On Friday night, Steve Nash will be on the Lakers bench. He'll look like Steve Nash. His hair will be maintained in that perfectly planned, sort-of messy way. He'll laugh with teammates, interact with the crowd in a fashion befitting of the stereotype that all Canadians are nice and take his seat adjacent the action.
He'll be there. Body and mind, but not as a player—like he hasn't been for an increasingly high percentage of his time with the Lakers. Nash has missed 38 of a possible 94 games since arriving in Los Angeles, a period of just over 16 months that feels like an eternity. The man who arrived, the beloved NBA veteran who served as the first piece in the Lakers' supposed push for a return to supremacy, is gone.
In his place is an injury-riddled mess. There are so many injuries piling up at this point that ESPN's player page has him listed out with "general soreness." The reality is that his once-balky back—the one that played a large part in his departure from Dallas way back when—is again rearing its ugly head. Along with an ankle injury. And a hamstring injury. And the general day-to-day soreness that comes with being a dude on the verge of 40.
Nash has made his frustration no secret. He wants to be on the floor, but his body is failing him. He wants to rehab and get better, but his body is failing him. He wants to be Steve Nash again, but his body is failing him.
So you can understand that when a respected NBA reporter like Peter Vecsey claims Nash is contemplating a midseason retirement, the reaction is going to be uproarious.
I'm hearing Nash's pain is forcing him 2 seriously consider calling it a career. He'd still get $ this yr & next & LA'd get cap relief next— Peter Vecsey (@PeterVecsey1) November 19, 2013
The Lakers did a nice job of putting out Vecsey's fire before the report could get out of control. Team sources contacted their local beat writers to give their denials, coach Mike D'Antoni addressed the situation and a gigantic stake was attempted to be wedged into the heart of the story.
"He's 39, almost 40 years old. I think he's looking at, 'What am I going to do when I'm 50?' But no [he's not thinking of retiring]," D'Antoni said, via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN. "Now, whether he can get over this, we'll see. We think he can. We hope he can. But there's no talk of him sitting over there eating bon bons the rest of the way. No."
D'Antoni knows Nash better than anyone, so it's best to take him at face value. It's possible that Nash even returns at some point this season, mostly to give it one more run with the soon-to-be returning Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
But that obscures the reality. The reality is that Nash is done. The cracks in the foundation were set last year, and now we're at the point where a slight wind gust will collapse the roof in through the floors to the basement. These aren't Nash's Wizards years; they're his last breaths.
And it's a shame. Because Steve Nash in his prime is one of the most unique, next-level brilliant players in the history of this league.
For his career, Nash has career averages of 14.3 points and 8.5 assists per game while shooting 49 percent from the floor. If you're at all familiar with Nash's life, you know that obscures Nash's prime, a decade-or-so reign of terror during his late years with the Mavericks and ascent to Point God status with the Suns.
We'll always remember Nash's Phoenix years the fondest, but that's mostly because of the oft-discussed rule changes that forever altered his career trajectory. Nash, never the fleetest of foot, is arguably the superstar who benefited most from the NBA's ban in hand-checking, which allowed offenses greater freedom and opened up the possibility of D'Antoni's four-out, one-in offense working.
And we should be damn glad it did.
For children of my generation, those Suns teams were probably the closest we'll get to the ABA style our fathers and grandfathers wax nostalgic about. The whirring ball movement, quick-shot emphasis without losing efficiency and cabal of unique, talented players was something to behold. In fact, the uniqueness of it all played a major role in Nash winning those two MVPs. It was the reactionary media's response to basketball being, like, fun again.
I'll never agree with those two MVPs, and those who I would call my contemporaries now eventually began distancing themselves, mostly because we all realized that defense matters. Nash, even at his peak, was always a minus defender prone for getting killed on pick-and-rolls and torched by quicker guards.
But the offensive beauty lasted long beyond those first two seasons. Just take a look:
|Year||Points Per 100 Poss||NBA Rank|
Yes, that's six straight seasons leading the NBA in offensive efficiency. Six! The Suns even led the league in that ill-fated Shaquille O'Neal-Terry Porter season, which remains one of the most underrated oil-water mixes in league history. Robert Sarver's penny-pinching nonsense eventually siphoned the talent from this roster, but not even Daddy No Bucks could totally stop the fun.
With Nash leading the charge every step of the way. Going back and watching that version of Nash for this piece, it's incredibly easy to realize just how easy it was for MVP voters to get transfixed. Go ahead and name the NBA players you've ever seen who are not only able to see that pass but ballsy enough to attempt it and great enough to pull it off:
And I'm not even sure this is human:
Basketball fans understandably fawn over every Ricky Rubio behind-the-back pass and the flair with which he pays the game. Now imagine a player making those same passes Rubio does on a nightly basis and doing them with such ease that it looks routine.
There are 14 seasons in NBA history where a player assisted on 50 percent or greater of his teammates' baskets while on the floor. They belong to four players: John Stockton, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Nash. Stockton leads all time with seven, unsurprisingly, but Nash has four—three of which were in his final three seasons in Phoenix. That's an incredible offensive burden to bear and also indicative of what the Lakers thought they were getting in acquiring him.
Now is about as good a time as ever to remind you that Nash was Rubioing his way down the floor while also being one of the best shooters in league history. Nash is second in NBA history at 12 seasons with a true shooting percentage of 60 percent or greater and has the 12th-best rate of all time. He ranks 15th in history in effective field-goal percentage.
In his run with Phoenix, he was probably one of the seven or so best passers in league history while being among the best dozen or so best shooters. Just in case you've never watched basketball before, passing and shooting tend to be vital traits.
But the real key to Nash's game was just what an innate understanding of time and place he has. He made a habit out of driving into seemingly impossible situations in space and somehow contorting his body in all kinds of awkward shapes, staying under control and finding the correct basketball play. Nash's countless baseline drive, keeping his dribble while walking a tightrope, then finding a cutter or even resetting the entire play became famous.
There are three defenders within a foot of the ball here. Less talented guards would have picked up their dribble, spun on their pivot foot and then tried to find Channing Frye on the wing or even called for help from their wing in the corner. Nash says the hell with it, splits all three defenders and Amar'e Stoudemire winds up with an easy dunk.
Nash could do it himself, too, by using his mind to play against the assumption of the defender.
According to Basketball-Reference.com's data*, which dates back to 2000-01, Nash's teams have scored 114.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. In today's NBA, that would be like having the best offense in the league by more than four points every time Nash played. LeBron James' teams, for his career, have averaged 110.7 points per 100 possessions while he's playing. Chris Paul, the inheritor of Nash's Point God status, has a career rate of 111 over that same timeframe.
The numbers, unsurprisingly, jump out even more when we isolate the Phoenix years (Nash on is orange, Nash off is purple):
Looking at the numbers, watching the highlights, parsing the mind-numbing passes, it's sad that we're here now. With Nash becoming the latest hero to finish out his days in the wrong uniform, in the wrong city, while playing as a shell of himself. There was a time where Nash's arrival in Los Angeles felt like an emancipation, from the cheapness of Sarver and the oncoming doom of the Suns franchise.
Instead, now it looks like a harkening of the end. Nash will likely spend his final NBA days like a boxer. His pick-and-roll punches won't pack the same power, and defensively, he'll look lost, being taken advantage of by younger, more athletic guards who have added some of Nash's own moves to their repertoire.
Still, no matter how adept those players become at pulling off Nashian moves, we're a long way away from any of them being as transcendentally fun to watch as Nash was in his prime. They may get there.
For now, we'll have our memories.
*I typically use NBA.com and used that regularly throughout this space. However, NBA.com's on/off data only goes back to 2007-08, while Basketball-Reference.com goes back to the turn of the century.
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