Skipping To The End

Photo via markdodds on Flickr

I haven’t written about Steve Nash often in the last few years, but in the few times I have, it’s disturbing how often the pieces read like eulogies. Fair or not, in discussing Nash’s legacy amid the decay of the once-peerless Phoenix Suns offense, and in writing about Consigliere, Nash’s venture in marketing consultancy, I’ve effectively been laying out pillows and cardboard for the inevitable fall.  I’ve subconsciously been anticipating the death of his NBA playing career mainly because I couldn’t imagine how distraught I’d be if I allowed that kind of reality to catch me by surprise.

Though Nash’s retirement may not be an immediate concern, in this stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, we are almost assuredly witnessing the death of the Steve Nash we’ve known for the past decade. And no matter how many times I attempt to coax myself with “He deserves to play on a contender” and “Playing with the Lakers could extend his NBA longevity”, there aren’t enough pillows to cushion this blow.

I found out about the trade sitting next to the pool at my brother’s July 4 party evacuating the imprisoned flesh of sea snails from their shells with a safety pin. The act is laborious; the toothsome morsels are so small the mind barely recognizes them as food, and because of their size, there is so little room for error digging the meat out, keeping it skewered onto the pin while dipping it into a sauce before finally bringing it toward your mouth. It’s not too stressful of a process until you realize you’ll have to do it at least another 30 times to whet your appetite. It’s tasty (if you’re into that kind of eating), but by the end of it, you’re only half enjoying it. The other half is wondering if there’s a market for sea snail eating as a sport.

My brother’s house had become a site of life-changing news seemingly delivered as to not make a sound. Exactly one year before, my brother proposed to his longtime girlfriend under a sky of fireworks. Had he waited a few minutes, maybe we all would’ve known. Instead, he chose to do it at the climax of the fireworks display (his backyard has a clear and unobstructed view of the city’s annual show). Both sets of parents were present, but her side of the family had no idea what had gone on. He had to walk over and inform them a few minutes after. Not that it mattered much. It was a formality – a semicolon preparing for what has seemed like a half-century in the making. This weekend’s ceremony will deliver the long-awaited period. Then a new sentence, a new paragraph, a new chapter.

I wonder now just as I wondered in July and two Julys ago: What will change?

Steve Nash was traded to the freaking Lakers and I had no connection to the internet, no exposure to the outrage that was surely overflowing Twitter and other outlets at the time. My source was one of my brother’s friends, whom I overheard while flipping the carne asada.  There was joyous tableside discussion from the Lakers fans at the table (all of them) claiming this was just the beginning – obviously referring to Dwight Howard’s imminent arrival. How right they would be. I wanted to chime in and offer my thoughts on what just happened. I suppose I did. I rattled off all the words you’d expect to hear in Steve Nash discussions: “pick and roll”, “shooting”, “infinitely better than Ramon Sessions, even if Nash came into training camp with half of his body paralyzed”.

But it didn’t fully register at the time. Hell, it won’t fully register until he plays the first exhibition game in those downright alien yellow jerseys. My favorite player of all time is playing for the team and the fans I’ve spent my entire life defending myself against.

I’m happy for Steve. I’m worried.

For the second consecutive year, Erik Spoelstra wants the Miami Heat to play faster. It all stemmed from Spoelstra piecing together some tactics from the Oregon Ducks’ college football playbook into his own. And if it played any role in last year’s championship, then it’d be wise to amp it up (Though, if one were to compare the two teams’ most magnetic stars, who would win in an efficiency contest: LeBron James or De’Anthony Thomas?).  With the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis mirroring the Suns’ acquisitions of Raja Bell and Tim Thomas – two players integral to the Suns’ 2005-06 Western Conference Finals berth  – the Heat can take Run ‘N Fun to the heights it was supposed to reach in Nash’s time. Of course, the difference is Miami having the sense to know when to slow all the way down, and having a truly elite defense to do so.

Perhaps playing with the Flying Death Machine would’ve been an apt way to go out. There was surely no shortage of rumors suggesting such. It would’ve been a gesture to sign the prophet, the uptempo revivalist of the new millennium, but an unnecessary one. For Spoelstra, blitzkrieg is just something in the toolbox. For Nash, it was a way of life he fought to maintain. The Heat may be committed to the run, but it’s a strategy, not a backbone. Nash’s ability and conviction made the uptempo attack a lifegiving entity.

Los Angeles is a far more unlikely situation for Nash, given the prior history and the systems in place. But part of the allure in ring chasing for past superstars is the challenge of adaptation — to learn new tricks as an old dog, or at least perform the old ones in a slightly different order. Any team with Nash figures to feature the pick and roll prominently, especially with one of the best finishers in the league. In that sense, some things regarding Nash won’t change. But percentages, at least in terms of possession splits, will.

The drastic change will come in Nash not getting the ball back if nothing is in place. With four dominant offensive options, the control that has come to define Nash’s game will diminish. He may initiate the offense, but if opportunity collapses and the offense resets, he most likely won’t be the one pressing the button. Mike Brown calls Nash the quarterback leading a new system, and it’s true. Yet, even that sounds like a demotion when he’s been his own system for the past seven years.

It’s difficult to expect anything less than improvement with Nash on the Lakers. Barring injury, the worst case scenario would be similar to Gary Payton’s one-year stint with the Lakers in 2003-04, a suitable precedent to Nash’s situation. Still, all things considered, Payton had a pretty decent year considering his strengths weren’t completely aligned with the team’s needs. Nash comes in essentially as a miracle elixir, curing much of the team’s woes in one fell swoop. He is immediately the team’s best shooter and facilitator, and a leader capable of standing up to Kobe’s gruffness. While his ceiling is lowered somewhat because of the system and other limiting factors (the miracle of Nash isn’t going to cure Bryant’s insatiable appetite for isolation jumpers), his floor is much higher than Payton’s. At worst, he is a spot-up shooting cog in a championship-caliber machine. Even then, it’s an enviable position.

Even then, it’s crushing.

In a few days I’ll be standing awkwardly along with the other groomsmen watching my brother formally enter a new stage in life, wondering where the years have gone. In a month or so, it’ll happen all over again as I watch Nash run the offense alongside honest-to-goodness all-stars again. I should join in the celebration; I should mourn the passing of an era. I don’t know what I should do, and I just wish I knew the precise moment in life when feelings started getting so convoluted all the time.

This is more of a beginning than an end, and I’m excited to see the impact Steve Nash has on this Lakers offense. But the excitement I have isn’t as pure as the first day of sixth grade when I told my English teacher that my name was Danny Chau and Steve Nash was my favorite basketball player because he’s smart and an amazing shooter. The joy that I had back then didn’t make me anxious. And it didn’t come with the foresight of knowing he won’t be in the league for much longer.

This is all a psych-out, a way to preempt the shock of: 1) Steve Nash in a Lakers jersey. 2) Any significant signs of decay in his physical abilities. 3) Nash potentially hoisting the trophy over his head as a Laker, effectively rewriting his legacy and belittling the impact of his days as a Phoenix Sun.  Somewhere in this coil of conflicting thoughts and fears is something pure; something I’ve always believed. No other player has had such a grip on my imagination. If the next three years serve as the final chapter, all I can do is heave a sigh and wish him the best.

Seth Carstens