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Steve Nash, oldest player in NBA, says 'I've got a lot to prove'

Steve Nash had a disconcerting, injury-filled first season with the Lakers. He says he's healthy now, but he's 39, so expect him to play fewer minutes and be targeted by younger, more athletic players.

September 28, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • Guard Steve Nash poses for pictures during the Lakers' media day at the team's training facility in El Segundo on Saturday.
Guard Steve Nash poses for pictures during the Lakers' media day at… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

It's a line Steve Nash would rather leave off a resume that includes two most-valuable-player awards, 10,249 assists and a record 90.4% accuracy on free throws.

He's now the oldest player in the NBA.

"It's not a privilege I ever really dreamed about," the 39-year-old said Saturday while encircled by reporters during Lakers media day. "It's pretty strange and I guess surreal in a way."

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That would make it like everything else Nash has experienced since becoming a Laker. Weird has become the new normal for a usually durable player who last season appeared in only 50 games because of injuries and was transformed into a hybrid shooting guard even though he'll enter the Hall of Fame as one of the all-time-great point guards.

Nash's first season as a Laker included one perplexing development after another.

Instead of running the pick and roll, he would largely linger on the perimeter to stand and wait.

As opposed to making jaw-dropping plays, he was more likely to be involved in bickering-with-teammate exchanges.

Rather than leading his team deep into the playoffs, he was spearheading the charge into the trainer's room.

"I was never quite myself," Nash conceded. "I also had a different role. I didn't have the ball as much. I shot a similar percentage and I think the numbers per opportunity were probably similar, but I also admit I didn't quite feel like myself and there was a transition there not only through the physical ailments but also trying to find a role on this team."

Nash realizes it was enough to make even his biggest admirers wonder if he would be smarter to shelve his sneakers than to put them on again.

"Obviously, I think people think I'm on the downswing and that I'm receding into retirement in front of our eyes," Nash said. "So I've got a lot to prove."

Nash said he is fully recovered from the broken bone and nerve damage in his leg that forced him to miss most of November and December, as well as the hip and hamstring issues that sidelined him for three weeks in April and the Lakers' final two playoff games.

But even a full-strength Nash no longer measures up to his top counterparts.

Chris Paul is better. Russell Westbrook is better. Tony Parker is better. And that's just among the likely top three teams in the Western Conference.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Nash's decline has been its onset at warp speed. He averaged 6.7 assists last season, four fewer per game than the previous season, and reached double digits in that category only 10 times.

"He's the hardest-working player I've ever seen in my life, so I know he has a lot to prove to himself and the team," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. "But he's going to be 40 years old [in February], so I don't think you can put him in that category with the best point guards in the league at this point. He's still really good, but he's just not in that top five like he was."

Nash's ranking slips even more precipitously when you consider his defense, something opponents will salivate over with increasing regularity.

"If I'm 21 and I see a 39-year-old, automatically I'm going right at him," said James Worthy, the Lakers' studio analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet. "That's the challenge that he has. But a healthy Steve Nash, he can be as productive as he has in the past."

The return of Steve Blake and the addition of Jordan Farmar will allow the Lakers to be more judicious with Nash's playing time. His average of 32.5 minutes per game last season was actually a tick above his career average of 31.4 minutes.

"He's 39 years old," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said, "and you can't play a guy like that 35 minutes a game."

Can you ask him to share the ballhandling duties once more with Kobe Bryant once Bryant returns from his torn Achilles' tendon? That's harder to say.

"I'll definitely want the ball and want to make plays for our team," Nash said, "but depending on how the chemistry is and how everything plays out, we'll see how that goes."

After an initial Lakers season when seeing was disbelieving, Nash can only hope that things swerve sharply toward the normality of his longtime brilliance.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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