The frustrated feelings over an injured body, a failed season and an uncomfortable role with his first year with the Lakers all spilled out when Steve Nash persistently spent this summer rehabbing. Then, shortly before training camp began Saturday, Nash was informed about a statistic that he’d hardly want lumped into his resume as a two-time NBA MVP and league’s fifth all-time leader in assists.
Nash, at age 39, also represents the NBA’s oldest player.
“It’s not a privilege I ever really dreamed about,” Nash said Saturday at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo. “It’s pretty strange and surreal in a way. I’m thrilled to still be playing. I don’t feel as old as I probably look to some of these guys.”
Nash surely showed his age last season, in what he described as his “most difficult.”
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong for us last year,” Nash said. “It was tough.”
He fractured his left leg and stayed sidelined for most of November and December. Nash then experienced hamstring and hip issues that kept him out for three weeks in April and the Lakers’ last two playoff games. Nash never could provide a compelling sequel to Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced, pick-and-roll offense that he ran to near perfect through four seasons with the Phoenix Suns. Nash’s 6.7 assists represented four fewer per game than the previous season.
Nash may remain the relentlessly positive point guard that has made him everyone’s favorite teammate with exception to Dwight Howard. But even Nash admits handling this offseason with “a chip on my shoulder” both because of the team’s first-round exit to the San Antonio Spurs and because he never dazzled the Lakers with another version of “Showtime.”
“I always feel like I have something to prove, regardless,” Nash said, “But obviously people think I’m on the downswing and falling into retirement before everybody’s eyes.”
Nash has tried avoiding that scenario by rehabbing enough on his back and hamstring until it fully healed, enabling him to spend the past four to six weeks participating in full-court scrimmages during the Lakers’ informal workouts. The Lakers are trying to avoid that scenario by limiting Nash’s minutes in hopes that it would both preserve his health and his greatness.
“My confidence level is 100 percent that he’ll be an elite point guard,” D’Antoni said. “The question is whether it’s 20 minutes a game or 30 minutes a game. I don’t know. We’ll figure all that out.”
D’Antoni also has debated whether he would sit out Nash for certain games, particularly on back-to-backs. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has typically adopted that strategy to his aging stars, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
“That’s always something that is difficult to do,” Nash said. “In the West, you’re in a playoff fight in day one. It’s hard to limit minutes or sit games. If we have the depth and success, maybe we’ll have the chance to sit guys, myself included, a night here or there to limit some minutes. But it’s important to prepare to play a full season and be out there for your teammates.”
Nash didn’t have that luxury that season.
He fractured his left leg in only the second game of the season. Then, the Lakers hired D’Antoni to replace the fired Mike Brown. D’Antoni remained strapped with the lack of a full training camp, but he considered it a non-issue once Nash would return. Seven weeks passed by before that happened.
The Lakers problems persisted even when Nash returned, and the reasons went beyond his shaky defense. The Lakers’ offense never found consistency, ranging from injury limitations to Dwight Howard (back) and Pau Gasol (knees), Howard’s resistance to pick-and-rolls, Gasol’s reduced effectiveness as a facilitator and Kobe Bryant’s incredible consistency.
Nash still averaged 12.7 points on 49.7 percent shooting, but he never found the right comfort level as both a point guard and a de-facto shooting guard.
“I was never quite myself,” Nash said. “I also had a different role. I didn’t have the ball as much. I shot a similar percentage and I think the numbers per opportunity were probably similar, but I also admit I didn’t quite feel like myself and there was a transition there not only through the physical ailments but also trying to find a role on this team.”
The Lakers believe they can reduce Nash’s role on the team this year because of the increased point guard depth. Both Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar boast speed, pick-and-roll savviness, feisty defense and abilities to play at both point guard and shooting guard. That marks a vast upgrade than last season when Blake missed 37 games because of persisting abdominal and groin issues, while an unproven veteran (Chris Duhon) and undeveloped player (Darius Morris) filled in during Nash’s absence.
D’Antoni plans to use training camp to figure out the ideal minutes for Nash and whether Blake or Farmar will serve as a the primary backup point guard. But there appears to be a balancing act. As much as the Lakers want to preserve Nash long-term, they only have to refer to last season when his absence became sorely missed.
“It’s all going to be situational. If it’s a two point game and he’s already playing 25 minutes, I don’t see you taking him out in the fourth quarter,” Blake said of Nash’s playing time. “That’s coach’s decision and job to manage that. He’s spoken to me and has prepared me to be ready for those situations.”
So has Nash.
“I’m prepared to do whatever I can to help the team,” Nash said. “If that’s to play in the game or if I need a night or two to get through the full season, I’ll listen to what the coaches think.”
After all, that mindset has ensured Nash to stay in the league for so long, even if it’s caused the 18-year-old veteran to feel slightly embarrassed he’s an old man playing in a young man’s league. Yet Nash sounds determined for the fight against Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, and, of course, Father Time.
“You never know what is around the corner, but, conservatively, I’ll say I feel great,” Nash said. “I hope I can stay on top of it and make it a thing of the past. That’s something I have to prove everyday.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org