The Phoenix Suns will be inducting Steve Nash into their Ring of Honor in their home game against Portland on Oct 30. And there just might be a certain basketball writer in Texas choking up a bit when it happens. Nash was one of the most enjoyable basketball players I’ve ever had the privilege of watching play.
For the first few years of his career, Nash did almost nothing. He played just over 5,000 minutes through his first four seasons, averaging 7.2 points and 3.8 assists. And at the time, I’d just recently gotten married, switched jobs and moved to Chicago within the last year and a half, so my basketball watching was a little on the slow side during that period of my life.
Then I was watching the prelude to the 2000 Summer Olympics, and this obscure man, who apparently had no idea that Canada was supposed to suck, was destroying Team USA’s defesne. All I could think of as he would shred it, is: Why is this guy not playing in the NBA? Which I guess he technically was, but barely.
But here he had the chance to show what he could really do. Nash was an offense unto himself for Team Canada, and so it was through the entire Olympic experience. Craig Daniels, writing for the National Post described it this way:
The country noticed. Each game, each possession, Nash would bring the ball up court, calmly size up his options and make decisions that confounded opponents and seemed to make his teammates to grow in stature. The game seemed to be his to command, his waterbug signature everywhere. Against Yugoslavia, 6-foot-3 Nash led both teams in scoring, assists and rebounds. Watching him deftly decide when to assert himself and when not was like watching watercolour appear on paper.
Canada did not win a medal, but let’s not forget for a moment that the emerging group of NBA players coming out from the North—including No. 1 overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett—grew up watching Nash.
In fact, nearly half of all Canadian players in history turned 18 after Nash turned in that Olympic performance.
It wasn’t just the success that gripped not only Canada but the world as well. There was something about this guy that wasn’t supposed to be doing what he was doing and doing it so well. Mark Cuban must have been one of them because it was the next year he finally got a shot to shine in the NBA.
Alongside the blossoming Dirk Nowitzki, he did just that. Over the next three seasons with the Mavericks, he proved he was a more-than-capable starting point guard in the NBA, averaging 16.7 points and 7.9 assists, and making two All-Star Games. But he was still just scratching the surface of his potential.
When he was a free agent in the summer of 2004, the Phoenix Suns offered the then-30-year-old Nash a six-year, $65 million deal, which would turn out to be one of the best contracts in NBA history. Nash gave Cuban the chance to match it, but Cuban declined, thinking that Nash wouldn’t be able to handle the minutes as he aged.
Nash spent the next eight years in Phoenix, making six All-Star Games and averaging 16.3 points and 10.9 assists. But the averages don’t do Nash justice. At his peak, Nash was extraordinary off the bounce. He was the perfect offensive version of a “true” point guard, the linchpin of the Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” offense, and the forerunner of Stephen Curry.
There are some players, such as Jordan, whom you recall signature moments of, such as leaning on Scottie Pippen after the flu game or weeping when he won the championship on Father’s Day. With others, you remember a collection of images that merge into a mental collage, such as the thousands (seemingly) of times Iverson would pick himself up off the court after getting mauled by interior defenders.
With Nash, it’s him driving around inside the paint, keeping his head up, maintaining his dribble and somehow just never turning it over or making the wrong play. Ultimately, he’d find the right pass to the rim, to a shooter for three, or just make the shot himself.
And the passes he made. Oh, those sweet, wonderful, ridiculous passes that had you wondering what happened to the ball until it was leaving the shooter’s hands. Behind the back, through defenders legs, over the shoulder or darts to the outlet, Nash was simultaneously theater and threat with the way he delivered the ball.
He made good offensive players great, average ones good and bad ones average by the sheer majesty of his bounce. His second MVP was a testament to his ability to get the most out of his teammates. He hauled a group of players that included Raja Bell as their third-leading scorer to being the league’s second-most-efficient offense. Think about that. He made Bell a weapon. How do you even do that?
Sometimes, it seems we talk about handles and put all the stock in the fanciest, trickiest ones. But Nash had the steadiest dribble I can recall. As he darted about inside the frontcourt, would hook around and come back out and just generally get the entire opposing team fruitlessly chasing after him, inevitably, a perfect shot would open up. And Nash would see it and hit them.
And if it never did, he’d hit the shot.
That particular set of skills is what makes point guards point guards. For those years in Phoenix, arguably no one in history has demonstrated them better or more efficiently than Nash did. And lest you think I’m being hyperbolic, consider this.
In this history of the NBA, there have been 43 seasons where a player averaged 15 points, 10 assists and fewer than four turnovers. Of those, the four highest effective field-goal percentages (and the sixth) belong to Nash according to Basketball-Reference.com. He also won two MVPs in that span.
In other words, when it comes to dishing the ball and scoring efficiently and taking care of the ball—his peak was as high as anyone’s—including Magic Johnson, John Stockton or anyone else you might want to throw out there.
But more than that, he was just entertaining. He didn’t lead the league in the plays that made you fall off your couch in awe. He made the ones that made you fall off your couch laughing because of just how silly he could make a defense look.
Yet, he’ll be one of those guys who is as remembered as much for what he didn’t do as much as what he did do; what he couldn’t do as much as much as what could. People will “yeah but” his MVPs with his lack of rings. They’ll discredit his offensive brilliance with his lack of defense.
What they can never take away is how this unheralded man from Canada was able to swoop in out of nowhere, become a two-time MVP and ascend unparalleled heights at his peak. And no matter what his critics do, they’ll never tarnish the joy of watching him play.