by Ben York
Last Wednesday Steve Nash surpassed Maurice Cheeks for 9th on the all-time Assists Leaders list with 7,393. It was a moment that went virtually unnoticed apart from a few minor blurbs in the papers and quick mentions on television. Unlike others who go out of their way to pull down a 10th rebound late in the game to record a triple-double (even if their team secured the win minutes before), this achievement was attained by Nash as a direct correlation of perseverance and unselfishness.
Working hard and changing the minds of doubters is nothing new to Steve. Upon his return to the Suns as a free agent in 2004, many wrote Nash off and believed he was on the decline. Pundits couldn’t fathom that him continuing at his customary break-neck pace to justify the lucrative, long-term contract. It’s no secret that Nash proved his critics wrong, leading the Suns to the Western Conference Finals the next two seasons winning the MVP Award each year. Nash continued to perform as steadily as any point guard in the game through the ‘07-08 NBA season. After the loss to the Spurs in the first round of the 2008 Playoffs, however, grumblings and skepticism once again were directed Nash’s way.
The perplexing thing in the minds of many fans and analysts is the transformation in his demeanor. Never one to let anger or negative thoughts get the best of him, the smile that had become a staple in the Phoenix sports world had become strangely absent. It seemed Nash just wasn’t enjoying the game as much as he once did. His head hung more, frustration had markedly set in, and doubt had crept into the forefront. But, in looking at the changes over the past year, who can blame him? Over a period of less than 12 months the coach who helped revive his career had left for New York, the system that produced so many victories had slowed down considerably, and his best friend was traded away. On top of that, the Suns’ window for a championship was thought by many to have shut.
While personnel changes are nothing new in the business side of the NBA, Nash has never been driven by the money, celebrity or recognition that come with being a professional athlete. A genuinely loyal person, he’s been quoted several times saying how difficult it is for him to separate the business side of the NBA from the personal side. The Suns’ success during this era could certainly be attributed to Nash and the D’Antoni system alone, but what truly made it unique and effective year after year has been the close-knit relationship of the players; Nash was a big part of facilitating that closeness as the leader and captain.
Yet, his humbleness and selflessness are what set Nash apart in such a narcissistic world. Whether it’s asking his teammates to join him at the podium when he accepted his first MVP award or visiting children in the hospital after beating the Lakers in the 2007 Playoffs, Nash stayed grounded and deflected the credit he unquestionably earned. Perhaps what’s more noteworthy is that the aforementioned stories about Nash surprise no one.
But as we all know, the tide can ostensibly turn overnight. In the 2008 off-season rumors started flying about Nash possibly following D’Antoni to New York or heading back home to Toronto. Many detractors continually cited the end of the Nash era in Phoenix, much of which was attributed at the time to Nash getting older and losing a step. In fairness, the criticism he faced in the off-season was justified early on in the regular season with his sub-par play (compared to his standards). In November, Nash averaged just over 7 apg — almost 4 assists less than his average over the previous four seasons. His scoring dropped almost 5 ppg while also displaying an increase in turnovers. The proverbial torch-passing from Nash being the best point guard in the NBA was accelerating much faster than anticipated. Was it a product of Terry Porter’s more methodical system? Could it be attributed to playing with Shaquille O’Neal? Or maybe, despite the Suns training staff’s best efforts, we were finally seeing signs of wear and tear catching up with Nash?
The answer wasn’t immediately clear, and fans were left to speculate if the end to the Steve Nash era in Phoenix would come to a screeching halt much sooner than originally thought. Questions arose regarding the Mike D’Antoni “Seven Seconds or Less” philosophy and if his engine, not the driver, was the central foundation of the Suns recent success. Once again, Nash had something to prove.
From October to December, the Suns were consistently amongst the league leaders in turnovers, averaging nearly 19 per game. What is most overlooked regarding is that the ball was shared more evenly throughout the rest of the team rather than solely being in Nash’s hands (as had been the case the previous four years). Turnovers actually increased when more players were handling the ball. Now, it’s a natural assumption that the more time one player controls the ball, the higher the probability of turning the ball over. In fact, the opposite has been true for the Suns this season. When Porter started allowing Nash to facilitate and be the floor general again, turnovers lessened. To date, the Suns have improved their average turnovers per game to 15.7, almost 4 less than the first half of the season. Again, this has improved despite the ball being in Nash’s hands more and returning to a much faster pace of play.
After Terry Porter’s mid-season firing, assistant coach Alvin Gentry took the reins and set Nash loose again. Phoenix returned to a quicker system; however, it’s still considerably slower than the D’Antoni years due to the focus on incorporating Shaq in the low post. Nevertheless, even in this hybrid system where Nash doesn’t have as much flexibility to create as previous years, his individual statistics are eerily congruent with his revolutionary ‘04-05 MVP season when the Suns went 62-20. Nash is averaging 15.7 ppg (he averaged 15.5 in ‘04-05), 3.5 turnovers per game (an increase of a mere .2 percent from ‘04-05, and the exact same amount as Deron Williams), shooting a career-best 94 percent from the free throw line (he shot 88 percent in ‘04-05), making the exact same amount of shots per game (5.7), and shooting 49 percent from the floor (only 1 percent less than ‘04-05). Perhaps what is more amazing is that he’s having this success while averaging the least amount of minutes per game in four years (33.9).
In addition, despite spending three months of the season in the most lethargic system of his NBA career, Nash still has 635 total assists, trailing only Chris Paul (741). Though his assists per game is down by about 1.5 to 9.7, it’s still a solid third in the league behind youngsters Chris Paul and Deron Williams (who are only ahead of Nash by about 1 assist per game). Upon the gradual return to a faster pace beginning in January, Nash proved he can still hang with the young guns leading the league in assists during that month with almost 12 per game. Amazingly, he tallied 12 or more assists in nine of the Suns 16 games in January. He continued the trend in February averaging 10 apg with only 30 total turnovers the entire month.
There is no refuting that Steve Nash doesn’t have the legs he once did in the early 2000’s. He struggles in the second game of back-to-backs and continues to a difficult time defending the quicker and younger guards in the League. But Steve Nash, at the age of 35, is irrefutably still one of the best point guards in the League today. Players come and go, philosophies differ and the League is perhaps as dynamic as it’s ever been. Nash has seemingly found the “Fountain of Youth” in Phoenix and still shows little signs of deteriorating. Take his most recent game against the Sacramento Kings: 31 points, 14 assists, 57 percent from the floor — not bad for someone on his “last leg.”
There will surely be weighty decisions for both the Suns franchise and Nash’s future in the off-season. What will happen if the Suns miss the Playoffs? Do they owe Nash a trade to a contender before we really see signs of his downfall? Would Nash even want that? Undoubtedly, those questions will be addressed, but this season isn’t over quite yet…
Let us not hastily forget that Steve Nash has exuded character, integrity and resolve to dazzle fans on a nightly basis for 13 years, and his tank is far from empty. As the Suns continue their push for a final playoff spot, and in an era full of change and doubt, he’s been able to remain a Solar Constant on Planet Orange.
Ben York is a Managing Editor for the NBA section at Fanster.com. He can be contacted with comments and/or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.