Image Credit: Stephen Dunn | Getty Images

As the Lakers prepared for tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz this morning at shoot-around, they were energized by promising news regarding injured Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. Both players have been ruled out for tonight’s game against the Jazz, but the prospects of them returning to the court in the near future looks promising.

Steve Nash:

Nash suffered a non-displaced fracture of his left fibula in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers on October 31st. He has since missed the past 19 games in which the Lakers have gone 9-10 over that stretch. According to Lakers.com reporter Mike Trudell, Nash could make his return sometime on the upcoming 4-game road trip:

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This is obviously reserved optimism, as the Lakers do not want to bring back the 38-year old point guard until he is completely healed. Nash, however, participated in many agility drills this morning with strength & conditioning coach Tim DiFrancesco.

The Lakers’ goal, as it is every season, is to win a championship. As poorly as the Lakers have been playing of late, it would be detrimental to the long-term success of the team to bring back Nash too early. The concern is not whether Nash can perform at a high level when he returns, but that he runs the risk of re-injuring that leg. The Lakers’ training staff must make sure Nash’s leg heals fully and he regains strength in that leg to minimize the risk of re-injuring it and jeopardizing the season.

When coach Mike D’Antoni was hired over eleven-time champion Phil Jackson, he was hired for the primary purpose of maximizing Nash’s efficiency. D’Antoni, who coached Nash to two MVP awards while in Phoenix, has continuously cited his excitement for Nash’s return. Although interim starting point guard Chris Duhon has been playing decent of late, Nash’s absence has been noticeably felt on the offensive end. Hopefully, with Nash showing significant signs of improvement, he will make his return on the upcoming road trip and help bring consistency to the Lakers’ point guard position.

Pau Gasol:

Gasol has been plagued with tendinitis in both knees for the majority of the season. The problem flared up back in training camp with former coach Mike Brown. Gasol cites Brown’s long practices as a possible cause of the tendinitis. Gasol, along with being involved in many trade rumors of late, has posted career lows in points per game (12.6), rebounds per game (8.8) and field goal percentage (42.0%) so far this season. Since shutting it down three games ago, Gasol is still officially listed as “day-to-day” on the Lakers’ injury report. Along with the optimism surrounding Nash, D’Antoni expressed similar optimism for Gasol’s return:

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Just as the situation with Nash’s injury is a delicate one, Gasol’s tendinitis must be completely fixed before he returns to the court. The severity of his tendinitis has clearly been seen in his below-average statistics as well as his restricted movement on both ends of the floor. Most of Gasol’s shots have either been short or flat because he has no lift, a direct result of the tendinitis in his knees.

Despite some suggesting that Gasol should come off the bench and keep Antawn Jamison in the starting lineup, D’Antoni shot that idea down in shoot-around today. According to ESPNLA’s Dave McMenamin, D’Antoni said that Gasol will remain the starter at power forward when he returns.

Nash and Gasol:

Since Gasol has struggled tremendously in D’Antoni’s new offensive system, it would make a lot of sense to hold Gasol out until Nash returns. The Lakers are hopeful that playing with Nash will jump start Gasol and get him playing at a high level again. Despite previous reports, the Lakers do not seem ready to trade Gasol and, according to reports from Ric Bucher of CSNBBayArea.com, the Lakers in fact promised Nash he would be able to play with Gasol when they signed him this past off-season.

As a result, the Lakers are confident Nash can help Gasol regain his form. Gasol will certainly be a significant key to the Lakers long-run success and his ability to fit with D’Atoni’s system and with center Dwight Howard should come with more time on the court together. Nash’s ability to get the ball to players, especially big men, in the right spots on the floor will be critical in getting Gasol back to playing at an All-Star level.

Once the tendinitis is no longer a factor, Gasol should become a much more consistent mid-range shooter. Along with improved consistency from the outside, Gasol should have the strength to post up effectively again. Playing inside and establishing position on the block requires a lot of lower body strength. This strength will come when Gasol is fully healthy again and when he plays the center position, he should be able to establish deeper position in the post. This improved position will put more pressure on opposing team defenses, thus spacing the floor for shooters like Nash, Jamison and Jodie Meeks.

Pick and roll:

Nash’s return will also help Gasol in pick and roll opportunities. D’Antoni’s fast-paced system, especially in the half court, is primarily predicated on high ball screens. Gasol has not been relatively ineffective in pick and roll situations with current point guards Duhon and Darius Morris. Nash’s return should instead help maximize Gasol’s role in these situations by probing the paint and creating mismatches for Gasol.

Since Gasol is still one of the most talented big men in the game today, he is able to score from many different spots on the floor. The beauty of this is that Gasol can pick and roll, pick and pop or simply slip the ball screen. Having Nash as the initiator of the pick and roll offense will help Gasol tremendously by creating opportunities to maximize his effectiveness in all three of those outcomes.

Although there is no target date and Nash and Gasol are not exactly expected to make their returns this week, the Lakers remain optimistic that their returns are close. The smartest way to handle their return and maximize their efficiency is to bring them back at the same time. The Lakers might as well continue to rest Gasol, even if he is ready to return, since Gasol is not as effective in D’Antoni’s system without Nash running the show, and the extra rest will ensure his long-term health.

Both players have high basketball IQs, however, and should complement each other well offensively. Nash’s knowledge of D’Antoni’s offense will turn him into a coach on the floor and help every player become more effective. Nash’s intelligence and desire to play with Gasol will also be key in integrating Gasol successfully.

As the Lakers begin their four-game road trip this Tuesday in Cleveland, be on the look out for the future return of the Lakers’ two All-Stars.