What do Babe Ruth and Steve Nash have in common?
What they started out excelling at is not what they're known for.
Babe Ruth started as a pitcher. Well, not just "a" pitcher—Ruth was the best left-handed pitcher of his era. From 1915-17, Ruth won 65 games, more than any other southpaw in the majors. In 1916 he led the league with a 1.75 ERA.
And yet we know Ruth for only one thing: home runs.
Steve Nash is the Babe Ruth of basketball.
He's fifth all-time in assists. He won his two MVP awards largely on his ability to dish the ball. And yet, way back in Nash's rookie season, he hardly handled the ball.
Nope. He pretty much just shot.
Just as he's doing again now.
But first, back to yesteryear: As a fresh-faced 15th overall pick out of Santa Clara in 1996, Nash joined a Phoenix Suns team that was forward-thinking (get the pun?) for its guard-heavy rotation.
The starters on the Suns' 1993 NBA Finals squad might not have been eligible to ride the rollercoasters at Magic Mountain. Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle and Cedric Ceballos were all 6'6"; Danny Ainge was 6'5", and Kevin Johnson, the point guard of this diminutive group, was a mere 6'3". Yes, sometimes 6'10" Mark West started at center, but in general, the Little Lineup That Could was revolutionizing basketball.
In Nash's rookie 1996-1997 season, coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was fired after eight games, and new head coach—and former Suns small-baller himself—Danny Ainge decided to continue the small-ball Phoenix tradition.
Ainge often started guards Kevin Johnson and Sam Cassell—traded midseason for Jason Kidd—in the backcourt, shooting guard Rex Chapman at small forward and guard/forward George McCloud at power forward.
Nash, incredibly, was the fifth guard in what was ostensibly a four-guard starting lineup.
With a guard rotation that talented, established and deep, Nash was lucky to get any playing time. For the season, his per-game averages were 10.5 minutes, 3.3 points and 2.1 assists. Per 36 minutes, his totals were 11.2 points and 7.3 assists.
What caught most observers' eyes that rookie season was Nash's stellar three-point shooting: 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. The average was the second-best ever for a Suns rookie.
Eventually, the oft-injured Johnson lost his starting job, and Nash began to make a name for himself backing up Kidd. His minutes the following season doubled, but his dimes merely increased to 3.4 per game, while his points shot up to 9.1 per contest.
Though Nash's assist totals continued to rise after his trade to Dallas, Nash was still considered a scoring point guard. It wasn't until his return to Phoenix that he became the pass-first, rock-sharing dervish we know him for now.
Fast forward to this year in Laker Land.
Coach Mike Brown was fired six games into the season—just two games earlier than Nash's rookie head coach Fitzsimmons.
His replacement: Mike D'Antoni, who was fascinated with the Sun's small-ball lineup of the mid-'90s while he was coaching in Italy and ran it to perfection upon Nash's return to Phoenix.
He would love to implement small-ball in Los Angeles.
To that end, he's also made Nash a shoot-first guard.
Can someone say deja vu?
Yes, thanks to D'Antoni's offensive subterfuge, backcourt mate Kobe Bryant's the guy facilitating, while Nash is the spot-up shooter. Nash's assists have dropped to eight per 36 minutes, his lowest total in 10 years and equivalent to his rookie season.
And just as in his rookie season, his three-point shots—Nash is hitting 43.8 percent on the season, 2.0 percentage points higher than his rookie campaign—are drawing defensive respect.
His shots are also eliciting high praise. No less a luminary than Bryant gushed to the L.A. Daily News, "[Steve Nash] is one of the greatest shooters of all time."
Bryant is right. Nash is on track to have a 50-40-90 season. That's 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the charity stripe. Like the Triple Crown for baseball's elite hitters, the 50-40-90 mark is a very exclusive club.
Dirk Nowitzki. Mark Price. Reggie Miller. Steve Kerr. Jose Calderon. Larry Bird twice.
Since 1979, those are the only players to accomplish this feat.
Oh, did we forget to mention Nash?
The man best known for his seven seasons averaging double-digit assists with the Suns has, incredibly, already notched four 50-40-90 seasons.
This one, at the ripe old age of 39, would be his fifth.
And in point of shocking fact, Nash has nearly averaged a 50-40-90 for his career. Right now, Nash is at 49.1, 42.8 and 90.4.
Whether stretching the floor with outside and perimeter shooting, or creating off the dribble, the remarkable Mr. Nash is truly one of the game's all-time great scorers.
And D'Antoni, Nash's coach during his assist-fest in Phoenix, is now taking advantage of Steve's sweet stroke. During the Lakers' current 7-3 streak, for example, Nash is 14-of-29 from three-point range—an incredible 48.3 percent.
How about that? Nash is known for his three-point shot once again.
Just like when he was a veritable Babe.
Plus, if Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard continue to miss time, D'Antoni might just get his chance to fully recreate Nash's rookie season by starting a vertically-challenged lineup of Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, and Antawn Jamison.
And everything old will become new once more.
One day soon, when Steve Nash hangs up his Nikes and ends his Hall of Fame career, he wants to become a motion picture director.
When he does, if he were to make a movie about this season, he'd likely call it a remake.
At the rate this season is going, the remake might just be even more interesting than the original.
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