SLAMonline Top 50: Steve Nash, no. 6

by Russ Bengtson

Logic dictates that Steve Nash should not be this high on the SLAM top 50 list.

Logic dictates that Steve Nash will not be as effective this season in what will presumably be a more measured half-court offense.

Logic dictates that Steve Nash—who turns 35 on February 7th and already spends his time “on the bench” lying on his sore back with a towel behind his head—is going to fall off soon, and he’s going to fall off hard.

The thing, though, is this: Steve Nash has never had much use for logic. His NBA career has run on tape delay. He wasn’t a regular starter until his third season, didn’t play in an All-Star game until his sixth, didn’t average double-digit assists until his ninth.

That’s when things got crazy, when he teamed up with Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix and showed that run-and-gun was more than just a curiosity. His numbers over the past four seasons have been nothing short of spectacular, launched him from quirky All-Star to no-doubt Hall of Famer. He’s led the League in assists three of the past four seasons, and last season, when he finished second, he still averaged 11.1 per. On top of that 11.1, he shot over 50 percent from the floor for the fourth straight year, 47 percent from three (he’s only been below 40 percent once in his career—his career percentage of 43.1 is higher than both Reggie Miller’s and Ray Allen’s), and 90 percent from the line. He can score any way, from anywhere, anytime, off either foot and with either hand. If it’s points you want, there’s no one better—or at least more efficient—at getting them than Stephen John Nash.

That’s offense. So let’s talk about defense. Or lack thereof. The biggest knock against Nash is that he only plays one side of the ball. He doesn’t even get the glamour stats—he’s only averaged as much as one steal a game three times, most recently in ’04-05. But hold on a minute. To the best of my knowledge, a point guard’s primary function is to control the tempo. And who does that better than Nash? He pushes the ball constantly, always on the attack, getting easy buckets for whoever deigns to keep up, creating fast breaks out of thin air. And if the offense breaks down, he’s always there to bail it out with an off-balance runner (thank you, futbol) or buzzer-beating three. One could argue that his supreme offensive efficiency makes up for his defensive deficiencies. Or maybe that’s just me.

The second-largest knock against him would be his failure to reach a single NBA Finals. Which would be a bigger deal, I think, had others in the top 20 never made it out of the first round. Besides, Nash has had a pair of 20-game postseasons, in ’02-03 with Dallas and ’05-06 with Phoenix. That second one could have easily gone longer, but that’s been discussed far too often.

Let’s get another thing straight, too. Steve Nash is an incredible athlete. No, he doesn’t have Corey Maggette’s physique or Nate Robinson’s hops or Allen Iverson’s speed. But he comes from an athletic family—his father was a professional soccer player, as is his older brother. And Nash’s athleticism is more like that required for soccer, based primarily on stamina and balance. “His core strength is off the charts,” Mike D’Antoni told the New York Times a year ago. Watch him for just a few minutes and you’ll see—the wrong-footed floaters, the split-second gear changes, the ability to catch defenders leaning.

Nash is the biggest mistake Mark Cuban ever made, the one blue-chip asset missing from his portfolio. Since re-joining the Suns, the team that drafted him in ’96, Nash has missed all of 17 games in four years, played 35 minutes per, and averaged career highs in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, free-throw percentage, rebounds per game, assists per game, and points per game. (In the interests of full disclosure, turnovers, too.) Cuban hesitated to give Nash a max contract because of his balky back and his age. Nash went on to win two straight MVPs. And in the past seven seasons, he’s never played fewer than 75 games. Fragile? Perhaps. Durable? Most definitely.

There are questions, of course, more this off-season than most. With architect D’Antoni in New York and superfreak Shawn Marion in Miami, will Nash continue to play at such a high level? Will his back finally catch up with him? Will a more traditional half-court offense expose his defense, drastically reduce his assists and shots, and push him further back into the point guard pack? Will young whippersnappers Deron Williams and Chris Paul leave him in their wake, forcing him to settle for Third-Team All-NBA (or worse)? After all, even John Stockton, who played 82 games a year like clockwork until he was 41, dropped off dramatically when he was 35.

But I’m not so sure whether Nash will fall off quite yet. There was that late start, for, uh, starters. And remember 2005-06, Nash’s second MVP season? The Suns won 54 games, lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six in the Western Conference Finals. Remember how many games Amare Stoudemire played that year? Three. Kurt Thomas started 50 games at center, and they still managed to run, still managed to win.

It’s also perhaps worth noting that new Suns coach Terry Porter sports a 71-93 career record. Meanwhile, in the four years Nash has been in Phoenix, the Suns have gone 232-96. And if you go back to his Dallas days, Nash’s teams have enjoyed eight straight seasons with 52 or more wins, three with 60-plus. It seems like if either has to adapt to the other, Porter would be the one to change. And despite his older teammates, you can count on Nash still pushing it every chance he gets.

There’s some other stuff from that Times article that’s worth mentioning (it ran in PLAY magazine—you can read the entire thing right here). Like this quote from D’Antoni: “I’ve always said when Steve retires, I’ll retire. I don’t want anyone to be able to figure out whether our success is because of my system or Steve’s ability to make it work.”

So much for all that. Looks like we’ll find out one way or another. But D’Antoni finished his thought with this: “I think Steve is one of those guys who has always lived for the game. You can have all the money in the world, but for the great players the only thing that matters is winning a title.”

I believe that. I believe that Nash realizes that, to be considered amongst the games true greats, that he needs to lift at least one Larry O’Brien over his head. And while the mix in Phoenix is no longer conducive to 130-128 barn burners, others want what he wants. Shaq wants that fifth ring. Grant Hill wants to get out of the first round. Amare wants to get in the MVP conversation. Terry Porter wants to accomplish what D’Antoni couldn’t.

Back to the PLAY story. Nash was asked about his own drive: “I don’t know. I have a lot of energy and a lot of motivation. I have a hard time sitting still. I guess in a way I can’t live with the alternative to being driven, which is sitting around being bored. If I’m going to go for something, I’m really going to go for it. I think I realized as a kid that I would keep going when other kids stopped. If my legs are there, if my quickness is there, I can have a good game. If not, I try to find other ways of making plays without being quick. Making smart plays. Making the game simple.”

This is not over, not by a long shot. Nash may not post the numbers he has the past four years, but he will remain the same player. The Steve Nash he was in Dallas is long gone. He’s come too far, accomplished too much. He’s been rebuilt—smarter, faster, stronger. At 34, he’s still very much in his prime. And who’s to say he can’t play in a different system? He excelled feeding a seven-foot sharpshooter in Dallas, he excelled leading the League’s most devastating fast break in Phoenix. You can question his MVP awards, but I don’t see how you can question the player who won them.

(Some numbers that had no place anywhere in the preceding but I think are interesting nonetheless: Nash has missed 248 free throws in his career. A certain large-boned teammate of his once missed 473 in a season. Nash has played in 108 career playoff games, while a certain predecessor at the point in Phoenix who was drafted the same year has only played in 18. Meanwhile, Nash has earned $71 million in his career, the predecessor nearly double that. Funny how things work.)

(If you don’t agree with anything I said, maybe just re-watch this.)

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