Steve Nash is the godfather of the modern playmaking point guard.
Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Mike Conley are all stealing Nash’s act every night — the deft passing, shooting, fast breaks, pick-and-rolls and transition 3-pointers. They are style and substance.
“He revolutionized the point guard role,” Irving told ESPN.com on Sunday. “The things I got from him, I utilize in my game now — just the little nuances that he did to cope. … It’s a joy to even talk about him.”
For nine straight seasons, from 2001-02 with the Dallas Mavericks to 2009-10 with the Phoenix Suns, Nash led the top-ranked offenses in the league. His teams averaged 56 wins a season. They were among the fastest-paced. They were always the most fun.
Nash won consecutive MVP awards. He had 10,335 assists, third all-time behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd, leading the league five times. He is the most accurate free throw shooter in NBA history (90.4 percent), and he owns four of the ten 50-40-90 seasons in history.
Undone by a broken bone in his left leg, plus back, knee and hamstring issues and 11 months removed from his final assist, Nash announced his retirement Saturday.
“The greatest gift has been to be completely immersed in my passion and striving for something I loved so much — visualizing a ladder, climbing up to my heroes,” Nash wrote. “The obsession became my best friend. I talked to her, cherished her, fought with her and got knocked on my ass by her. … in some ways having this friend — this ever-present pursuit — has made me who I am, taught me and tested me, and given me a mission that feels irreplaceable.”
There is a Sisyphean quality to Nash’s career. He grew up in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada, a skilled soccer and hockey player. When he claimed he would one day play in the NBA, his friends laughed. Nash led Santa Clara — the only U.S. school that recruited him and a mid-major before that was the term of art — to three NCAA tournament appearances and upsets of second-seeded Arizona and seventh-seeded Maryland in separate seasons.
Drafted by Phoenix in 1996, Nash spent two seasons there as the third point guard behind Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd.
The Suns traded Nash to Dallas, where he and Dirk Nowitzki were booed by the hometown fans in their first season together. They endured two losing seasons, bonded over late night games of HORSE and one-on-one and eventually flourished in Don Nelson’s offense. Nash drove fast and furious breaks with Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel, while the 7-foot Nowitzki made 3-pointers, popularizing the “stretch four” position. Nash and Nowitzki played in two All-Star games together, and the good times peaked in 2002-03, when the Mavericks won a league-best 60 games and came within two more wins of the NBA Finals.
The following season, the Mavericks lost to the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the playoffs. The Suns outbid Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for Nash, signing him to a six-year, $63 million contract.
If Nelson was Nash’s John the Baptist, then Suns coach Mike D’Antoni was his Bundini Brown. In their first Seven Seconds or Less season, Nash averaged more assists than shots, surrounded by All-Star finishers Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion and 3-point shooters Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson. Nash was named MVP, and D’Antoni the Coach of the Year. The Suns became the standard by which all other up-tempo teams would be judged.
Nash never played in the NBA Finals, because time and chance, injuries and suspensions, and the San Antonio Spurs happen to them all. In 2003, Nowitzki missed the last three games of the conference finals with a sprained right knee. The Spurs won. In 2005, Johnson fractured a bone near his left eye in the conference semifinals. The Suns beat the Mavericks, but they lost to the Spurs in the next round. Stoudemire played just three games in 2005-06 after microfracture knee surgery. The following season, Spurs forward Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer’s table in the conference semifinals. Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended one game for leaving the “bench area” during the ensuing scuffle. The Suns lost Game 5 and the series.
“It will always hurt that Phoenix Suns fans didn’t get the championship they deserved during our run,” Nash wrote. “Yes, we had some bad luck but I always look back at it and think, I could’ve made one more shot, or not forced a turnover, or made a better pass.”
In the summer of 2012, the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Nash and Dwight Howard, teaming them with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. “Now This Is Going to Be Fun,” Sports Illustrated said. It wasn’t. Nash broke a bone in his left leg in the second game of the season, Howard struggled with the pick-and-roll and Bryant dominated the ball. Nash played just 65 games for the Lakers over three seasons.
The first decade of the 21st century was the Age of Nash — a period of renewed interest in offense, when space and grace and ball movement were cool again. “If I had to pick one guy to play with, it would be Steve Nash,” LeBron James said. He made his teammates better, goes the cliché. Moreover, Steve Nash made the game better.