|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
This is the week Kobe Bryant went from acknowledging his advancing age to accepting it. Yes, there is a difference. It's one thing to say and joke that you're old; it's another thing to let that fact dictate your actions. I can't imagine Bryant teaming up with Steve Nash as recently as, say, 2010. But that's what two more years and two early playoff exits will do. They create urgency, which creates unlikely alliances.
So now Kobe is down to playing with Nash. The same Steve Nash who walked away with the most valuable player award in 2006, the year Kobe averaged a career-high 35.4 points per game. The same Nash whose Phoenix Suns put Kobe's Lakers out of the playoffs in back-to-back years.
Kobe always held it against him. Even though there was turnover on those Suns teams from the front office to the roster down to the guy in the gorilla suit, as long as Nash wore that uniform, Kobe sought revenge against the Suns. Do you really think it's a coincidence that Kobe's two highest-scoring games since March 2009 both came against Phoenix?
"I won't let it go," Bryant vowed after dropping 48 on Phoenix Jan. 10.
Only now he has. He's over it. He's welcoming Nash to Lakerland. The trade that brought Nash into the Lakers' $8.9 million trade exception and sent four draft picks to the Suns didn't go through before Kobe and Nash talked things over, discussing exactly how they could make this work. This deal had Kobe's blessing. His desire to win outweighs his desire to win at Nash's expense. It's created a willingness to help Nash win if it will benefit himself.
An indication of the thaw came in March. After a game against the Trail Blazers, Kobe was asked what qualities he had in common with veteran Blazer Kurt Thomas. Yeah, Kobe was as surprised as you were that the question even came up, but he gave a good answer.
"Professionalism and how we approach things," Bryant said. "You talk to him, you talk to Grant Hill, you talk to [Derek Fisher], Steve Nash, you'll find a lot in common. Ray Allen. There's not too many of us walking around."
I found it interesting that Kobe included Nash in that group. I'd never heard him go out of his way to compliment Nash before. But eventually longtime adversaries have no choice but to respect an opponent who refuses to go away. Still, I didn't imagine they eventually would become teammates.
Maybe Kobe, at 33, didn't like being the oldest player on the team after Fisher was traded, so he wanted the 38-year-old Nash around. More likely, Bryant didn't like the way the next wave was taking over the league. Kevin Durant beat him. LeBron James won it all. The kids -- the guys who wear "weird glasses and skinny jeans and all that stuff," as Bryant dismissively said in a "Gran Torino" moment during the playoffs -- aren't waiting to get next anymore. They're here holding the court.Kobe's chosen antidote for these youngsters is to go older. Go with someone he can relate to. Someone who grew up listening to cassette tapes, not iPods, like he did. More importantly, someone who's just as desperate as he is. Kobe thirsts for that sixth championship, an accomplishment that would give him irrefutable equal status with Michael Jordan in the category that matters most. Nash just wants a single ring. Even a trip to the NBA Finals would be new territory for Nash.
If you don't think there's value in desperation, you didn't watch the NBA Finals. How else can you explain 33-year-old Shane Battier making 60 percent of his shots during the series, or 32-year-old Mike Miller hitting seven 3-pointers during the closeout Game 5? Those were the acts of two men who had waited more than a decade for this chance and had reason to doubt they'd ever get another opportunity. They produced because they had to. Maybe Nash is capable of a similar finishing kick.
Of course, there's a fine line between old and too old. And there's a stage where players are better off doing less. In the case of Nash and Kobe, it will help to have someone else to initiate the offense. Last season they had two of the worst turnover rates in the NBA. Nash had a league-high 5.6 turnovers per 48 minutes, while Kobe checked in 11 spots behind him with 4.4 turnovers per 48. By pairing together, they won't feel obligated to force the action as often.
Kobe shouldn't have to force bad shots, either. His 43 percent shooting from the field last season was one of the worst of his career. Nash should create better looks for him (and Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and everyone else on the roster). An NBA coach said the lock of the year is that Bryant will lead the league in scoring next season. Not a very bold prediction, considering Bryant finished a tenth of a point behind Durant this past season. Nash has to be worth at least two-tenths of a point per game, right?
But one of the lessons the Lakers learned was that although Bryant still can score with the best of them, his points alone can't make the Lakers elite. He had 42 points on one of his best shooting nights of the season in their last playoff game against the Thunder, but the Lakers still lost by 16.
One reason is that after playing 1,161 regular-season and 220 postseason games, Kobe can't be expected to log the type of minutes LeBron did in this year's playoffs (43 minutes a game) and remain effective. Mike Brown took a calculated risk in that Game 5 finale and rested Kobe for the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. In that time the Lakers went from a six-point deficit to a 14-point deficit, effectively ending the game before he could get back on the court.
The start of the fourth quarter also has been Nash's resting time for the past few seasons. Half the period might elapse before he returned to the floor. Can Brown afford to sit Kobe and Nash every game during that stretch? That's one adjustment he'll have to make.
Kobe will have to get used to playing without the ball more often. There's no point in having Nash around if he's not going to run the offense. Then again, for most of Bryant's career he's never had (A) a point guard of Nash's caliber or (B) a need for one while playing in Phil Jackson's triangle offense.
Keep in mind, the Lakers had defeated the likes of Nash, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Jason Kidd on their way to winning championships under Jackson. As much as Lakers fans yearned for a great point guard, the lack of one never kept the team from winning. Now the Lakers need one. They're not running the triangle anymore. And the league is veering in the direction of point guards.
Three of the last four teams standing this past season had an All-Star point guard. That label still applied to Nash ... barely. He was clearly ranked fourth in the Western All-Star contingent that included Chris Paul, Westbrook and Parker, and Nash's 4 minutes, 40 seconds of playing time in the All-Star Game was the least of everyone. The Lakers aren't getting the same guy who won back-to-back MVPs.
Yet they do get a guy who finished second in the NBA in assists this past season. A guy who did it while wearing that Phoenix orange that Bryant detests so much. Bryant has reached the point that he could overlook that last detail. It's the NBA equivalent of pulling out the glasses to read a menu. He's at the age when practicality outweighs pride.