Saturday, February 18, 2012

Steve Nash Is Already Free

As the NBA season unspools in a denser-than-usual hail of characters, story arcs, and speculations, it's difficult to maintain a clear focus on the periphery. The subtleties in the background of this painting still in progress, however obvious they might be to the astute eye, blur into formlessness behind the center stage glare of Jeremy Lin or the latest Dwight Howard trade rumor or whatever. The warp speed nature of the season distorts all but the most immediate headlines, and they vanish faster than they come. In an age where memes can be created, live full lives and die meaningless deaths in the space of a few hours on Twitter, transience is the new norm. This renders consistency an almost undesirable attribute; it's a negative quantity if you want to be noticed and appreciated. We fail to notice sustained, high-level performance if it transpires without the requisite hype and fanfare. Enter Steve Nash.

At age 38, the Suns point guard is somehow improbably still in his prime and having himself a hell of a fine season. This is going almost completely unnoticed because of a plethora of flashier, more interesting talking points around the league and the fact that Phoenix is a terrible team, but Nash is doing some phenomenal work out there in the Arizona desert. He's started 29 of a possible 32 games, played 32.1 minutes a night, is averaging 14.6 points and 11 assists per game. To give you an idea of where those numbers stack up, he's just a point per game shy of the totals that earned Nash his first MVP. That 11 APG mark also has him leading the league in dimes, 39 ahead of his closest competition. For a point guard with Nash's experience and passing acumen, being the assists leader might not strike anyone as particularly surprising. After all, he's been dishing the rock at a remarkable level for a long time. Consider, however, that atrocity of a team he's playing on, and those numbers become a near miracle. To give you an idea of how impressive Nash has been: the Suns are 5th in the league in assists but 18th in points scored, meaning he's been extraordinarily deft in his execution and getting the best possible results from his vastly inferior teammates. Leading the league in assists when Marcin Gortat is your best offensive option is a Herculean feat indeed. And oh yeah, that 14.6 PPG makes him the Suns' second leading scorer to boot.

Nash could also very well crack the vaunted 50/40/90 club (50% FG, 40% 3FG, 90% FT) again this season. There have obviously been far better and more complete offensive weapons in the history of the game, but very few (five players total since the implementation of the three point line in the 1979-80 season) are ever that consistently accurate over the course of an entire season. In fact, Nash has had the most 50/40/90 years of anybody in history (4) and is a single percentage point in his lifetime FG% away from averaging 50/40/90 for his career. You know who else has done that? No one. Ever. Yet here he is, a few nights of streaky hot-handedness away. Ray Allen may have the purest shooting stroke in the history of the game, but if you want to talk accuracy and efficacy, no one knocks 'em down like Nash.

Just to be clear, we're talking about a back-to-back MVP (however dubious those awards may appear in retrospect) who is in a shooting percentage classification all by his lonesome; a man who, in an era stacked with talented point guards, is still one of the best in the game at an advanced basketball age that suggests he has no business being so.

You may have heard something about the "Free Steve Nash" movement that's been making the rounds on various social media platforms, but for the uninitiated, here's a quick rundown:
Steve Nash has never won an NBA Championship. This has not happened for a variety of reasons; the leaving-the-bench playoff suspensions, a maddeningly unfair litany of injuries and bad breaks. Mostly, the galling fact that the Suns' ownership has been shamelessly, inexcusably penny pinching in a manner that has failed to ever forge a truly competitive squad. Since Nash is a nice guy who is fun to watch and most importantly is a great basketball player, most basketball fans would love to see Nash traded posthaste from Phoenix to a contending team so that he can chase a championship ring before his body eventually breaks down. Of course, that would mean leaving the Suns' famous "Warlock" training staff which might accelerate that breakdown, but you get the idea.

More so than in any other sport (unless you're an NFL quarterback), we demand hardware of our elite NBA players before we consider them to have achieved their outermost limits of greatness. Just ask Charles Barkley how much crap he's taken over the years about it. We absolutely kill the guys who, in our perception, ought to have hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy but didn't or haven't for some reason or another. We did it to Dirk for an eon before he finally put that incessant humbugging to rest last year. We're still doing to LeBron, and we will in perpetuity until he wins the last game of the season. It's a pathological reflex. To be reductive for a moment, it goes like this: No ring? Dude can't ball. Ring? Dude can ball, and ball don't lie.

Steve Nash has always been an exemplar of two things: Newton's First Law*, and a fierce, absolute sense of loyalty. Which is why he's still stuck in Phoenix playing for a lackluster team with an even dimmer future. He's had multiple opportunities to extricate himself for greener pastures, and he has passed up those chances at every turn. He can't bear to turn his back on the fans, or the organization, or his teammates, however inept they may be on the court. He'd certainly never demand an out. J.A. Adande already detailed the Nash's sentiments vis a vis a trade and the reasons why it won't happen, but the upshot is: Nash isn't going anywhere this season. The sad thing is that next year, when he's free to pick a destination, it's difficult to look at the NBA landscape and see a place where Nash might land that would enable him to mount a legitimate championship campaign. (Unless he winds up in Dallas, which would make a sort of poetic, cyclical sense, but the chatter seems to indicate the Mavs will be in hot pursuit of Deron Williams to man the point next year.)

And so it seems likely that Steve Nash will end his NBA career sans championship. "Free Steve Nash" is falling on deaf ears, even Nash's own. But I think the perception of his legacy is going to play out differently from that of Chuck Wagon, John Stockton, and the other greats who never summited the NBA's Everest. If he winds up ringless, it won't be because he didn't have the killer instinct, or he wasn't clutch enough, or he didn't care enough about winning, or he was too selfish, or any of the other tiredly angry tropes we heap on players whose career arcs disappoint us. Nash's only fault (besides being lousy at defense) lies in being a consummate teammate, as unselfish with his best years and contract negotiations and even his own aspirations as he ever is with a basketball. His unwavering loyalty is his tragic flaw, and you don't deride Achilles simply because his heel was never dipped in the waters of, in this case, impervious self interest.

Every time someone brings up the shaky and questionable nature of Nash's MVPs, it's a discussion you can have. Every time they bring up his massive defensive liability, that point has to be conceded. But if anyone ever tries to argue that Nash couldn't have been that great because he never won a title, the rejoinder is easy to make: a ring was less important to the man than giving himself over completely to loyalty, even when his team failed spectacularly to reciprocate that level of devotion. That's unimpeachable; and that's why I suspect Nash will be largely exempt from the historical beatings endured by the other members of the Tragically Ringless Society. We want to free him, but Steve Nash has already freed himself.

* "A body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force." Nash is living, breathing evidence of this. The guy dribbles and dribbles and swoops and drives and resets and dribbles and dribbles and probes and prods and dribbles and dribbles until either a pass or a shot presents itself. Steve Nash = physics.

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