Lakers PG Steve Nash finally returned to practice today, resuming basketball activities for the first time since fracturing his leg on Halloween. He's only played in two games this season, and the Lakers have struggled in his absence, going 11-14 to this point in the season.
Nash and injured big man Pau Gasol are now closer to getting back on the court, and both seem to be targeting Christmas Day (or earlier) as their return dates. But with the Lakers already 7.5 games behind the Clippers in their division, and even further behind the Spurs and Thunder, Nash's return might be too little, too late.
Of course, you can't count out any team with Kobe Bryant at the helm. The Lakers need to focus on getting to .500 by Christmas Day, because that will put them precisely where they were last Christmas. Of course, that was Opening Day of the 2011-12 season, and every team was 0-0. LA has dug themselves into quite a hole, but if they are even and healthy by next week, they will have four solid months to climb back into the playoff picture.
In general, they are a more talented team than last year, but a surplus of talent is not always the best thing in LA. In a sense, the team this Laker squad most closely resembles is the 2003-04 Lakers - the team built around Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe, and new acquisitions Karl Malone and Gary Payton. That was a team built around veterans looking for one more shot at a ring, started off hot, and ultimately fell short due to a host of chemistry issues.
This team is like the inverse: they've started slow, and they've got their chemistry issues right from the start. With Kobe chirping at Pau Gasol, and with Andrew Bynum chirping from across the country, and with all of the coaching drama early on, it's clear that this team has some issues in composition. Of course, having a fantastic distributor like Steve Nash can solve a world of problems. He can run the pick-and-roll with Gasol or Howard, he can make sure the ball is in Kobe's hands when he needs it, and he can generally make his teammates better.
But a stress fracture in a lower extremity for a guy with numerous back issues and a 39th birthday fast approaching is not a great omen. Nash is a fantastic basketball player, and he has a knack for getting the most out of the guys around him. But so does Kobe - he just does it with tough love rather than pinpoint passes. It will be interesting to see how two floor generals can mesh.
It didn't exactly work with those 2003-04 Lakers, who had way too many personalities and came up against a Detroit Pistons team that was perfectly balanced. The old axiom in basketball is that the team with the best player tends to win, and the Lakers take the floor every night with four of the best 15 players of the last decade. An extended run is likely for this squad, and a positive January for a team reinventing itself in the middle of the season should get the Lakers into the playoffs. In a short series, with all of their talent and an increasingly comfortable Dwight Howard, and who knows what can happen.
But if Nash pulls up lame again, and Kobe continues to vent his frustration, this team has 2003-04 meltdown written all over it - and that's without even sniffing the Finals.