Heading into the 2011-2012 NBA season, there were great expectations for the New York Knicks. It would be Carmelo Anthony’s first full year with the team. The Knicks had also added Tyson Chandler, who would win defensive player of the year honors. The team was expected to compete for a championship – perennially – for the forseeable future.
But to basketball-savvy fans, there was also a degree of uncertainty. Who was running the point? The Knicks had used the amnesty provision on Chauncey Billups to clear the way to sign Tyson Chandler. A three part amalgam of Mike Bibby, Baron David, and Toney Douglas would man the point guard position for the duration of the season. Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire both needed the ball in their hands to be effective, and neither was what you would call an adept passer. Knicks Head Coach Mike D’Antoni said the offense would go through Anthony, comparing the offense he would run to Larry Bird’s Celtic teams of the 1980s. How was this going to work?
It turned out, it wouldn’t really work at all. The Knicks were quickly ushered out of the playoffs that year by the Miami Heat. The next year, after defeating a collection of aging warriors wearing Celtic green, they were sent packing by Indiana. And this year, they are in danger of not making the playoffs at all; the currently sit in the ninth spot in the East (in a terrible conference), just behind the likes of Washington, Charlotte, and Atlanta.
It’s been disappointing for Knicks fans. There was so much promise, so many dreams to be fulfilled. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
It’s been a similar situation for Steve Nash.
We all remember the fanfare in the summer of 2012, when it was announced that Steve Nash and Dwight Howard would wear the purple and gold. The reaction of Laker fans was universal: After all these years, we finally have an actual point guard! And we’re pairing him with Dwight? Can we pre-order the rings now?
Everyone was happy for Nash – a selfless competitor, the ultimate team player, undoubtedly one of the classiest players in the league. He’d had a remarkable career, winning two MVP awards, starring for some of the most entertaining teams the league had ever seen, and had revolutionized the modern NBA offense. But victory, and success, had eluded him – there were no championships, no trophies, no rings. That was supposed to change, in LA.
D’Antoni was gone. Amar’e was gone. Nash was left alone in Phoenix, toiling every night for a franchise with no real chance to compete. The Suns were clearly looking towards the future and headed in a different direction. This had to have frustrated Nash. He was getting older. He wanted to win. But he did not complain, gripe, or demand a trade, as so many of his contemporaries have done. Instead, he played out his contract.
“Maybe I’m old school,” he said, “But I feel like that’s not my place to give up on my team, give up on my teammates. I signed a contract and made a commitment.”
Phoenix fans can be grateful for that – Nash never humiliated them on a national level as Dwight Howard did in Orlando or Carmelo Anthony did in Denver. But when the contract was up, it was time to go. Steve Nash jumped ship and went to Los Angeles, drawing some minor criticism in the process.
But he’d done his part. He’d served his time. Now, it was time to win.
With Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Nash himself, every sports news outlet in America billed those Lakers as a title contender. Even the math worked: according to advanced basketball analytics, Dwight Howard was one of the top pick and roll men in the game. And that was running the play with Jameer Nelson back in Orlando; Nash knew a thing or two about the pick and roll himself. Pau Gasol had a soft outside touch – he could establish himself as both a valuable pick and pop option, and an outside shooter to draw attention away from Dwight inside. And they had the ultimate one-on-one weapon in the game in Kobe Bryant. What could go wrong?
As it turned out, much did. Laker management turned their back on 13-time champion Phil Jackson for their coaching vacancy, instead choosing failed New York experiment Mike D’Antoni. D’Antoni struggled to modify his offense to accommodate two of the best big men in the game, removing Pau Gasol from the starting lineup entirely, and ignoring Dwight to the point where he became surly and unhappy, demanding more touches and refusing to run the pick and roll. D’Antoni ran Kobe Bryant into the ground, culminating in an end-of-the-season Achilles injury after a season of playing nearly 39 minutes per game.
Last offseason the Lakers failed to retain Dwight Howard, and failed to make any other significant moves. Again Nash heard the familiar refrain that he remembered from Phoenix: We are building for the future. His first year, the Lakers had to fight and claw till the bitter end to make the playoffs; this year, they will miss them entirely.
The Lakers are 22-43. After they lose to the Spurs tomorrow, they will 22-44, losing two thirds of the games they have played in this season.
And Steve Nash is understandably disappointed – to the point where he has begun making a series of self-pitying videos on YouTube entitled The Finish Line. He was supposed to play out his glory years here – instead, he worries about his future with the team. He signed here at a discount (as a free agent, he could have commanded $15 million a year) – here, he is criticized merely for collecting his paycheck. He wanted to contend for championships in his last hurrah as a player – instead, he is told to sit on the bench. Why bother coming back? The playoffs are no longer an option. Just stay on the bench, Steve. We need to play these young guys, to see if we’ve got something.
So it’s true, that the Lakers haven’t gotten what they paid for. But neither has Steve Nash.