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This article was published 2/3/2013 (1377 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- If Steve Nash was at his wit's end, despondent like legions of Lakers fans over this debacle of a season, it wasn't evident Wednesday afternoon at the team's practice facility.
The living basketball legend who was dressed more like a soccer player bound off the basketball floor and through the media room, wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, low-top sneakers, and -- most importantly -- a smile.
"Diligently working on the craft," he hollered at news reporters on hand before he was gone.
He might as well have been talking to himself.
Two-time MVPs aren't typically asked to reinvent themselves, but 39-year-old Nash is doing just that for a Lakers team that has seven weeks to salvage its season and avoid the embarrassment of missing the playoffs. At 28-30 -- and with those summertime proclamations of league-wide dominance seeming so far away now -- they are 2 1/2 games behind the Houston Rockets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The issues that have plagued this team have seemed endless, from the coaching change after just five games to talk of locker-room strife between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard to injuries that helped derail what already was a teetering train.
And so, Nash -- the Picasso of point guards, a masterful orchestrator of offences -- has been asked to change. He plays off the ball, watching Bryant take his old job for long stretches before he's able to put his old hat on. He does what Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, his friend and longtime coach with the Phoenix Suns, has asked them all to do: sacrifice.
Since changing to this counter-intuitive style in a Jan. 25 win against the Utah Jazz, with Nash handling roughly half the playmaking duties he did before and his assist numbers during that time (5.5 a game) barely half his norm over the past eight seasons, the Lakers have won 11 of 16 games.
"His desire to figure out a way to make it work is remarkable," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. "He's always prodding, always making the sacrifice. Yet you have to catch yourself and say, 'This is a two-time MVP.' He could certainly say, 'No, I'm not changing. You've got to do it my way.' How many two-time MVPs are as accommodating as he is?"
Said D'Antoni: "It's too bad not everybody is like that, because that would make my job and everybody's job ... a lot easier. It's not like that, but he's hard to put in words because he's the best you can be -- with his teammates, with his coaching staff. He's the best. It doesn't get any better than that."
'Secure in myself'
This isn't exactly what Nash and D'Antoni had in mind when they reunited Nov.12 -- largely because of the broken left leg Nash suffered Nov. 3 that kept him out for seven weeks. As Kupchak reiterated Tuesday, the decision to hire D'Antoni instead of former Lakers coach Phil Jackson -- which he made with late Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his son and lead team executive, Jim Buss -- was based partly on D'Antoni's background with the team's new point guard.
They envisioned Nash as the engine in D'Antoni's high-octane system, ignoring how an aging team might fare in a system that pushes the accelerator every time out.
Yet Nash insists he's content with the compromise in large part because this decision was never just about basketball. His agent, Bill Duffy, calls the three-year, $27 million sign-and-trade deal that brought Nash to Los Angeles from Phoenix a "family values contract" because of how Nash bypassed opportunities in Toronto and New York last summer so he could be closer to his three children.
His 8-year-old twin girls, Lola and Bella, and 2-year-old son, Matteo, live with their mother in Phoenix, so Nash routinely takes the 80-minute flight to see them on Lakers off days or has them come his way. The latest Lakers drama, whatever it might be, is always kept in proper perspective.
"Ten out of 10 times, I make the same decision again," Nash told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. "I've gotten to see my kids probably four times as much as I'd seen them if I'd have gone back East. That's first and foremost. Second of all, it's a great experience to play for the Lakers organization. ... I'm happy here.
"I'm beyond playing for the credit or the adulation. I feel secure in myself as a player. I just want to help this team, regardless of what it means for me personally."
The personal component, Duffy says, nearly brought Nash's career to an end.
"If L.A. wouldn't have worked, I honestly think he would've considered retiring," Duffy says. "He said that three or four times from July 1 to July 5 (during free agency), and I was saying, 'If he wants to retire, I have to respect it, but let's piece this thing together so you can get what you want and continue to play.' "
Upside still there
It would have been one thing if the Lakers were a media creation, but they most certainly were not. The players themselves talked openly about this group being championship-worthy, the latest Lakers team destined for great things. Nash, as his friend and former Suns general manager Steve Kerr said, was among those who saw it that way.
"Nobody expected what's happened -- especially Steve," said Kerr, a TNT analyst. "He really thought he was stepping into a situation where he could win a title. He told me before he signed there, when Toronto had made the big offer, with more money and all that stuff, and he said he didn't want to just ride out his career as a circus act. He wanted to put himself out there, to put himself on the line.
"And if you play for the Lakers, you're definitely doing that. So he's put himself on the line, and I don't think he anticipated that it was going to be this hard. But he's always hanging in there, trying to push through, and trying to make it right for everybody."
"It's been different. It's been an adjustment," Nash says. "But I want to embrace these challenges. I'm at a stage of my career with a new club where I'm playing with Kobe -- he's a great player -- and finding that balance and accepting and embracing that opportunity is key. It'd be nice, in some ways, to have a bigger impact on the game. You have to balance it with all the guys, all their needs and personalities. I embrace it.
"I really appreciate it. I could still be in Phoenix and have the ball in my hands the majority of the time and probably be out of the playoffs again, so it's worthy of trying something new -- especially since the upside here is potentially great."
The irony in all the tumult of Nash's first season in L.A., of course, is that his deal through 2014-15 puts him on firmer contractual footing with the Lakers than other members of the team's core. Howard has made it clear he won't make a decision on his future until the summer, Bryant becomes a free agent in summer 2014 and Pau Gasol or Metta World Peace could be traded or waived via the league's amnesty clause long before then.
And while Nash isn't waving the white flag on this season, he has a realist's view of how far the Lakers have fallen and is taking the long-term outlook.
"This year I don't know that we could get to the heights that we expected in the summer, just because of what we're facing," Nash said, noting injuries to Gasol and reserve big man Jordan Hill, among other things. "I think it's inevitable, or impossible, to reach the heights that maybe we saw in the summer, regardless of whether they were attainable or not. I think we have to adjust, and our goal should be to try to get a little bit better every day, try to figure out a little more every day and see where it leaves us in the next six weeks or so.
"Hopefully we get in the playoffs, and hopefully we really form a team that really causes people problems, and we make a great run. But hope definitely springs eternal for the future still. I'll still be here two more years, and am incredibly excited about what we could do."
-- USA Today