrecking ball. After missing the playoffs in the first year post-Shaq, Bryant turned in a remarkable season by averaging a career high 35.4 points along with a solid 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in '05-06. Bryant dragged along Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Devean George, Luke Walton, Brian Cook, and Sasha Vujacic to a respectable 45 wins and the seventh seed in the West. Despite averaging the highest points per game total since Michael Jordan's 37.1 in '86-87, Bryant was unable to overcome Nash and his 18.8 points and 10.5 assists per game in the MVP voting that season. Nash won his second straight MVP as he led the Suns to the second seed in the West. Nash thrived in the "Seven Seconds or Less" system, and his brand of basketball brought excitement around the league.

With the MVP outcome pretty much known amongst sport writers, but still up for debate in the public eye, Bryant sought retribution in the first round of the playoffs against Nash and the Suns. After losing the first game of the series, Bryant changed the tone of the series by throwing down a signature dunk, with emphasis, all over Nash in Game 2. Bryant soared over Nash and hung on the rim for good measure during a key play in the fourth quarter. The Lakers won three straight games to take a 3-1 series lead, but Nash had the last laugh. Nash withstood a 50 point outburst from Bryant in Game 6 by delivering 32 points and 13 assists to lead the Suns to a thrilling overtime victory. In Game 7, the Suns destroyed the Lakers and handed them a 31 point defeat. The Suns became just the seventh team in NBA history to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit. After riding the high of a potential upset, Los Angeles was promptly stabbed in the heart by Nash and the Suns. Four days later, Nash was officially awarded the NBA MVP award, thus providing a "kick me when I'm down" moment to Bryant and the Lakers.

The following season, the Lakers and Suns once again matched up in the first round as a seven seed versus a two seed. However, the series was much less competitive. The Suns easily defeated the Lakers in five games. Following the series loss, Bryant commented upon trade rumors regarding the young, and ineffective, Andrew Bynum. Bryant was captured on a camera phone in a shopping center parking lot calling for the organization to ship out Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd in hopes of returning the Lakers to a championship level. Following that controversy, and awkwardness, Bryant continued to brood about his chase for more championships by flip flopping on whether or not he wanted to be traded or remain a Laker for life. With consecutive first round exits, Bryant truly questioned the future prosperity of the Lakers.

Looking back, in a broad sense, Nash nearly dismantled the Lakers. Despite playing phenomenal basketball, and hoping to prove all of his detractors wrong following the departure of O'Neal, Bryant could not carry the Lakers to championships as a solo act. Bryant gave his all as he reached Jordanesque levels of play, but he knew it still wasn't good enough. You can imagine the disdain Bryant has probably carried for Nash and the Suns since the mid-2000's. Don't forget about Nash's good pal, Raja Bell, who delivered a dirty clothesline that prompted Bryant to challenge him to stepping into the "octagon," a UFC reference. Even after obtaining Pau Gasol, winning consecutive championships, and providing quite possibly his greatest playoff series performance ever against the Suns in the Western Conference Finals on the way to the '10 championship, Bryant still felt the need to provide that quote early in the '12 season. Obviously, Bryant never let go of those feelings of disappointment, anger, bitterness, and heartbreak.

With the Raptors and Knicks pining for Nash's services, I didn't even think Los Angeles was on Nash's radar. The Knicks seemed like a reasonable option. Nash would have been a great offensive director for Carmello Anthony, J.R. Smith, and his old running mate, Amare Stoudemire. However, I truly thought the Raptors had Nash on lock. I figured Nash was going to accept his role as an ambassador of basketball in his native country, Canada, while making a boatload of cash. However, it seems that Nash truly valued the opportunity to win over everything else. Just over a week ago, Nash stated, "For me, it would be hard to put on a Lakers jersey. That's just the way it is. You play against them so many times in the playoffs, and I just use them as an example." The quote implies that Nash would prefer to lead his own team against elite competition rather than join alliances with past enemies. In fact, Nash has stated in the past that he would be fine retiring without a championship. For these reasons, I never believed Nash would be open to latching on to a championship contender, especially a vaunted rival.

Even more surprising than Nash's willingness to join the Lakers was the fact that the Suns agreed to trade him to the Lakers. Rarely do you see an elite player traded within the same conference, let alone the same division. You have to give Suns owner, Robert Sarver, a round of applause. Sarver treated Nash with the upmost respect and accommodation, kind of like a bizarro Dan Gilbert. After initial hesitation, Sarver reconsidered the possibilities of a sign and trade with Los Angeles, and he agreed to help out a team that poses a direct threat to the Suns. Such an action cannot be overlooked. Sarver knew that Nash deserved such treatment, and he decided to help Nash stay relatively near his family in Phoenix while giving him an opportunity to win an elusive championship. Nash gave the Suns eight seasons of stellar play, and Sarver decided to reward him for all that he had done.

I have a feeling that Arizona is not too happy with Sarver, but Suns' fans need to realize that Nash wasn't going to lead the Suns to a championship at this stage of his career. Arizona should applaud Sarver for actually obtaining some pieces for Nash. 2012 marked the final year that teams could engage in sign and trade deals under the old collective bargaining agreement, and the Suns capitalized on the situation. Understanding that Nash was going to leave in free agency, the Suns pulled off a sign and trade with the Lakers and obtained four future draft picks. With draft picks, and salary cap space, the Suns can look to rebuild rather quickly.

Overall, the Nash acquisition has been full of improbabilities — Nash teaming up with long time rival Kobe Bryant, Nash joining the Lakers, Nash shirking Canada and 36 million dollars, the Suns trading Nash within the Pacific Division, and the Lakers actually acquiring a top level talent.

Let's cover that last improbability. It seems like it has been in vogue to shun the Lakers during free agency. Dwight Howard has repeatedly stated his unwillingness to come to Los Angeles. Chris Paul was turned away due to the commissioner's veto. Midlevel players have avoided the Lakers. Even worse, the younger brother Clippers have succeeded in bringing in outside talent — Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin, and Nick Young in 2012, and now Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford in this offseason. Finally, a player of value has decided to join the Lakers for less money. Look at what the Heat pulled off with Shane Battier and Mike Miller. Those guys signed for far less than what they were worth, and they both delivered remarkable performances in the NBA Finals. Guys like Battier and Miller are instrumental in championship chases, and the Lakers have failed to acquire those types of glue guys. You would think that free agents would clamor to play for the Lakers in hopes of winning a championship, but that just hasn't been the case. The last player of value to join the Lakers in free agency was Ron Artest in 2009, and before him you would have to go back to 2003 when Gary Payton and Karl Malone decided to come to Los Angeles. Maybe Nash's improbable decision will mark a change in the willingness of free agents to come to the Lakers.

After stalling out in the second round of the playoffs for the past two seasons, the Lakers should once again stand face to face with the elite teams of the NBA. As 1996 NBA Draft alumni, Bryant effectively sold Nash on the possibility of teaming up and knocking off the younger trios of the Thunder and Heat, as well as the formidable older trios of the Spurs and Celtics. With three years on his contract, Nash is in the best situation of his career in terms of winning a championship. Although Bryant and Nash probably never dreamed of this day, their old school philosophies of leading a team have been run out of the league. A lot has changed since they entered the league over 16 years ago. Dominant duos are no longer the key to success; now each of the contending teams has a "Big Three." Free agency is a huge play now for star players. Only the Thunder and Spurs have built their star trios from the ground up. Free agency is a part of the game, and Nash and Bryant might as well capitalize on the opportunity afforded them. Now the Lakers can boast a "Big Four."

The starting five of the Lakers should be formidable, and it may contain the highest basketball IQ of the entire league. Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol, and Bynum should be an amazing quintet. I can already see Nash running the high pick and pop with Gasol for open jumpers, and the side pick and roll with Bynum for thunderous dunks. I can see Bynum on the block, Nash at the top, World Peace on the strong side, Gasol at the high post, and Bryant salivating to destroy single coverage on the weak side. There are a multitude of possibilities on the offensive end due to Nash's ability to spread the floor with pinpoint shooting, drive and kick ability, and correct decision making. It will be much more difficult for teams to pack the paint and double Bynum in the post due to Nash's three point shooting. I can't wait to see a Nash/Bryant pick and roll. I can't wait to see how many easy buckets Bynum gets due to Nash's amazing ability to set up the offense. I can't wait to see Nash throw a one handed bounce pass off the dribble while running down the court during the fast break. Overall, I just can't wait to see the greatest point guard of my generation playing for my favorite team.

While Nash's signing doesn't guarantee a championship, it definitely puts the Lakers right there in the conversation. The Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Heat, Celtics, and possibly Nets (if they get Dwight Howard) will all be tough outs, but now the Lakers will have the necessary firepower to throw back at them. Nash doesn't make the Lakers automatic champions, but he does provide a major upgrade to the team, especially over the disastrous Ramon Sessions experiment and the anemic performance of Steve Blake these past two seasons. Nash should breathe new life into the organization, as well as a new fire. After sixteen failed seasons, Nash should instill a greater sense of desperation for the squad. The jaded narrative of Bryant chasing his sixth ring will be superseded by Nash chasing his first. A hungry Nash paired with the ever-hungry Bryant should provide more than enough motivation for success.

Nash does bring some baggage, but not enough to outweigh his positives. Nash will still be a defensive liability, but having two seven footers behind him should help cover his deficiencies. Nash will also be a monster for Mike Brown to manage. Nash's bad back will limit his playing time, and it will be up to Brown to work out a consistent rotation to effectively utilize Nash with the right set of teammates on the court. Nash also tends to run his own show, which contradicts Brown's preference to call set plays, but I'm sure Brown will have no problem relinquishing some handle on the offense to such a proven point guard. Nash may even pose a problem for Bryant in terms of handling the ball and creating offense, however, Bryant should relish the opportunity to play off the ball and allow Nash to initiate the offense. Now, Bryant can allow Nash to be the primary playmaker and he can focus solely on what he does best, scoring. In fact, Nash should extend Bryant's career an extra year or so by handling the primary duty of initiating and playmaking on offense.

Overall, Nash is going to get the ball where it needs to go. Do you think we will be hearing Bynum complain about lack of touches when Nash is the floor general? I don't think so. Nash is going to provide the Lakers something the organization hasn't had since the days of Magic Johnson, a lead point guard that will make all the right plays, distribute the ball to key players in prime situations, and keep teammates involved and happy.

In general, Nash will make everybody happy, his teammates, his coaches, and now, Lakers fans.

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