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The Inbounds: Steve Nash, the Lakers, and the lawlessness of the point guard wilderness

Jul 17, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Getty Images

Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

“How does Steve Nash help them stop Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker?’

That’s the standard reaction from skeptics to the Lakers’ addition of Steve Nash. Sure, Nash can dish at an obscenely high rate even as 40 comes screaming at him like a bald eagle ready to pounce on him with a good ol’ American mid-life crisis on his Canadian head. Sure, he can still shoot at an efficiency that makes the assembly line look like two dudes with hammers whacking away at sheet metal. But Nash has never been a good defender. People with full understanding know that it’s in large part because he has a degenerative back condition that forces him to lay down every time he goes to the bench and that the fact he’s able to move laterally at all is a miracle. But it doesn’t change anything. Nash isn’t going to make the Lakers’ point guard defense, which was shredded against OKC in the Western Conference Finals and in the regular season against San Antonio. 

Here’s the problem with that line of reasoning.

We’ve reached critical mass with point guard offensive talent in the NBA. Versus every other position in the league, point guard is no longer determined by “who can you line up to beat the other guy across the lineup sheet from you” and has gone simply to “who’s the guy that can do the most damage for your side?”

Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio, Kyle Lowry, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash.

Then there’s Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Jameer Nelson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Jeff Teague, John Wall, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas.

That’s a murderer’s row for defenses. Those guys can slice, dice, torch, saute, roast, blend, poach, chew up and spit out any defense out there on any given night. Very few of them can be defended with one player, it necessitates a team effort. And almost none of them can defend well enough on their own.  Westbrook and Parker often play to standstills across their season series, based on their inability to contain one or the other. Chris Paul will slide by any defender, manipulate any switch, but put him on an island, and you’d better have help behind him. This has less to do with the quality of these players as defenders, and more with the elite level of offense that is produced by this caliber of point guard, and the sheer number of such guards they face night in and night out.

(Note: Not all these players struggle to defend. Clearly Rajon Rondo is a crackdown, lockout, shut-em-out defender, but by and large, the trend skews towards turnstyle.)

Consider how often you’r seeing small forwards shift to cover point guards. LeBron James on Rajon Rondo. Andre Iguodala on Derrick Rose. Carmelo Anthony on Deron Williams. It’s trying to contain the elite perimeter speed with size and length, and even then, you have to have great help defense. That’s the real hallmark of a great defense in this league. The Bulls’ defense isn’t elite because Derrick Rose is able to shadow, harass, and bottle up anyone who tries to create outside-in, it’s based on their ability to bring a second and third and fourth guy to swipe, challenge, and deter once they get past Rose. And Rose has become a passable defender! What of the teams like the Lakers with Nash? The truth remains that with players like Westbrook, it’s partially challenging them at multiple opportunities, partially goading them into the shots you want them to take (that they can still hit), and living with it. But that’s not something you can stomach if you’re one of the few teams bringing a knife to a heavy artillery fight.

That may make the Knicks’ situation with Jeremy Lin as fascinating as anything. Lin’s defense was surely questionable. But over and over again last season, he found ways to make plays on his own. When Lin has the advantage, great. When he doesn’t, all he has to do is be what I refer to as a “painkiller.” He just has to take away enough of the sting from what the point guard is doing on offense by providing his own numbing euphoria with timely buckets and big shots. Do that, and you can survive the onslaught if the rest of the team steps up.

With the Lakers, they have the capacity to be an elite defensive team. They showed it at times. But they were so discombobulated for such long stretches that you could tell they lost their way on both ends. With Nash, the offense will be great. Not fine. Not better. Great. He solves nearly every issue they have, specifically. And he’ll get torched.  The Lakers will once again have a hard time finding ways to slow down or deter opposing point guards. Nash will do almost none of that.

But look around you. We’re in a point guard looting-and-plundering paradise. Point guards are the Allied Powers, cleaning out the Eagle’s Nest. If it’s not bolted down, they’re taking it. The Lakers have to win all the other battles, and that’s a bigger trick for Mike Brown and company. But they can live with Nash letting his man get past him. He’s going to get past his guy enough, make the right pass enough, hit the big shot enough.

This is a league where point guard play is the Wild West. It’s not about law and order, or structure. It’s just about who’s got the fastest gun and the most bullets. And Steve Nash?

He’ll make you famous.

  1. lakerluver - Jul 17, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    Great, great piece of writing. This is an awesome era for point guards. The key for the LAKERS, IMO, is Bynum/Pau guarding the rim. This is the reason why I am in favor of a D12 for Bynum swap. Defensively D12 is superior because he has far better lateral movement and athleticism. Bynum is the better offensive player. D12 can make an average defensive team a great one. Bynum’s a good shot blocker but teams kill the LAKERS on penetration because Bynum/Pau are a step slow in guarding the rim.

    • kerby720 - Jul 17, 2012 at 10:58 AM

      ^ That is the only reason why I want Dwight on the Lakers. Yes, he’s a big crybaby and lacks the offensive skills that Bynum has. Hell, Bynum might even be better than Dwight in a few years. However, I can feel much more comfortable with the Lakers perimeter D if Howard is standing in the lane ready to volleyball spike any ball thrown near him.

      Plus, who needs great offensive skill with Nash penetrating and kicking. Nash made Gortat was averaging 16 points a night with Nash dishing the ball. If you’re on a team with Nash, you just gotta be able to play pick and roll. There will be plenty of opportunities close to the basket. You better believe Dwight will know what to do with it when he’s that close.

    • camnellum12 - Jul 17, 2012 at 12:00 PM

      It seems logical that Dwight Howard is the superior defender with his 3 Defensive Player of The Year awards, but let’s talk about today, July 17th 2012. Dwight Howard just had back surgery, and it was reported he’s healing slowly from it. The back is obviously the central point of your body, and for Howard that is a big deal, because most of his game was depended on his great leaping ability for rebounding, dunking, and blocking. Look at Amar’e Stoudemire. He’s never been the same so far after his back injury. And as far as I’m concerned, Bynum knees are getting better, he had Orthokine Therapy and he’s not that behind Howard defensively, he tied with the great Hakeem Olajuwon (and Mark Eaton also) with 10 blocks in the playoffs. So please don’t think Howard will be the same athlete as he was before his injury.

      • kerby720 - Jul 17, 2012 at 12:28 PM

        Those are very valid points. I’d imagine that that’s one of the main reasons why Mitch Kupchak hasn’t pulled the trigger on a D12 deal yet. The back is a major concern.

        Another concern though, whether I’m the Lakers, Rockets, or whoever else that is thinking about getting Howard, is his stated interest in joining the Nets. Sure the Rockets wouldn’t mind renting him for a year, but who’s to say that he even plays all that much? What if he lands in Houston and takes games off and uses his back as an excuse? That’s a very real possiblity and nobody really knows what might happen if that situation were to occur. It’s not like you can really call him out on it.

  2. borderline1988 - Jul 17, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    I always thought this was the case.

    Do you remember 3 years back, when Chicago played Boston in the first round, and Rose and Rondo just shredded each other? There was no hope of guarding either guy one on one. And Rondo is supposed to be the best PG defender in the league.

    It’s as simple as this:
    Guards attack in a forwards direction, and are simply too fast for a guy shuffling his feet and moving backwards to stay in front of. It’s like running the 100m race backwards and trying to beat everyone else running forwards.
    That’s why it makes more sense to put longer armed defenders on these PGs. Because even if a PG beats the defender on one on, they usually are too small to dunk it, so a longer-armed defender can swat away shots or get in passing lanes, even if he was a step too late.

    At the end of the day, PGs are still the smallest players on the court. So challenging their vision and goading them into bad decisions is a better way to defend them, than the old-school method of shuffling your feet and trying to stay in front of them.

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