When Steve Nash became an unrestricted free agent last season, the dream in Toronto was the two-time MVP, eight-time All-Star and best professional basketball player in the history of the country would play out his last remaining seasons for the NBA’s only Canadian team. In one of the biggest surprises in free agency ever, the Phoenix Suns did a sign and trade deal with their arch rivals and Nash became a Laker instead.
It was almost impossible to blame Nash for picking the Lakers over Toronto. Los Angeles was closer to his children, Nash is from the West coast of Canada and the Lakers were supposed to be hands down the best team in the NBA upon his arrival. Things just didn’t work out as planned.
About all that went sort of right last year was a late season push by the Lakers to sneak into the playoffs where they became easy first round fodder. It was about to get worse. The Lakers other big addition last summer, Dwight Howard was about to become an unrestricted free agent and just like he did in Orlando, Howard wasn’t about to commit to anything. As feared, the All-Star center has decided to take his talents to state income tax free Texas and with Kobe Bryant recovering from an Achilles tendon tear, the Lakers playoff hopes for 2014 just went from challenged to doubtful.
As the Lakers roster sits, Nash is the only player with a contract that extends beyond this season. The Lakers are ideally set up to participate in free agency next summer, assuming the pull of Hollywood can still attract the league’s biggest stars. However, Nash will be 40-years-old when that happens and there is no way to pretend that he will be a player that attracts the best free agents available in 2014 to Los Angeles. The Lakers owe Nash $19 million over the next two seasons, the time to think about trading him is now.
Last season was something an anomaly for Nash. The rarely injured point guard broke his leg on October 31 and didn’t play again until just before Christmas. As the season progressed, hip, back and hamstring problems all conspired against him. Nash ended up averaging 12.7 points and 6.7 assists in 32.5 minutes over 50 games. He did average 43.8 percent shooting from three-point range and 92.2 percent from the free throw line, but he only assisted on 32.8 percent of his teammates shots while he was on the floor and that was down from 53.1 percent in each of his last two years in Phoenix.
In hindsight, the right move by the Lakers in 2013 was probably to encourage Nash to return to Canada and help stabilize a floundering Raptors franchise while building up the profile of the NBA in his home country. It’s not too late, Nash could still be the big time box office, community relations and television draw the Raptors need. Nash, however, can no longer be the high minutes superstar that he was into his mid-thirties. Time and injuries have taken their toll and Nash needs to be more carefully managed on the court if he is to continue playing.
Nash does expect to be back to 100 percent health by the time training camp rolls around and he has no intension of retiring, but it no longer reasonable to expect him to fight through screens and attempt to defend elite point guards for over 30 minutes a night.
While other NBA teams would be justifiably hesitant about taking on a $19 million commitment for a player with an injury history who was about to turn 40 years old, none of these issues should be enough to dissuade the Raptors from trying to acquire Captain Canada again this summer.
Toronto’s MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke made his mark in the Los Angeles sports scene by getting David Beckman to join the Galaxy and he knows the value of a marquee player in a specific market. Nash has huge market value in Toronto and can help build the Raptors brand in other Canadian cities as well.
Nash is still an elite shooter, a valuable veteran, mentor and a leader who can command the respect of other players. The Raptors need a veteran presence and Nash could help some of their young stars develop their leadership attributes. While Nash could fill a number of holes in the Raptors roster, the Lakers are not in a position to be demanding a lot back. A 40 year old player is not going to return them a star, a future star or likely anything better than a late first round draft pick and an expiring contract and/or project player at the trade deadline or next summer.
Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri just acquired a first round draft pick, two second round draft picks and a player in Marcus Camby whose contract isn’t guaranteed beyond next season that he would quickly put on the table to acquire Nash. Add in the expiring contract of Linas Kleiza or the two-year deal of Landry Fields to make the deal work and the Lakers get back almost all of the draft picks they gave away to Phoenix to acquire Nash last summer.
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak on the Lakers website has confirmed, “[the Lakers] will now move forward in a different direction with the future of the franchise.”
Whether or not Nash finishes his long and distinguished NBA career in a Raptors uniform is unknown at this point. However, as Howard packs his bags for Houston, the possibility of Toronto fans watching Captain Canada play home games at the Air Canada Centre next season just went up a little bit.
Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre since 2009. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.