Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Steve Nash: Hate Hard

The Lakers will get a lot of press coverage this season because they are the Lakers, but it's hard to see a scenario where there will be much to talk about on the court. As a result, there's likely to be a ton of stories about Steve Nash's last season in the NBA, his legacy and his impact on the game. Nash is one of the most beloved players of the last generation and he's almost certain to be in the Hall of Fame one day, but he has never done all that much for me.

That mostly comes from watching Nash in Dallas, before he became "Steve Nash". Mavs fans have a pretty unique relationship with the guy - we saw him start at the bottom, when it looked like he might not even stick in the league. He spent his age 23-29 seasons in Dallas, turning himself into an All-Star and one of the featured players on a 60+ win team. We knew he was a good player, but we damn sure didn't see any MVP in him.

When you have players of that caliber early in their career, you can kind of tell. Jason Kidd left in his mid-20's, but if someone told us he would one day be an MVP candidate who carried a team to the NBA Finals, we would have believed him. Same thing with Dirk Nowitzki. Real greatness is like pornograpy - it's hard to define, but you know it when you see it. No one wanted Nash to leave in 2004, but we understood why Cuban let him go, given the contract he received.

Nash put up great numbers in Dallas and he was the QB of one of the best offenses in the NBA, but it was getting harder and harder to ignore how awful he was on defense, especially given the make-up of the rest of the roster. With guys like Dirk, Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker around, there was no shortage of offense and a huge deficit on defense. Nash was as bad as all those guys on D, if not worse.

The big dogs in the West in that time frame were San Antonio and LA, but the roadblock for Dallas was always the Sacramento Kings, who beat them in the second round in 2002 and the first round in 2004. They almost beat them in 2003, losing in seven games, even though Chris Webber tore his knee in the middle of that series and was never the same after that. The Kings made a living running a train on Nash on D - it was kinda sad.

At the start of the game, you could kind of hide him on Doug Christie, even though Christie was a much better offensive player than people gave him credit for. However, when it was crunch time, they went small with Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson and whoever Nash guarded had a free line to the front of the rim or a wide-open J. Let's be perfectly clear - Steve Nash could not defend his way out of a paper bag and it was a massive problem for every team he was on.

The reality was that the Mavs were never going to win if they were paying big money to Nash, Finley and Dirk without ever addressing their defensive issues. They didn't really need Nash to be a great team, because Dirk was more than capable of having everything run through him and they had plenty of weapons to play off of him. Here's what they did in their first three seasons of the post-Nash era: 58 wins, 60 wins, 67 wins.

Nash never got a ton of publicity in Dallas, as Finley was the man when the Big Three era started and Dirk had taken the baton by the end. So when he exploded in Phoenix, it was like he appeared sui generis on the national scene. People couldn't believe this Canadian wizard and all the things he could with the ball in his hands. But while everyone else saw how he made the Suns better, Mavs fans were seeing how the Suns made him better.

It was the perfect marriage of player, system and coach. In their first season together, Mike D'Antoni brought the spread pick-and-roll to the NBA, only playing one big man and spreading the floor with four shooters. He put Nash in a pick-and-roll with Amare Stoudemire, the best finisher in the NBA, and he forced the other three defenders to stay out on the three point-line. It was the beginning of a revolution - ten years later, everyone is doing it.

Nash was great, but the key to the system is not the PG - there are a lot of PG's who can make a killing against a spread floor. All you have to do is look at what happened in PHX with The Dragon and Eric Bledsoe. Remember Linsanity? The big men are the key to the spread pick-and-roll, because they are asked to do so much. Amare had to move from the 4 to the 5 and Shawn Marion had to move from the 3 to the 4 - they had to defend much bigger players and they had to have the shooting and finishing ability to make them pay on the offensive end.

Marion, in particular, always got a bad rap in Phoenix. Everyone acted like he was a creation of Nash's offense even though he averaged 20/10 on 45% shooting in the three seasons before Nash got into town. Shawn Marion was an All-Star way before Nash and D'Antoni and without him, none of their stuff would have worked. 

Marion had to do everything in Phoenix - he got 20 a game without having plays called for him or having the ball in his hands, he spread the floor and gave them room to run the pick-and-roll, he cleared the defensive glass against much bigger players, he jumped passing lanes, protected the rim and initiated the tempo of the game AND he got the toughest individual assignment on defense. Marion defended Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki and everyone in between those two. How many guys in the history of the NBA could have done that?

There's a legitimate argument was to whether Nash was the MVP of that Suns team, which makes his two NBA MVP's all the more insane. Cuz while he was doing his little song and dance in Phoenix, Shaq was turning the Miami Heat into a championship team. You saw the difference between Shaq and Nash in those two years - when a team loses Shaq, there's no way he can be replaced. What happened to the Lakers in their first three seasons without Shaq? 34 wins, 45 wins, 42 wins. 

Let's not forget - Shaq's teams in 2005 and 2006 did much better than Nash's. The Heat took the Pistons to Game 7 of the 2005 ECF, even with Wade getting hurt towards the end of the series, and they won it all in 2006. The Suns, meanwhile, just could not get past the Spurs. All sorts of people will cop all sorts of pleas about why they couldn't and cry about how unfair it all was when the reality is any team built around Tim Duncan is going to beat the tar out of a team built around Steve Nash 9 out of 10 times. 

Duncan got Nash in 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2012 and lost in 2010. The match-up was terrible for Phoenix - San Antonio could beat them by pounding the ball into Duncan and controlling tempo and they could beat them in an uptempo, rock' em sock' em game. They had one of the best players of all-time and he could control the game at either end of the floor. I'll give you two words for whether Nash was ever better than Duncan in any of those seasons - "Fuck" and "no". 

I saw what happened in 2007 because apparently no one else did. Let's not forget, Phoenix had home court advantage in that series and lost it in Game 1. They had Amare and Boris Diaw in five of those six games - when those two teams were at full strength, San Antonio was up 3-2 in that series. The Spurs played better defense and they were the flat-out better team, regardless of whether or not the NBA should have enforced the rules about leaving the bench.

The Suns had a lot of close calls in the playoffs because they were a fundamentally imbalanced team that played incredible offense but couldn't get stops when it mattered. Things were always going to go against them because a lack of defense always gets you in the end, no matter how flashy your offense is. Even worse, they were trying to win a title in an era of great 7'0 who dominated the NBA landscape - Shaq, Duncan, Dirk and Kevin Garnett.

At no point in that time was Nash better than any of those 4 guys at the game of basketball. Nor, for that matter, was he better than Kobe Bryant. That's five guys who could have been MVP in 2005 and 2006 and who would have been much more deserving of the award. It's not that I dislike Nash cuz he seems like a nice guy and he plays a really fun style of basketball, but he got gassed up to be something he is not and the basketball gods were not going to allow him to win a title and have media people front like he was the best PG of all-time. 

This all came back to the surface for me when I was watching the latest Open Court on NBATV, where all the Turner guys discussed the Top 50 players of all-time and who should be the next 10 added to the list. At one point, Kenny "The Jet" Smith brings up Nash because he won two MVP's right? And everyone looks at him like .... no. Shaq had the best reaction. He goes - he won two MVP's over me!?? And then he flicks his wrist and gives the Jet the FOH face.

And it's hard to argue with him, really. If you think Steve Nash was a having a bigger impact on a basketball game than the Big Aristotle, than I suggest you re-evaluate whatever metric you are using to evaluate basketball players.* There's a lot of names before you can even think about a guy like Nash - Reggie Miller said to pretty unanimous agreement that all the guys on the panel would take Jason Kidd and Gary Payton over Nash.

*Though, to be fair to the metric gurus, I kind of doubt any of them would have had Nash over Shaq in 2005. Player A: 24 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2.5 blocks on 60% shooting, 27 PER. Player B: 16 points, 12 assists, 3.5 rebounds on 50% shooting, 22 PER. How was this even close? Is there an advanced stat for being easy to root for? 

In their prime, Kidd and The Glove were incredible on defense and offense, unlike our handsome friend from North of the Wall aka Mr. Canada. That really matters when it comes to how you build a roster, regardless if it shows up in the conventional statistics. Nor, by any reasonable measure, were Nash's stats all that incredible anyway. 19/11 on 51% shooting was a Tuesday for John Stockton, one of many PG's who put up similar numbers on really good teams and were never even considered for the award.

In what universe does this distribution of MVP's make sense?

2 - Duncan, Nash
1 - Shaq, Kobe, KG, Dirk
0 - Stockton, Kidd, GP

Here are a few take-aways from the whole situation:

1) Context is king

The stats would tell you that Nash became a much better player between the ages of 29 and 30, but he was the exact same guy. The difference was the types of players he was playing with and the role he had on his team. When you are evaluating individual players, you always have to remember that. You cannot take individual stats out of the context in which they are produced. This is something I have found to be very important in college basketball and evaluating guys for the draft - if you are going to scout a prospect, you had better scout his teammates and his coaches too. It's all connected.

2) No guy who only excels on one side of the ball is irreplaceable

Nash was a great offensive player, but Dallas lost him for nothing and got better because they brought in more defensive-minded players and they redistributed Nash's shots to other good offensive players. Dirk became a much better player without Nash because he got to dominate the ball, mitigating the loss of Nash on offense, and the team's defense improved without Nash. Compare that to Shaq, whose left a gaping hole in the Lakers offense and defense that could not be replaced.

3) The media doesn't necessarily know what they are talking about

The way Dirk and Nash were viewed nationally from 2005-2009 went a large way towards me writing about basketball. Cuz I'm watching these guys play and I'm just not seeing what I'm seeing on the court being reflected in the media - I'm seeing a whole bunch of silliness from people who really should know better. This is something an MVP voter at SI wrote about the Nash candidacy. Unfortunately, the link has been lost in the interwebs, but I still have the excerpt because I e-mailed one of the Mavs beat writers like WTF is this. 
The Suns couldn't earn close to their current 55 wins without Nash. Plus Nash is just so easy to cheer for. He's the rare NBA underdog in a league dominated by intimidating athletes.
"Intimidating athletes" ... I'm not a big fan of playing the code word game when it comes to race, but what the hell does that mean exactly? For that matter, how exactly is someone like Tim Duncan "intimidating"? He's the most reserved and calm basketball player of all-time! It's also funny that Nash is an "NBA underdog" when he comes from a family of professional athletes - he has plenty of natural ability.

Let's just say you could write an entire dissertation about race relations in this country in the context of that two sentence excerpt and leave it at that.

The worst part about it is that if you asked any of these guys about the vote now, they wouldn't even have the decency to be embarrassed about it.

4) There is some justice in the universe

Even without the MVP's, I could get behind Nash getting into the Hall of Fame because of the length of his career and his prominent role on a lot of really good teams. However, I'm also a big believer in an inclusive Hall of Fame and I would have the bar a lot lower than many people for who I would want to enshrine.

Like to me, Shawn Marion is an easy Hall of Famer. At his peak, he could you get 20/10 on 50% shooting without having any plays run for him while spreading the floor and defending four positions at a really high level. He just helped your team in so many different ways that it was hard to have a bad team with a prime Matrix on it and it was really easy to build a contender around him.

Before Dirk developed a post game*, there were only two guys I was scared of guarding him - Lamar Odom and the Matrix. They had the quickness to stay in front of him on the perimeter, the length to contest his shot and the core strength to push him out of the paint and keep him off the glass. Lammy Odom is a guy who had HOF talent, but off the court stuff prevented him from putting it all together.

*After the post game? No one. He's a boss, but you already knew that.

Even towards the end of his career, Marion was so, so crucial to the Mavs 2011 championship. They flat out don't win a title without him - he contained KD and LeBron in consecutive rounds on defense than got 12/6/2/1/1 on 47% shooting while spreading the floor and never needing the ball. Remember LeBron's Finals against Dallas where everyone decided he was a punk? Let's not forget who was playing defense on him! If you look at what he did over the rest of his career, maybe we should give a little more credit to what Marion was doing.

I'll break it down for y'all real simply: A) basketball is 50% offense and 50% defense. B) defense is the more important half of the ball - all things being equal, a great defense is going to beat a great offense. C) The Matrix was much, much better on offense than Nash was on defense. D) The gap between Marion's offense and Nash's defense is MUCH wider than the gap between Marion's defense and Nash's offense.

This matters because it is much easier to put a championship team around Shawn Marion than it is Steve Nash. To be great, Nash needed to have the ball in his hands and be the centerpiece of the offense while being surrounded by great athletes who could spread the floor for him and cover him on defense. Marion, in contrast, could be great in almost any context.

You might want to bring up his one and a half seasons in Toronto and Miami, and to be sure, he wasn't a franchise-caliber player whose presence alone instantly guaranteed title contention. Because guess what? Neither was Nash! In the year and a half after Marion left, the Suns lost in the first round and then missed the playoffs entirely. From there, we already know what happened.

So before you start throwing efficiency statistics at me, I got one stat and one stat only. Count the MOTHER FUCKING ringz! #hatehard


  1. On point #3, I took "intimidating athletes" referring to size and explosive athletic ability. Both aspects that Nash was obviously relatively weak. It's clear Nash excelled in skill with a more average body than most MVP candidates therefore making him more relatable. Shouldn't be that surprising someone mentioned it.

  2. Fair enough, but I don't think being relatable is particularly relevant to his MVP candidacy and "intimidating" still seems like an odd choice of words. I probably wouldn't have noticed if the writer said "explosive athletes".

  3. But "explosive" still fails to acknowledge size and hey, we're talking about basketball - size matters. I think you unnecessarily and unjustly called out racial bias on the quote. Sure, your point still stands, being relatable shouldn't be relevant to MVP candidacy.

  4. This is a really unintelligent article. At what point in Shawn Marion's career of 33% shooting from 3 help him spread the floor? He had two good years from behind the arc, and they were well before Nash got there. Second, great offense is more important than great defense. That's why you build your team around James Harden, and Tony Allen is a career journeyman. The difference between great and average offense is much greater than the difference between great and average defense. Lastly, is anything stupider than "Nash needed the ball in his hands and Marion didn't?" No, the greatest scoring offense of all time needed the ball in Nash's hands. As if that is some kind of hinderance. I'm sure Shawn Marion could have done a great job running point in that offense, while Nash would have struggled to make less than 60% of the wide open corner 3's he would have gotten off the ball.

    Do you get paid for this stuff? If so, please let me know where to sign up. You are awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  5. Actually most legit advanced stats have Matrix as superior baller than Nash ( no, espn's PER is not legit advanced stat to people who understand statistical modeling ). I don't know why you had to argue from ignorance about stats when there's a rational argument that could've been made with or without stats. Anyway, your blog, your right to be an imbecile.

  6. I would hardly say that Nash's defense is "average". The point about Nash needing the ball is that he doesn't help the team when he doesn't have it, which mitigates the value of other guys he is playing with who also need the ball - i.e Dirk. Marion, in contrast, does things like shut down LeBron James in the NBA Finals, but I'm sure Nash could do a good job of that, if need be.

    I don't mind you come on my blog and talking shit, but please stop quoting Billy Madison. It's not a great look for anyone.

  7. There's also more that goes into spacing the floor than shooting 3's. Marion was really good in Dallas at moving without the ball, occupying his defender and using the floater to threaten the defense.

  8. So Steve Nash, the greatest shooter of all-time, standing at the 3 point line without the ball is not threatening to the defense, but a Shawn Marion floater concerns them? Have you watched basketball before?

    Also you said the great part about Marion is that he doesn't need the ball, but Nash somehow mitigates his value because he needs the ball.

    I never said Nash was average at defense. I said being better at offense is more important than being better at defense.

    PS 3's are worth more than 2's, you can say you learned something today.

    1. Did you really just call Steve Nash the best shooter of all time? And do you really think that good offense is more important than good defense? I think Bill Russell and his 11 rings would agree? Or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen think so as well?

  9. Interesting look at their career RAPM: http://stats-for-the-nba.appspot.com/ratings/14y.html

    By this metric, Nash was 6 points better than the average player from 2001 through 2014, while Marion was 3.5 points better. Not saying this stat is the be-all end-all, but it's a substantial difference.