The Lakers will have to manage without Steve Nash for at least two weeks as he tries to recover from a back injury.
Suffering from nerve root irritation, a problem that began when he broke his leg a year ago in the second game of the season, Nash’s efforts will now be focused on getting healthy enough to fulfill his contract with the Lakers.
If he can’t make it back, he may have already played in the final NBA game of his illustrious career, just weeks into his 18th season.
Retirement isn’t presently on the table but what if Nash’s two weeks extends to two, three and four months?
Should the Lakers’ back specialist, Dr. Robert Watkins, determine that any additional effort by Nash to play would constitute a medically unacceptable risk, the veteran point guard may end his career via forced medical retirement.
Nash is owed $9.3 million for the current year and $9.7 million for next season. If he’s found to be physically unable to play, he would still receive full compensation.
The NBA would then do its due diligence, sending a league-appointed physician to verify Watkins’ findings.
If the league would sign off, the final year of Nash’s contract would be completely removed from the Lakers’ salary cap — as long as he plays in fewer than 10 games this season.
So far, Nash has made six appearances. Has he made his last?
The Lakers have nearly cleared their books for the summer of 2014 with only Robert Sacre ($915,243) and Nash with guaranteed salary. Nick Young has a player option for $1.2 million, and rookie Elias Harris is under contract for a non-guaranteed $816,482.
With Nash’s salary coming off via theoretical retirement, the Lakers could have in the neighborhood of $54 million in spending power to chase free agents and/or re-sign their own players, such as Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
Big-name players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Luol Deng and Greg Monroe (a restricted free agent) could all be free agents next summer.
Even if the league doesn’t approve a potential Nash retirement, the Lakers may use their “stretch provision” to spread out the final year of his salary over three seasons, which would give the team about $50.9 million in spending power.
Medical retirements are rare in the NBA.
Portland Trail Blazers’ forward Darius Miles retired in 2008 via medical retirement, although a technicality prevented the team from receiving cap relief when Miles attempted to rejoin the league the following season.
The Trail Blazers weren’t willing to take a chance when guard Brandon Roy retired with knee problems and $63 million left on his contract.
Instead of medical retirement, the Blazers waived him via their one-time amnesty clause, which completely removed his salary from the team’s books.
Roy eventually returned to the league last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but his knees couldn’t hold up and he retired a second time in May.
The New York Knicks received financial relief when Cuttino Mobley “retired” in 2010 with a heart issue, although Mobley in turn sued the team, disagreeing with the medical retirement.
Nash, at age 39, would probably be an easier case to make to the league than players retiring before their time, such as Roy, Miles and Mobley.
However, for now Nash will be working to return to the court, with medical retirement only becoming an option if he is truly unable to make it back.