It will be four years next week since Steve Nash played an NBA game, eight since he was last an all-NBA point guard and 13 years since he raised his first MVP trophy above his shaggy-haired head as the best player in basketball.
On Saturday night Nash will be made officially timeless, when he’s announced as a member of the 2018 class of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, along with Jason Kidd and Grant Hill.
But even though he’s a nearly a decade removed from his NBA peak the kid from Victoria, B.C., who turned 44 last month, is as big a figure in the league now than he was when he played.
There isn’t an NBA team that doesn’t pay homage to him every night, his stylistic influence having spread throughout college basketball and into the youth level of the game, too.
Watch a game and see a point guard expertly navigating a high pick-and-roll, yo-yo-ing between threatening to pull up from three or drive the basket just long enough to create a seam to slip a ball through that a rolling big man can dunk at the rim?
That’s Steve Nash.
A point guard using his dribble to attack the basket but of instead of shooting he dribbles through to the other side of the painted area to either find a wide-open three-point shooter facing him or a teammate slashing for a lay-up behind in his wake?
That’s Steve Nash.
The other day Chris Haynes of ESPN asked Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr who he thought were basketball’s most influential figures. He listed Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant … and Steve Nash.
“The reason I have Nash in there is because I think he made it cool again to pass, and he also helped influence the next generation of point guards,” Kerr said. “Every point guard that I watch now, I see a little bit of Steve. Setting up the game with the three-point shot, the hesitation, the penetration and the ability to find shooters. Not to mention pace-and-space offence that Steve ran in Phoenix that everybody has sort of gravitated towards.”
It’s not that Nash invented anything, exactly – as Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was happy to remind me on Thursday, a guy named Bob Cousy was using the dribble to probe and create passing lanes rather than looking to score for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, before Nash was born.
But throughout his career, and particularly in Phoenix, Nash investigated, perfected and popularized what was possible for a creative mind with elite skill at the lead guard position, operating on a floor where spacing was maximized and the real estate previously reserved for post players suddenly zoned for redevelopment.
Given the reigns to a new, almost subversive way of playing the NBA game when he arrived in Phoenix as a free agent for the 2004-05 season to play for a lightly-regarded head coach named Mike D’Antoni, Nash chose to use his freedom to create two kinds of scoring opportunities in great abundance: lay-ups and/or dunks, and wide-open three pointers.
The Suns averaged 24.7 three-point attempts a game in 2004-05 to lead the NBA, which seems modest now, but was groundbreaking then as the league average for threes was 14.7 a game the season before and the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA title shooting just 11.8 triples a game. The revolution Nash and D’Antoni started with Suns had continued. This season under D’Antoni, the Rockets are averaging 42.5 threes a game, and his old Suns team would be 25th in the league in threes attempted.
If what the Suns were doing then under Nash doesn’t seem like all that big a deal now considering virtually every team in the NBA now gears their entire offence around creating open threes and lay-ups – proven to be the most efficient form of offence as confirmed by basketball’s analytics community – when Nash and D’Antoni did it, they were flying by the seat of their pants.
“You have to remember, at the time [Shaquille O’Neal] was in L.A. and he was dominant, so why not let’s try something different,” said D’Antoni. “Shooting threes and spreading the floor out and getting [O’Neal and other centres] away from the basket as much as we can so at least we have a shot at winning. Otherwise we had no shot … that was a big reason we tried to do something different. You can’t out-Shaq Shaq.”
Before the numbers confirmed that it was a more efficient way to score, Nash and the Suns proved you could win with it. In four seasons under D’Antoni Nash led the Suns to an average of 58 wins a year and made it to the Conference Finals twice.
Nash’s influence on Canadian basketball is considerable and everlasting. In 1996 he was the first Canadian taken in the first round since Leo Rautins and Stewart Granger were drafted in 1983. From 2001 to 2010 – Nash’s entire prime – not a single Canadian was taken in the first round.
Since 2011 there have been 11 first-round pick from Canada. In 2019 Nash’s godson, R.J. Barrett is projected to be the third Canadian taken first overall.
All of them grew up playing basketball while Nash was at the peak of the sport, an example Nash didn’t have when he was learning the game.
But Nash’s influence is more obvious in the recent play of the Toronto Raptors, Canada’s only NBA franchise. In the midst of their best-ever season, the Raptors are playing a style that would look very familiar to the way Nash ran the show with Suns. It’s point-guard dominated, but the point guard is as much a threat to shoot from three as pass with his threat to score being the key to opening opportunities elsewhere.
“He kind of made it okay to dribble the air out the ball a little bit, keeping looking, because you knew he wasn’t being selfish about it,” said Toronto Raptors breakout second-year point guard Fred VanVleet.
The 24-year-old studied Nash growing up and brings his style to the floor in Toronto’s up-tempo, wide-open read-and-react offence.
“He was always looking for the best play and the right play and keeping the defence honest. If you don’t have a high percentage shot to throw it up, you dribble it back out and you’ll get something good. He was probably the best I’ve seen at it. I have studied a lot of his film to see where he picked his spots.”
It’s a play so ubiquitous that it’s called “Nashing” – when the point guard drives the lane with the intention of keeping his dribble alive rather than looking to shoot, hoping to divert attention for an open three or a cutter for a dunk. Nash used to call it “midgeting” but was so good at it everyone else named it after him.
No matter what style he played Nash was likely to end up in the Hall of Fame. His case, based on numbers alone, was too overwhelming. He is the best shooting pass-first point guard of all time, and maybe the best shooter the NBA has ever seen, bar none.
There are nine players in the NBA’s 50-40-90 club – referring to those who have had a season where they shot 50 per cent from the field, 40 per cent from the three-point line and made 90 per cent of their free throws. They’re the best shooters most people have ever heard of – Curry, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Kerr, Durant. Larry Bird did it twice – the only person in NBA history to do it more than once other than Nash who did four times and was a single free throw from doing it for a fifth season.
There have been five seasons in NBA history where a player has averaged 10 assists per game while making at least 100 three-pointers and shooting 40 per cent from three or better. Nash has four of them, while Hall-of-Famer John Stockton has the other.
Five times Nash led the NBA in assists. He was the point guard on the NBA’s most potent offence for six straight years beginning in Dallas in 2001-02 and for eight out of the next nine seasons. He’s third in the NBA in total assists with 10,335, trailing only his fellow class of 2018 Hall-of-Fame inductee Jason Kidd and Stockton. He’s ninth in NBA history in three-point shooting accuracy at 42.8 per cent, second among point guards only to Curry.
But with Nash the numbers tell only part of the story. The bigger, more important part of it is that he was the right player at the right time to usher in what was then a new style of play and a new standard for point guards.
That’s why he’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.
“You look at Steve, and you’re probably surprised. This scrawny little white guy coming off the pick-and-roll, playing without fear, shooting the ball, handling the ball, passing the ball, making plays,” said Casey. “It was a fit for who Steve was and his game. He revolutionized the game and that style of play.”
Being inducted into the Hall of Fame is nice, but Nash’s legacy is being played out in the NBA and beyond every night.