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Steve Nash Never Had to Be Anything More Than Himself

The two-time MVP and his former coaches have recently lamented that Steve didn’t play more like Steph. But Nash earned his place in the Hall of Fame by creating a template for the modern NBA point guard.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Time is running out in the third quarter of Game 4 in the 2005 second-round series between the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, and Steve Nash is in the midst of the greatest scoring performance of his career: 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting in the quarter—and counting. With 8.6 seconds left, Nash brings the ball into the frontcourt and receives a screen from Shawn Marion that switches him onto former teammate Dirk Nowitzki. Three seconds. Nash steps toward Nowitzki just behind the arc. Two seconds. Nash dribbles back out. One second. A disembodied voice out of the frame—almost certainly Mike D’Antoni’s—screams, “Shoot it!” The quarter ends before Nash makes a move.

The then-reigning MVP’s third-quarter onslaught was an out-of-body experience. For just about every player who has ever played in the NBA, 23 points in a quarter would be considered a career highlight. For Nash, a past-first, -second, and -third player, it was more like entering a prison. He was locked out of his own facilities; he wasn’t himself. For a player whose entire kingdom was built on his superior sense of timing, vision, and control, to lose track of time is to lose everything. The 48-point performance is often cited as one of his most memorable. The Suns lost by 10 that night.

It may seem odd to focus on this game on the day that one of the best point guards the world has ever seen will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But Nash has always led by example, and as someone who has considered him my favorite player of all time for the past 15 years, I’ve always been keen to fall in line. Over the past two months, Nash has been candid about the ways his career could have gone differently, going so far as to question the very nature of his unique brand of basketball. In the conclusion of his essay about Cristiano Ronaldo for Bleacher Report in late July, Nash used Ronaldo’s monolithic egocentrism as a backdrop for his own self-examination as a retired athlete. “When I see Ronaldo, with all his bravado, I think I might not have gravitated toward him initially because that bravado exposed a weakness in me, that maybe I was afraid to call my shot,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid to take it, but maybe I was afraid to call it. Maybe a weakness of mine was not having more of an ego.”

The systems that Nash served as an avatar for in his prime were often presented as a vision of a more radical future. The league had reached a stylistic nadir in 2003-04—games were played at one of the slowest paces in recorded NBA history and produced offense at rates almost as historically putrid. Even then, Nash was at the helm of a high-powered Mavericks scoring attack with an offensive rating that outpaced the league average by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions; their offensive efficiency would have landed just outside the top-five last season. But in the lead-up to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Nash and the two most influential coaches of his career have, almost wistfully, said they could have pushed the bar even further. D’Antoni even looks back and wonders why he didn’t force Nash, a career 42.8 percent shooter from 3, to shoot more from behind the arc. That was after Don Nelson, his Mavericks coach, got him up to the bare minimum of shots that should be allowed in a free-flowing offense. Nelson threatened to bench and fine Nash if he couldn’t reach a certain benchmark in field goal attempts; he had visions of Nash being a Steph Curry–like figure before Curry was even considered as a college basketball recruit.

“Nellie [launched] my career in pushing me to be aggressive and score the ball,” Nash told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon in a story published this week. “But I never took it to the heights that the numbers validate in today’s day and age, where I probably should have shot the ball 20 times a game. It probably would have made a lot more sense.”

It’s hard to escape the notion that everything, all the hypotheticals, the what-ifs, and the ex-post-facto notions of who Nash could have been already have a concrete answer. When Nash signed on to become a player development consultant for the Golden State Warriors just before the 2015-16 season, it seemed even he realized that his legacy would forever be entangled with Curry’s—that helping Steph reach the heights he’s capable of would help preserve an ideal that Nash had long embodied. Curry is 30 now, the same age Nash was when he rejoined the Suns and his career exploded. Last month, the Warriors hired Rick Celebrini to be the franchise’s new director of sports medicine and performance; Celebrini, of course, was the person whom Nash credits for changing his bio-mechanics and keeping his aging body in peak fitness during his prime. The future isn’t always about displacing the past.

But something is bent askew when envisioning Nash scoring 30 points per game in his prime, the way D’Antoni suggests he could have. I wonder: Would that have been any fun for Nash? Curry has proved that volume scoring doesn’t have to look like drudgery, but part of Nash’s allure was the complete control he had over the court; his probing around the basket always made me think he was reconjuring, a fragment of his soccer ambitions on the hardwood—to have full control over the ball and the geometry of the defense surrounding him. He helped establish the notion that joy can be a foundation, and not just a byproduct. And he accomplished that without having to change who he was as a person or player.

It’s impossible to revisit that final third-quarter possession of Game 4 without imagining how it would have played out in 2018. Marion would have set the pick much higher, and Nash would have attacked the gap between him and Nowitzki before Dirk had the chance to move up. It would have set up one of Nash’s signatures: an easy, wide-open pull-up 3 from the top of the arc—the kind of play nearly every starting NBA point guard can take advantage of today. That’s how clear Nash’s through line is to the present. To watch him in his prime was to watch glimmers of 2018 transposed onto the fractured landscape of the mid-aughts. He’s the nexus of the past 15 years of basketball.

Nash could’ve been Curry, but he wasn’t. And maybe this induction wouldn’t have meant what it does now if he was. He joins rare company in the Hall of Fame not only as one of the best point guards of all time, but as a marker of a shifting era in basketball. His career average of 14.3 points per game underlines the fact that he didn’t do it all himself. The guidance and prodding of two visionary coaches helped, as did a consequential defensive rule change. His success isn’t defined solely by his individual accomplishments, but by the way he accelerated the league’s trajectory. If he had put up Curryesque numbers, perhaps we’d dignify him differently. More like Gary Payton, more like Karl Malone—as historic talents who stand alone on their merits. In spite of everything being said in hindsight, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to remember Nash than how he’ll be remembered on Friday: as a symbol of giving, and a template to build upon.