State of the Lakers: Needing Steve Nash

LOS ANGELES — Thirty-two years after the hottest question in L.A. — and the rest of the world — was “Who shot J.R.?” it’s been replaced by “When is Steve Nash going to play again for the Lakers?”

At least we knew we’d get the answer to the J.R. Ewing question when the new season of “Dallas” began in November of 1980. There’s no date in sight for resolution to the Lakers’ cliffhanger.
 
Nash has been gone with a fractured leg since the second game of the season. But he’s not forgotten.
 
Not in the least.
 
The media and coach Mike D’Antoni can be counted on to bring up Nash’s name multiple times in interview sessions, D’Antoni saying he’s confident that once Nash returns the Lakers will become serious title contenders.
 
But when will the 38-year-old point guard return?
 
That’s the 27.9-million-dollar question — that being the amount he received from the Lakers on a three-year contract.
 
Following the left-leg fracture he suffered in Portland on October 31, it was announced he’d be out a week. Almost immediately it was changed to four weeks.
 
It’s now been five weeks, and with backup point guard Steve Blake out for at least seven weeks after surgery for an abdominal tear, the backcourt situation has become dire for a team that is 9-10 heading into Oklahoma City on Friday night.
 
Nash has avoided comment since the injury, but it has to be killing him to be sitting on the sidelines. Not only is he surely getting more frustrated with every game he misses, he’s had to sit idly by while his coach and teammates tell anyone who will listen that the horrible start to the season may disappear once Nash is back running the point. No matter who you are — two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer or not — that’s a lot of pressure to have placed on your head.
 
Another companion question to when will Nash be back is: Will he really make that much of a difference in how the Lakers play?
 
With Kobe Bryant, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon handling the point, the Lakers have been maddeningly inconsistent, looking great one night and like a lottery team the next. And this is with Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol still playing — which should be enough to win more than 47 percent of their games. Especially when Bryant is having one of the best years of his career at age 34.
 
So, with the seventh-highest scoring team in the league at 101.1 points per game and a middle-of-the-pack defense that’s ranked 14th out of 30 teams, why isn’t this team doing a much better job of competing?
 
Breaking it down, the Lakers have played under three coaches this season and are learning their second offense since October — minus the player who’s the key to making it work at its optimum level. It’s certainly disappointing to Lakers management and fans, but shouldn’t be wholly unexpected.
 
D’Antoni’s offense is viewed as a running, freelancing, move-the-ball-and-take-the-shots system. For the most part, it is. But a running game isn’t just about sprinting up and down the floor and scoring baskets. The Showtime Lakers made it look that way, but the most valuable player in that type of offense is the point guard, and the Lakers just don’t have one right now.
 
In a running offense, the main ball-handler has to know where everyone is on the floor, who is in which lane and who has the best and fastest road to the basket. If none of those plays is available, he has to slow it down and get the ball to the player with the best shot. Nash was the maestro of that style with D’Antoni in Phoenix, leading the Suns to a pair of 60-plus-win seasons and two 50-plus-win seasons. Until he is back and healthy, the Lakers are going to have to find another way to use the offense and gut out some wins. If not, by the time Nash returns, the Lakers might be fighting just to get a top-four seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
 
The only player other than Nash on the Lakers who has run the system is Duhon, who played for D’Antoni in New York. If you can go off of one game — and you usually can’t — he just might turn out to be the temporary answer for D’Antoni and the Lakers.
 
On Wednesday night, Duhon had 10 assists, zero turnovers and just three points as the Lakers whipped the Hornets, 103-87. If he’s willing to continue to forsake scoring attempts to run the offense properly, they may have found Nash’s replacement until he is cleared to play again. And once Nash returns, Duhon could slide into the backup role until Blake is back 
 
Unless Nash has all of a sudden lost his abilities to run the D’Antoni offense, the Lakers should be viable championship contenders by the All-Star break. Until then, Duhon needs to be a pass-first point guard to give the team consistency every night. Which in itself would be a huge change from what we’ve witnessed this season.
 
Who’s Hot: Who else but Bryant? Although his defense isn’t what it once was — he’s made nine All-Defensive first teams in his career — his offense hasn’t slowed down at all. Becoming the fifth member of the 30,000-point club just gives further credence to Bryant’s first-ballot Hall of Fame election. And how about a nearly hot for Duhon? His game against New Orleans was a revelation, and he could end up being one of the things that turns around the Lakers’ season.
 
Who’s Not: One of the best players in the game — and the smartest — Pau Gasol is out with bad knees, and his game has been bad nearly all season long. The former All-Star is making $19 million this season — about $9.5 million for each good game he’s had. Time to step up and earn your money.
 
Three Thoughts
 
1. Why did D’Antoni arbitrarily cut Jordan Hill’s playing time? It’s certainly not for lack of effort or intensity — two of the things D’Antoni said have been missing from his team more nights than not. After benching him during the embarrassing loss to Orlando at Staples Center — a night in which the Lakers could have used a lot more energy — D’Antoni’s been forced by Gasol’s bad knees to play Hill. He’s responded with nine points and 8.5 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game. Makes you wonder if there was a problem between the two when they were in New York with the Knicks.
 
2. The Lakers have won just twice in seven road games, and that can be traced back to Nash and Blake being sidelined. A couple of those losses — especially Tuesday night in Houston when they led by 13 going into the fourth quarter — might not have happened with a true point guard controlling the action. With eight of their next 11 away from Staples Center, Duhon will be more important than ever.
 
3. How prominent are the accomplishments of the Lakers’ organization in the world of professional sports? Very prominent. When Bryant scored his 30,000th point, he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only members of that club. All except Jordan played with the Lakers at some point in their careers. Only the Yankees with 27 World Series titles and the Boston Celtics with 17 NBA championships have more rings than the Lakers (16).
 
Quotes of the Week
 
“Man, that’s a lot of points.” — Bryant after being told he was closing in on 30, 000 points.

“We’re close — closer than people think we are.” — D’Antoni on the Lakers being ready to turn around their season.
 
“Put on your big boy pants.” — Bryant to Gasol, through media interviews, after Gasol had another poor game Sunday against Orlando.
 
“I’ll kick everybody’s ass in this locker room if it doesn’t happen.” —Bryant on the ramifications for his teammates if they didn’t start playing with more intensity.
 
News and Notes
 
• The Lakers are denying reports that they’re looking to trade Gasol. ESPN has reported that the Lakers have been in talks with Minnesota and Toronto — the Lakers getting Derrick Williams and Nikola Pekovic from the T-Wolves or Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon from Toronto. There is one player the Lakers covet — Ryan Anderson of the Hornets, who was in Orlando at one time with Howard. That seems like a real long shot, though, since Anderson is young (24) and inexpensive, two things New Orleans covets.
 
• Nash is still regarded as week-to-week, and is with the team on its current road trip. But he’s still unable to do heavy work without feeling pain at the point of the fracture.
 
• Lakers’ Vice President Jeanie Buss — girlfriend of former coach Phil Jackson — is the owner of WOW — Women of Wrestling. They’ll be taping their events live at the Eastside Cannery and Casino in Las Vegas. They’ll later be distributed worldwide. The first one takes place on Saturday January 19, 2013.
 
What’s Next?
 
Friday at Oklahoma City, Sunday vs. Utah, Tuesday at Cleveland, Thursday at New York.
 
Obviously, if the Lakers were able to steal a win at the home of the Western Conference champs, it would be a huge morale booster for D’Antoni and company. We’ll also find out if the Lakers are in shape to run the court for an entire game against the league’s most athletic team.
 
Tower of Power?
 
Not even close until Nash returns.