Steve Nash: A fairy tale that deserved a storybook ending
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
The torch is being passed in the NBA. For every Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry and James Harden that enters their prime, a Shaquille O'Neal, an Allen Iverson, a Tracy McGrady disappears into the retirement abyss.
The league is in great hands with Adam Silver as commissioner and LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the lead actors. But it's a sad time as well. The superstars that my generation grew up watching are exiting stage left, but at least we got to see these transcendental players at the peak of their powers go to war against each other.
This is what makes the career of Steve Nash leave the heart particularly heavy. It's not that we never saw the peak of his powers, in terms of offense he's one of the best point guards this league has ever seen. Nash was the conductor of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns, the most explosive offensive machine of the past decade, and along with Magic Johnson he is one of just two point guards to ever be a back-to-back MVP.
What's unjust about Nash's 18-year career is that we will likely never get to see him play for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Nash will have to sit out the 2014-15 season because of a back injury, and although he hasn't officially retired yet, he will be 41 years old and finished with the last year of his current contract by the start of next season.
Should Nash retire, he will leave the game as the most accurate free throw shooter in the history of the league, the third all-time assist leader and the ninth-best ever in terms of three point percentage. For all the players that dominated with their physicality and athleticism, a stringy mop-headed Canadian drafted in the mid-first round would become one of the most well-rounded offensive juggernauts in league history.
Nash at the helm of the run-and-gun Suns when he signed there in 2004 was a beacon of light in a league facing an identity crisis. Michael Jordan had retired for the final time, Ron Artest climbed into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and the NBA's biggest name, Kobe Bryant, had just gone through an ugly court battle in which he was alleged of sexual assault.
In the face of all that, Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Mike D'Antoni ran the best show on hardwood. From 2004 to 2008, the Suns scored an average of just under 118 points per 100 possessions when Nash was on the floor, according to basketball-reference.com, far and away the most of any team during that span.
To give the clearest example of what the "Seven Seconds" Suns embodied, the Dec. 7th, 2006, 161-157 scoreline of a double overtime game against the Nets should tell you everything you need to know. Nash scored a career-high 42 points in that game as well.
Nash was a maestro if ever there was one. He knew exactly where his teammates wanted the ball and how to get it to them in rhythm. He averaged over 11 assists per game five times in his career, something only Magic and John Stockton can say. Nash was also just one assist shy of tying Magic and Stockton's joint record for assists in a playoff game when he dished out 23 of them against the Lakers in '07.
He was tough as nails, and all the other cliche idioms of toughness rolled into one. Here's a guy who scored 31 points in a playoff game with blood pouring out of his nose, and suffered everything from a bloody lip to a chipped tooth in the middle of a game and played through it all. He went an entire fourth quarter of a playoff game in 2010 with one eye swollen shut after being elbowed in the face, and won the game.
And his teams won games. From his breakout season in 2000-01, Nash started on nine teams that won at least 50 games, and only suffered a sub-.500 record twice in those 14 seasons.
But it never translated to the ultimate prize. Despite playing with Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley in Dallas, Stoudemire and Shawn Marion in Phoenix and Dwight Howard and Kobe in L.A., Nash never made a trip to the Finals once. It was Stockton's career arc but without Jordan.
If anyone was the Jordan to Nash's Stockton, it was Tim Duncan. The Spurs ended Nash's playoff runs six different times, twice in the Western Conference Finals. In those duels, Duncan averaged 25 points and 14 rebounds per game.
There were some bad breaks along the way. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the 2003 playoffs in the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio, Nash and the Mavericks were up 69-56 heading into the fourth quarter. Enter 37-year-old Steve Kerr, now head coach of the Warriors, who had barely played in the playoffs.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, searching for any kind of spark, put Kerr in the game and Kerr responded by going four-of-four from three and igniting the Spurs to outscore the Mavericks in the fourth quarter 34 to nine, taking the series.
In a 2-2 Conference Finals series tie with the Spurs in the '07 playoffs, Stoudemire, who would be selected First Team All-NBA that season, was suspended for Game 5 along with Boris Diaw for leaving the bench when Robert Horry shoved Nash into the scorer's table. The Suns lost Game 5 and then the series in Game 6.
Nash's final two years with the Lakers were a complete travesty. After an offseason in 2012 that brought Nash and Howard to L.A. to join Kobe and Pau Gasol, who had already won two championships together, the Lakers were knighted the "Dream Team."
It never came to fruition. Already 38 years old when he joined the Lakers, Nash could never stay healthy and played a grand total of 65 games in two years. Howard also dealt with his own injuries, butted heads with Kobe and struggled with D'Antoni's pick-and-roll offense, eventually leaving the Lakers after just one season. Kobe tore his Achillies right before the playoffs and the Lakers were ousted in the first round by, you guessed it, the Spurs.
In what was supposed to be Nash's best chance to ride off into the sunset with a championship trophy in hand, the Lakers spawned zero playoff wins and a Sports Illustrated cover that's equal parts hilarious and horrifying in retrospect.
It's an unfair end to a brilliant career. For much of the 2000's, Nash was the flashiest and most electrifying point guard on the planet who made everyone around him a better basketball player. Stoudemire and Joe Johnson have Nash to thank for the massive contracts they signed in the mid-00's.
As great as Nash was as a player, by all accounts he's an even better person. In 2001, Nash created the Steve Nash Foundation that is "dedicated to assisting under-served children in their health, personal development, education and enjoyment of life." Nash also sponsors a youth basketball league in British Columbia, Canada, and was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world in 2006.
Not winning a ring doesn't make a career incomplete, especially when the player is headed to the Hall of Fame. If Nash retires this season, he will join Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and a host of others as the greats that never won a title. It won't matter, because in the end Nash will be remembered as one of the best point guards to ever play the game and definitely the most fun to watch.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo