Despite his prolonged success with so many different teammates, Steve Nash is still bombarded with criticisms of being some sort of “system” player. Some go as far as asserting that Nash’s teams are inherently flawed because of their offensive slant, and as a result they never win.
My hunch is, as is the case so often in sports analysis, that people are misattributing the concept “winners” vs “losers” and “winning systems” vs “losing systems.” Karl Malone is the ultimate example of this in the NBA.
Malone was, at times, dominant in his Western Conference playoff runs at the end of the 90s. How can someone be a “loser” or in a losing system if he continues to be the primary driver of winning teams, in both the regular season and the playoffs? Yes, people make a big deal about his statistical decline in the postseason, but Malone also had his fair share of excellent performances at big times. But because he lost to Chicago…it means he “couldn’t get over the hump.” He’s a “loser.”
As if asking John Wooden’s early 70s UCLA teams to play the NBA champion after winning the NCAA title game would somehow make them a loser.
“That Wooden,” they’d say, “his system doesn’t work…can’t win the big one.”
Peyton Manning was hamstrung with this ridiculous logic, in football, of all sports (21 other players with extremely complex, non-quantified interactions). Like Malone, did his performance decline at times in the postseason? Absolutely. Like Malone, was he probably wired slightly differently than Joe Cool or Michael Jordan? Armchair psychology says yes.
But sometimes there’s just a better team in the way.
And in Manning’s case, he was suddenly branded a “winner” after having arguably his worst overall postseason in 2006. He got “over the hump” because offensive linemen fell on fumbles at the right time, Reggie Wayne fumbled the ball into the air to himself, Troy Brown ran a wrong route, Jabbar Gaffney dropped a pass, Ellis Hobbs was flagged for a phantom pass interference penalty the NFL later apologized for and half the Patriots defense cramped up in the second half after flying across the country twice in a week. What do any of those events have to do with whether Peyton Manning inherently is a winner or loser, whether he plays in a winner or losing “system?”
So like Nash, unless we think that his mere presence on the court demands a style to be run through him which literally causes his team’s defense to struggle, I don’t understand how
(a) running into better teams (eg Duncan’s Spurs) or
(b) never being given adequate defensive pieces
is an indictment of Steve Nash’s offense.
Yes, the offensive/defensive rating stats are not perfect representations of what they attempt to represent (they are darn good though). And besides looking at Nash being on and “running’ the best offenses in NBA history (both in Dallas and Phoenix), we can also simply watch a basketball game and see whether such an assertion is plausible.
Maybe Nash’s great offenses are because he cherry picks and puts his team at a defensive disadvantage?
Maybe Nash’s great offenses are because he inherently requires offensive players who aren’t good at defense?
I’ve seen a lot of basketball — too much, according to many — and I see absolutely no indication of any of these negatives when I watch Steve Nash play. To address the big points often levied against him:
Nash suddenly (ie inexplicably) became a superstar when he went to Phoenix
Yes, Nash was helped by the rule changes that freed perimeter players. But you know what, so was Wade, Kobe, Pierce, Iverson, etc. You know what else helps Nash? The 3-point line. Rules are rules. But the notion that he went from nothing to something overnight is simply wrong.
Look at his shooting percentages from 97-99. He was a late bloomer. A learner. Constantly improving his shot and understanding of the game while attempting to find a rhythm as a small-college reserve. Anyone who has struggled through a lineup knows this can have a big impact on a young player. Yet in his second year he was a fantastic backup PG.
In 2000 his shooting clearly improves. In 2001 he is the full-time starter. In 2002 he is an all-nba player at 27…which happens to be his third year starting. 2003, all-nba again. They run more of the offense through Nash in 2004, but no one realizes the subtle role change and they only see diminished ppg and fewer wins (due to lack of defense). Never mind it was the best offense, by relative ORtg, in NBA history, despite Dallas only shooting 34.8% from 3.
By then he’s 29, Cuban makes a miscalculation about his age, despite so few miles on the odometer. He’s “old” and coming off a “down year.” Dallas has a PG in the wings in Harris and needs to focus on defense, so they don’t resign Nash. The Suns make him the center-piece, they run pick and roll to death, the league changes perimeter rules, and logically Nash’s impact jumps.
Yet everyone concludes it was the system. A miracle. An unjust MVP. He is NOT the first player in NBA history to take a late arc by age. It’s not like he was a Canadian kid from Santa Clara backing up Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd in his first two seasons. Oh wait, he was…and still impressed off the bench.
Why did the Mavericks reach the Finals after he left?
In 2004 Nash’s teammates were terrible defensively. Defense is critical in playoff settings. Antoine Walker, Antawn Jamison and no center aren’t exactly a recipe for good defense…how is that team supposed to win? Conversely, in 2006, simply plugging in a defensive part at center — Diop or Dampier — as well as defensive upgrades like Adrian Griffin, completely changed the tenor of the Mav’s playoffs chances. (I collected a nice sum of money in 2006 bc of it — nice foul Manu Ginobili!)
What does any of that have to do with Steve Nash’s offense…or his offense’s affect on defense?
Why didn’t Nash win a title in Phoenix?
In Phoenix, the Suns came together in 2005 and with an interior combination of Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion were absolutely no match for San Antonio with Tim Duncan and Nazr Mohammed roaming the paint. (They were, however, so offensively potent they had no problem running through Dirk’s Mavericks to the WCF.) Nash didn’t exactly disappoint in the series, either. Was Nash’s offense at fault for Duncan and Ginobili toying with the Suns defense?
In 2006 they were saddled with injuries…Nash again led them to the WCF with a bunch of small forwards…where they encountered the aforementioned and improved version of the Mavericks.
In 2007, they were, to me, the best team in the NBA. The defensive efforts were good enough to win (13th in DRtg). They sure looked like the better team in the San Antonio series, considering his G1 injury kept him out down the stretch due to bleeding, the controversial suspensions and officiating in G3 and G4, respectively and playing G5 with six players: Nash and Bell, Marion, Thomas, Barbosa, James Jones. They lost by 3 points to a fully loaded dynastic Spurs team. In G6 they were exhausted, clearly. Ginobili, again, crucified them in those 2 final games. Did he do so because of Nash?
Nash’s Pace/System is only successful at the expense of good defense
Finally, just watching the game, Nash doesn’t need one-dimensional offensive players or weak defenders to cheat and leak out on the break (Nelly-ball?), he is arguably at his best in the halfcourt and in the pick and roll. It’s probably the biggest single reason why Phoenix’s offensive numbers don’t plummet in the playoffs when the pace is slowed. If anything, that’s a boost for Nash’s value, is it not?
Time and time again, Nash’s play seemingly wills Phoenix to big wins. In 2005 v Dallas, in 2006 v LA, even just last year in the playoffs. That flawed “system” of his again had Phoenix neck and neck with a giant Laker team. His ridiculous 4th quarter against San Antonio with his eye swollen shut.
I don’t know how to view any of that as something inherently flawed. As a losing system or a losing player. And I do believe, with extreme conviction, that if Phoenix gets by San Antonio in 07 or LA last year, Nash would be viewed differently…because of factors that have nothing to do with Steve Nash.
Give him a defensive-molded center and another capable defender, a shooter or three (a dime a dozen, see: Jones, James) to go along with a No. 2-type player and that’s an NBA-championship level team every single year. Kind of like Phoenix in 2007. (And they had 34-year old Kurt Thomas playing that big-man role.)
Four or five years ago I was not sold on Nash. But I find it impossible to watch him or analyze him/his teams and think that he’s anything other than one of the best offensive players in NBA history. He’s certainly one of the best shooters and passers in NBA history, and he uses those weapons to run an unstoppable barrage of pick and roll sets.
And if mimicking his “system” were presumably so easy…why hasn’t anyone else done it?