PORTLAND, Ore. — Mike D’Antoni once scoffed at the skepticism surrounding Steve Nash’s health as he proved he could run his Phoenix Suns offense well enough through chronic back issues to win two NBA MVP awards.
But as Nash remains indefinitely sidelined for all but 10 games this season with persisting nerve root irritation in his back and hamstrings, D’Antoni conceded skepticism on whether he’d actually play before the season ends in six weeks.
“I doubt it. I don’t think so. What’s the end game?” D”Antoni said Monday after morning shootaround in preparation for the Lakers’ (20-39) game tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers (41-18) at Moda Center. “We’ve talked about it. He’s not completely healthy and we have 23 games left and we’re not going to make the playoffs. What’s his objective to take his minutes away from young guys we’re trying to develop?”
D’Antoni also sounded doubtful about Kobe Bryant healing his fractured left knee in time to play this season. That injury, coupled with his initial recovery from his left Achilles tendon, has kept the Lakers’ star out for all but six games this season.
“Does he get back and play some games and get his rhythm back for next year and wait?” D’Antoni said. “I don’t know.”
D’Antoni deferred to Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti on Bryant’s recovery, but the Lakers coach downplayed Bryant’s potential return making a substantial difference in giving the team’s evolving roster and Bryant a chance to learn how to play with each other.
“You need to play about 40 games before you even do that,” D’Antoni said. “That wouldn’t be part of the equation, I don’t think.”
Both Bryant and Nash traveled with the Lakers to Portland. Bryant wasn’t present at morning shootaround, but Nash still sounded intent on returning if his body allowed him.
“We’ll see. I couldn’t really make a prediction,” Nash said. “If I get a chance, it’ll be great.”
Nash also sounded open toward taking a reduced role so that the Lakers could see how a crop of young players fit into their long-term plans, including point guards Kendall Marshall and Jordan Farmar as well as wingmen Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.
“I’m totally up to whatever they want to do,” Nash said. “That’s fine.”
Nash has participated in light shooting drills in recent days, a slight progression considering Nash has either stayed in Los Angeles or worked out with his personal trainer in Vancouver, Canada during the team’s trips. In a recent documentary on Grantland, Nash conceded the possibility the Lakers would waive him this offseason via the stretch provision pushed him to approach his recovery more aggressively.
“I was in a place where I was instructed, ‘Don’t screw it up while we’re not together. If you wait and can get enough time together, you’ll get through it. Let’s not go too fast here,'” Nash said. “With the reality that next year is not guaranteed, it made me realize I had to take more risks with my training and try to get back on the court.”
The Lakers could waive Nash by Aug 31. Such a move would allow the Lakers to pay the nearly $9.7 million owed to Nash through three seasons and ensure only $3 million counts against their salary cap annually. But the Lakers could hold onto Nash since his salary would then be completely removed from their books following the 2014-15 season, giving them more purchasing power in that offseason to pursue potential free agents, including Minnesota’s Kevin Love.
But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recently said “it’s really his decision” on whether Nash plays out the final year of his $9.7 million contract.
“I want to come back for sure,” Nash said.
So if that’s the case, does Kupchak’s suggestion that Nash will determine his future change his approach on how he recovers?
“You never know what the case is in a month or two weeks physically from a club standpoint and from my standpoint,” Nash said. “When you’re looking at potentially the last few months of your career, I didn’t want that to slide by without getting back on the court. It motivated me. Who knows now.”
It’s fitting that Nash spoke in Portland, the place where his time with the Lakers continuously unraveled. He fractured his left leg after colliding with Portland guard Damian Lillard in only the second game of the season last year, an injury that ultimately sparked never damage that has since infiltrated his back, hamstrings and legs.
Nash has averaged only 7.6 points on 36 percent shooting in 22.5 minutes through 10 games with the Lakers, making this a frustrating season for two reasons. Nash spent an entire offseason and about three months this season rehabbing his nerve issues, but the investment hasn’t paid off. Because Nash played in his 10th game this season, his $9.7 million salary next season will remain on the Lakers’ books even if he is forced into medical retirement.
Yet, Nash still believes all the work has proved worth it after posting a season-high 19 points Feb. 7 against Philadephia. Two days later, Nash experienced setbacks after Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich collided into his knee. Nash hasn’t been the same since.
“It meant so much to say I can do it still. Can I sustain it? That’s the next step and I haven’t been able to prove that yet. On one hand, it was extremely rewarding because it’s 10 months of pounding your head against the wall. That one game meant a lot to say, ‘Yes you can,'” Nash said. “On the other end, it’s frustrating because it’s right there. Then, you take a knee on a fracture and nerve root. It’s luck and it shows how tenuous it all is.”
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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org