I saw Steve Nash at a dive bar in Manhattan Beach last September. The sun was setting, there was a warm breeze and a generous two-for-one special, and I remember thinking, “This is what retirement should look like.” Nash’s life after basketball seemed fun. He’s been pursued for head-coaching positions for years, but opted for gigs with less stress and stakes—an in-studio analyst for the Champions League, albeit not a particularly good one, a player development consultant for the Warriors, a general manager for the Canadian men’s national basketball team, co-owner of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and, of course, oceanside bar patron. It was the life a two-time MVP and Hall of Famer had earned.
Coaching isn’t so breezy. Particularly not with the Nets, who signed Nash to a four-year deal on Thursday, with all their expectations and high-maintenance superstars and eagerness to win immediately. There’s a specific type of player (think: Jason Kidd) who seems destined to become a coach after retirement: the basketball-obsessed authoritarian, who is the legend of intense practice stories leaked later on. That style won’t work in Brooklyn, and that’s not Nash, either. He has no head- or assistant-coaching experience, but he does have a longstanding relationship with Kevin Durant, whom he worked with in Golden State and advised in Oklahoma City. It’s evident Durant feels understood by Nash, which is crucial for a very online, oft-criticized player. “I think he loves to explore,” Nash said on The Bill Simmons Podcast last September to explain KD’s exit from OKC. It was a reasonable, gentle defense for a free agency decision that many fans and players deemed weak. Nash also has Kyrie Irving’s endorsement. It’s just as essential as Durant’s, considering Irving’s friction-filled past. Selling a coach to your point guard must be easier when the candidate is one of the best to ever play the position.
Nash’s appeal as a coach is the same as his appeal as a player. He has a remarkably high basketball IQ. People like him. Players trust him. “In Steve we see a leader, communicator, and mentor who will garner the respect of our players,” said Nets GM Sean Marks, Nash’s former teammate in Phoenix, on Thursday. “I have had the privilege to know Steve for many years. One of the great on-court leaders in our game, I have witnessed firsthand his basketball acumen and selfless approach to prioritize team success.” The Nets know better than anyone that former point guards don’t always work as coaches, though Kidd and Nash have very different temperaments and reputations. Steve Kerr, who Nash has worked with the past few years, was also hired without any experience as an assistant.
After Irving’s publicly expressed displeasure earlier this season, finding a leader on the bench who is likable, unifying, and easy to work with was more important than X’s-and-O’s prowess. That’s why Ty Lue’s name was thrown out for the position, and not Tom Thibodeau’s (before he signed on as the Knicks’ next victim), who is known for his tactical mind more than his people skills. There’s an assumption that Nash will execute the offense as well as he did with the ball in his hand, but the game has evolved since he retired in 2015. Defenses have too.
After Brooklyn re-signed Caris LeVert last year, Nash is at least assured a strong core trio to work with. Retaining Joe Harris, a free agent this offseason, is “priority no. 1” for Marks. (Speaking of keeping pieces, interim coach Jacque Vaughn will also stay on as the NBA’s highest-paid assistant.) In January, Irving was explicit about the team needing more help, though it’s unclear right now how drastically this season’s postponement and shortened length will affect free agency.
Brooklyn’s front office has proved to be flexible and open (... except for the decision to fire Kenny Atkinson, who was doing a fine job, all things considered). That, combined with the unique opportunity to enter the coaching world with players of Durant’s and Irving’s caliber, is likely why Nash decided to finally give the profession a go. He won’t be missed on Champions League studio sets; if all goes well, he won’t regret leaving them, either. It’s always a risk for a lauded person to come out of retirement. (Magic Johnson the team president, for example, was not Magic Johnson the player.) Here’s hoping he runs a team like ’05 Nash ran the court.