Warning: The YouTube clips contained within this article contain both incredible basketball and some very questionable music choices. The mute button is your friend.
I was a basketball fan before Steve Nash played in the NBA, but I wasn't a fanatic until he came to Phoenix. In fact, it was kind of hard to be a basketball fan before he came to Phoenix; most of the league played ugly, physical, grind-it-out ball and thugs like Bruce Bowen and Kenyon Martin made their money throwing 'bos. Sure, from '94-'04 there were a few entertaining teams that rose above the trend; Jordan's Bulls, Stockton & Malone's Jazz, Shaq's Lakers, Olajuwon's Rockets, and even Nash's own Dallas Mavericks…. but the league, as a whole, played prison ball and it wasn't really all that fun to watch. All post ups and free throws and one-on-ones. Yawn.
In the 2004-2005 NBA season, Steve Nash came to Phoenix and made basketball fun again. I was hooked, and the league was never really the same. Pundits will credit the increased pace and reduced physicality in the league to the hand-check rule instituted around that time, but pundits are wrong; Memphis still plays exactly like every team from the early 2000s, and they're far from alone. Sure, the hand-check rule has made life easier for the Kobe/Lebron types to drive to the basket… and yet none of them can top Jordan's scoring or Doctor J's ludicrous efficiency of offensive rebounding… and yet, Jordan and Doc didn't have the hand-check rule. And Steve Nash was already a two-time All-Star before he came to Phoenix. In the history of NBA basketball, the hand-check rule is a footnote; Steve Nash is a chapter.
One of the most entertaining chapters in the whole book, in fact. Nash's "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns were a blast to watch, playing uptempo ball with seemingly every possession ending with either a three pointer or a thunderous dunk, all of it orchestrated by Nash's incomparable court vision and ball control. It's difficult to explain exactly how unique and special Nash's brand of creativity was. It's an old cliche to compare a hyper-creative basketball player to a jazz musician, but perhaps its most apt with Nash; every possession was an improvisation, and often he'd come up with something I'd never seen in fifteen years (or whatever) of watching professional ball. Wholly unselfish, he had an almost otherworldly awareness of where his teammates were on the court and the incredible body control to manipulate his own speed, direction, and inertia like a cheetah changing direction at full sprint. So, yeah, I guess he was a jazz-playing cheetah with spider-sense, is what I'm trying to tell you.
Whatever he was, and whatever the Suns were (a group of hyena veteran studio musicians with rocket boots maybe?), they made for some extremely entertaining basketball. But simply being an entertaining team wasn't going to save basketball from itself; the league never adopted the persona of those Jordan/Malone/Shaq/Olajuwon teams I listed above, or even Nash's Mavs; they were all entertaining outliers. Great outliers, sure- and most of them probably better teams than Nash's Suns- but outliers.
So why did (more or less) the entire NBA ape the Phoenix philosophy? It wasn't just because it made the game more entertaining, or even because it was an effective style of basketball- it was because it made every member of your team into an offensive weapon. Virtually every player who played with Nash during his prime put up career high numbers in both scoring and efficiency, and guys like Robin Lopez, Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas, and Marcin Gortat all became deadly offensive weapons capable of 20 or 30 point nights with Phoenix… even though all of them came to the Suns as defensive specialists. Similarly, the Nash Suns resurrected the careers of Shaq, Grant Hill, and Vince Carter, a trio of basketball mummies who shook off the dust and played like stars again beside Nash. Transition, high-efficiency ball creates opportunities for everybody, defensive specialists and dinosaurs alike, and it mitigates the need for a dominating interior creator (the Shaq/Olajuwon model) or foul-drawing volume scoring daredevil (Doc/Jordan/Kobe/Wade). That's a pretty appealing option for the twenty-nine teams that don't have a Shaq or a Jordan. Those types of players are still valuable- probably even essential if you want to win it all- but they're no longer indispensable to a great offense. You can play Steve Nash's brand of basketball without Steve Nash. You can do it without any real stars and put up respectable offensive numbers (Denver's a great example).
If you have real stars, though? Watch out. Steve Nash's teams led the league in offensive efficiency for nine consecutive years; I don't know if that had ever happened before (maybe the West/Baylor Lakers?) but I can tell you it will never happen again. It's ludicrous. But Nash was the only player we've ever seen who was both the best shooter in the league (or in league history) and the best passer, so for him, it was possible. There was simply no way to guard Nash's Suns.
Speaking of Nash's Suns, let's put to bed the myth that they couldn't win a title. They didn't, but there's three separate seasons you can credibly argue that they should have. Three of Nash's four best Suns teams were derailed by random chance as much as by the Spurs or Mavericks or Lakers. In 2005, they had the best regular season record and a bonafide fourth star alongside Nash/Amare/Marion in Joe Johnson… but Johnson and Marion both got hurt in the playoffs, and the cannier, veteran Spurs outsmarted the upstart Suns despite monster performances from Nash and Amare. In '06, Amare missed the entire season and Phoenix made it to the Western Conference Finals anyway, where it briefly looked like they were going to beat Dallas and move on to face a Miami team made up mostly of old men who couldn't keep up with a Nash offense (i.e., a title win) until Raja Bell- the team's best defender and best non-Nash three point shooter- also went down with an injury. They still almost won, but it's a rare team that can make the Finals without its starting center (and best scorer) or its starting shooting guard (and best defender).
And then there was was 2007, the year in which the Phoenix Suns beat the eventual champion Spurs but somehow lost anyway. It's the Kennedy assassination of NBA playoff series; everybody's got an opinion, nobody can prove anything, but we can all agree a crime was committed. Steve Nash- on fire that night- missed much of the fourth quarter of Game 1 with a bloody nose (NBA rules prohibit players who are bleeding at all from playing), a narrow Spurs win. Phoenix took Game 2 without too much trouble. Game 3 appeared to be a legitimate Spurs blowout… until the referee calling the game was arrested for fixing basketball games. While he's never outright confirmed or denied that he fixed Game 3, it's not exactly a hard mystery to solve:
Note the score slowly shifting in San Antonio's favor over the course of that clip. But, hey, it's just one game, who cares? Well, in Game 4, Phoenix made an epic comeback to reclaim home court advantage (led almost entirely by Nash's brilliance), but the game ended with poor sport "Cheap Shot Bob" Robert Horry body slamming the much smaller Nash through the scorer's table. Amare Stoudemire (Nash's best co-star) and Boris Diaw (Amare's backup and eventual Spurs defector) get up off the bench and heads towards Nash. NBA Commissioner David Stern responded to the fracas by suspending Bob Horry (San Antonio's 6th or 7th best player) for two games… and suspending Amare and Diaw each for one. But, hey, at least the ruling was enforced both ways; you're not allowed to leave the bench, right Timmy?
That'd be Tim Duncan, San Antonio's best player, leaving the bench during the exact same game and actually stepping onto the court. TIm Duncan was not suspended. San Antonio would go on to beat the Suns in Game 5 (hard to beat the Spurs without your center or backup center) and Game 6 (mostly legitimate, though Nash and Marion were visibly fatigued from being forced to play 40+ minutes in Game 5 to make up for the absence of Diaw and Stoudemire) and win the title against the Cleveland Cavaliers… but when you look at the bloody nose, the refereeing of Game 3, and the suspensions, it isn't a stretch to say Phoenix won- or should have won- four or five games of a six game series and somehow still lost.
The Phoenix Suns were the 2007 NBA Champions to anybody who was paying attention. Nash had one final near-miss in 2010, where the Lakers beat the Suns in crunchtime of Game 5 on a miracle air-ball by Kobe and put-back by Artest; had Kobe hit rim- like he has on every other crunch time miss of his career- the Suns likely win the game and advance, but that one, at least, is just bad luck.
I dredge all of this up to make the point that Steve Nash was a winner, and the only true black mark on his career isn't his lack of titles- one things goes different in '05, '06, '07, or '10 and he has at least one- but his defense. Nash was a mediocre defender at best, with his only real defensive skill being charge-taking. It's something people love to bring up about Nash when comparing him to other great point guards, but you wanna know a secret? Magic Johnson wasn't a good defender, either, and the Lakers generally hid him on the opposing team's 3 (unless it was Bird or Doc or someone like that) and let Coop, or Silk, or Byron deal with guarding the point guard. John Stockton and Isiah Thomas were both good defenders- if dirty ones- but they couldn't stop bigger guards. Oscar was just ok, and some would argue worse than that. Cousy didn't even bother, as he knew had Russell behind him to bat cleanup. Incidentally, that's the accepted list of guys who are in Nash's stratosphere at that position (though I'd personally throw in Walt Frazier who WAS an elite defender, but by no means at the level of those other guys offensively).
The point is, historically, you don't need to be a great defender to be a truly great point guard. And Nash is a truly great point guard. In fact, if you're just looking at playing the position, he might be the best point guard. Everyone who played with him had career years, he shot the ball when he had to (and more efficiently than any other player in NBA history) and he routinely led the league in assists while his team lead the league in every major offensive metric. It wasn't his job to shut down the other guy's best player, and if you stick Nash on Magic's Lakers teams you probably win a lot of the same titles. You lose some rebounding, sure, and the passing's comparable, but with Nash's shooting you're all of a sudden clearing out even more space for Kareem and Worthy to do their damage inside.
I'm getting off-topic, but it was worth doing. I'm not saying Nash is the best point guard ever; only that you could make the argument if you were so inclined (I'm not, and this article isn't long enough to really get into it even if I were). He's a guy likely to be remembered too much for his flaws-which aren't really flaws, given context- instead of the beautiful way he played basketball, and the fact that he almost single-handedly saved the league from the doldrums of 2000s era San Antonio and Detroit style basketball. If you like watching the current Spurs, you owe Nash a thank you, and Greg Popovich has admitted as much. If you liked the offense of the James/Wade Miami Heat, it was descended from the offense Nash ran in Phoenix and they'd both admit it. If you're a Lob City fan, you should enjoy these videos and realize that Lob City, California is a lot like Paris, Texas.
I would like to say we'll never see another like him, but while we're speaking of entertaining basketball, Nash was the mentor and basketball tutor to this guy:
Even with Nash gone, we've still got Goran, and we've still got a twenty teams in a thirty team league that play like they think they're trading for Nash next week and they just want him to be comfortable. That's what it ultimately comes down to: Nash made basketball so much fun to watch. It's not just the oops, obviously. It's all of it; the impossible passes, the falling-out-of-bounds layups, the two-second offensive possessions… Steve Nash saved basketball by making it fun again. He made up-tempo basketball a viable strategy (last fast-break team to win a Finals before Lebron's Miami teams? Magic's Lakers. But all of the last three championships were played between two teams running up-tempo systems), and in so doing, he made the league more fun than it's been since the 80s. Sports should be fun to watch, and Nash made sure at least one of them was. They should give medals to guys like him… but since they don't, I suppose he'll have to settle for his two MVP trophies instead. Somehow I think he'll be ok.
I've seen Steve Nash play live three times. I will eventually forget the scores of those games, the winners, even the other teams and players. But I will never forget watching Steve Nash play basketball, and neither will you.
Thank you, Steve.
Nick Feldman is the walkabout third founder of Zeitgeeks. While he occasionally pays us a visit here, the vast majority of his writing, including television reviews and some pretty baller (like, Steve Nash level baller) crime fiction, can be found over at his blog, www.nicksblogamericain.com