Nash not thinking about legacy
With every game Steve Nash plays in these Western Conference finals, he makes and rewrites history.
Each 48-minute session extends his record for most playoff games without appearing in the NBA Finals, a number currently at 113. Yet every step deeper into the playoffs serves to validate Nash, to show that the two MVP awards he won weren't just the by-product of a gimmicky system, that maybe he's valuable after all.
There were many who believed that the record was solely a product of former Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds Or Less" offense. Or that after D'Antoni left and the pace slowed down, Nash had been exposed as nothing more than an average point guard.
For Nash, this season is like Kurt Warner's time with the Arizona Cardinals, which showed the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" days were more a testament to his quarterbacking ability than to Mike Martz's offensive schemes. Just compare what Nash has done without D'Antoni to what D'Antoni has done without Nash.
Then there are those who say Nash's two trophies tainted the award, that he didn't make enough of an impact, didn't play enough defense, didn't deserve twice as many MVP trophies as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal ever won, or two more than John Stockton, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd ever got a chance to hold.
I made the mistake of getting into a Nash debate that erupted on Twitter recently, and there were so many shots flying back and forth that I felt like an extra on HBO's "The Pacific." There were charges that his averages of 17.2 points and 11 assists in his MVP seasons weren't special enough to warrant basketball immortality, that his failure to reach the Finals invalidated whatever he had accomplished in the regular season.
For starters, the MVP is a regular-season award. The playoffs can serve as a reflection or referendum on it, but performance there shouldn't be cause for an outright reversal. What Nash did in 2004-06 was win basketball games. Sixty-two and then 54, the latter without Amare Stoudemire for all but three games. As an added bonus, he did it in a style that served as the vanguard for the new wave of point guards running things in the NBA.
If you look at the leaguewide numbers, you'll see that, in comparison to the previous five seasons of the decade, scoring is up, field goal percentage is better and the games have a faster pace. A large amount of credit goes to the rule change that eliminated handchecking on the perimeter and went into effect in the 2004-05 season. Now that defenders didn't have the ability to slow and redirect quick guards with a well-placed hand, point guards practically had a runway into the lane.
The genius of what Nash did was in using this new twist to return to the basics of basketball. The object has always been to get the ball as close to the hoop as possible, which creates high-percentage shots either for the dribbler or for another shooter left open by a collapsing defense. Instead of doing so through the traditional low-post method, Nash did it by continuously probing the lane, circling back out like Wayne Gretzky coming from the backside of the net if he had to, always looking for a way to help his teammates.
He maintained the MVP as a reward for team success, which was in its history. Are you outraged that Nash won it over Kobe when the latter scored 35 per game in 2005-06? Save it for the time Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 and the award went to Bill Russell (whose Celtics finished 11 games ahead of Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors in the same division).
This season, the Suns started winning again. They're modified; you don't see them scoring four seconds after an opponent's made shot too often anymore, and they took 230 fewer shots this season than they did in 2004-05. But Nash wound up with more assists this season than he did in either of the MVP years. And the Suns wound up with 54 wins and the No. 3 spot in a Western Conference race that was so close it almost needed a recount.
Validation? Nash doesn't think that way.
"It doesn't really cross my mind, to be honest," he said. "I just play because it's fun to be a part of a team and to play this great game. If we could win a championship, that would be the ultimate [reward]. I get plenty of reward and enjoyment out of just being a part of a team and playing the game. Obviously we're all trying to win a championship right now, but you're a part of the team and a part of the journey, getting up every day and trying to get better. It's a pretty fun career opportunity."
He also had the fortune of peaking at the right time: Shaq and Tim Duncan were sliding downward; LeBron James wasn't ready to ascend; and Kobe was more fixated on scoring than on winning. So Nash stumbled into the elite circle of multiple MVP winners -- a 12-man list that includes such single names as Kareem, Michael, Bird, Russell, Wilt and Magic -- precisely because he didn't try to get there. He never made it about him or his numbers.
I always have confidence in what I bring to the table. My teammates have always had a lot of confidence in me. And that's what really matters to me.” -- Steve Nash
He was better at accuracy than volume; in league history, the only categories in which he ranks among the top five are 3-point and free throw shooting percentages. But anytime general manager Steve Kerr travels with the Suns, Nash isn't even the top 3-point shooter on the team bus. (Kerr is the all-time leader.) And Kerr also has the five championship rings he won with the Bulls and Spurs.
It took Stockton 13 years to get to the NBA Finals, and Stockton still ranks ahead of Nash on the point guard ladder. Nash doesn't spend much time worrying about the hierarchy.
But this season has to help Nash when it's time to write his career retrospective. The way he closed out the Spurs with a busted right eye (a week and a half later, his socket remains a weird tint of yellow and purple, an odd coincidence in this series) gives him some tough-guy cred, as well.
His response: "I don't really care. If that's an argument for me as a player, great. I'm not really thinking about that. I always have confidence in what I bring to the table. My teammates have always had a lot of confidence in me. And that's what really matters to me."
He isn't consumed by the quest for the championship ring, either. Could you imagine Nash, of all people, even wearing one of those gaudy things?
Needing a championship to finalize his career is, he says, "Not really in my thought process. Neither is -- what's the term you use, legacy? I'm just happy that I've got a great job, I love my teammates, I'm playing ball and we've got an opportunity to win a championship."
Maybe Nash's flaw is that he seems too ordinary. We watch pro sports to be awed by feats we can't do ourselves. How many people could hit those fallaway jumpers over double-teams that Bryant made in Game 1? Or how many could spring off the floor as high as Shannon Brown did in his dunk attempt over Jason Richardson?
But Nash's slow-moving underhanded layups look like something we all could do. He never jumps above sock level. He's just so normal. And by now, we should realize that's what makes him great. He wasn't the product of a lab experiment. We see now that it doesn't matter whether the coach was D'Antoni or Alvin Gentry. This is just what Steve Nash does.