How Steve Nash Changed the NBA Forever
Almost every time a great player retires, we say he has changed basketball. That’s not often true, and the impact is rarely as profound as the one Steve Nash has had on the NBA.
Nash and Mike D’Antoni’s time in Phoenix represents a revolution in the league that transformed the way basketball is played fundamentally, in more ways than one. After his stunt in Dallas, Nash decided to return to Phoenix and join forces with head coach Mike D’Antoni and big man Amar’e Stoudemire in what resulted in one of the most explosive offenses of all time.
Check out where they ranked in a few big categories, including Offensive Rating.
The results were unparalleled. Ranking in the top five in so many offensive categories was incredible, but what was even better was how enjoyable their basketball was. We don’t have a metric for measuring fun, but if we did, they would have been first. Being in the top two in Offensive Rating for six years in a row would have been impossible to do in an ordinary way, so how did the Suns do it?
Innovation and pace. When it came to pushing the tempo, the Suns were well ahead of their time.
This is not surprising, as the Suns are famous for their so called “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, but what is surprising is the fact that the offense was led by Nash. Dirk Nowitzki jokingly called out Nash for being “slow, and white and unathletic,” but there is a lot of truth to that statement. Nash was a scrawny, fairly unathletic point-guard with a bad back who somehow managed to lead the league in pace several years in a row. So how did he do it?
It was quite interesting to hear Mike D’Antoni discuss this topic at the SLOAN Sports Analytics Conference a month ago. At the basketball panel at SLOAN, ex-NBA player Shane Battier mentioned that sometimes it’s very difficult to sprint up and down the court every single possession on a back-to-back or a third game in four nights situation, but D’Antoni explained it wasn't just about sprinting. D’Antoni’s point was that you don’t necessarily need to be sprinting up the court every time to get off a quick shot, you just need to “keep going.” D’Antoni’s point was that teams often waste time after grabbing a rebound or conceding a bucket, and part of going at a fast pace is just not wasting time but rather constantly moving.
Seth Partnow had an interesting take on D'Antoni's comments.
The way D'antoni is talking about pace and tempo sounds very influenced by soccer, probably unsurprising. #SSAC15— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) February 27, 2015
It’s well known Nash’s first sport was soccer, and it’s very unsurprising D’Antoni and Nash used soccer concepts in developing their offense given their background. What’s interesting is that many NBA teams employ the quick hitting counter-attack today. Teams such as Golden State and San Antonio act quickly to find shots within their offense despite not being the most athletic or being the youngest (San Antonio). They get into their sets quicker than before and they find shots early in the shot clock before defenses set. It’s a concept that doesn’t necessarily mean sprinting up the court, but rather not wasting time dribbling the ball at the top of the key. The roots go back to Nash’s Suns, and apparently, soccer.
On top of pushing the pace, the Suns were also great at sharing the ball. Led by Nash, the Suns averaged more assists than anyone in the league for three years in a row.
The passing style is also one where Nash and D’Antoni were years ahead of their time. Concepts from that offense are used by some of the best teams today, most notably the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, and the Atlanta Hawks. Golden State, Atlanta, And San Antonio rank first, second, and fourth in assists this season, and it’s not a coincidence they happen to be three of the best teams in the league.
Both assists per game and pace have increased throughout the NBA since Nash teamed up with D’Antoni. Almost every time a new concept is successful in the NBA, it is immediately copied and reproduced by everyone else. It’s a copycat league.One can question Nash’s athleticism or lack of championships, but to deny his effect on today’s NBA would be lazy, wrong, and incompetent. Steve Nash has left his mark on basketball and you can see it every time you turn on an NBA game.
Not a bad thing to leave behind, eh?