Backpicks GOAT: #19 Steve Nash

Key Stats and Trends

  • Spearheaded the most efficient offenses in NBA history
  • All-time combination of passing, creating and scoring efficiency
  • Performs extremely well in non-box value metrics

Scouting Report

At his apex, Steve Nash was arguably the most aggressive attacker in NBA history. With the ball, he forced defenses to respond to his passing and scoring threats simultaneously; sleep on his scoring and he burned you with a bucket, respect his scoring and he burned you with a pass. And he was the most prolific passer in NBA history.

When Nash entered the league in 1997, he was merely a small-college kid with some NCAA Tournament allure. He backed up two legendary Phoenix point guards Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson, and by his second year was deployed in dual and sometimes triple-point lineups. After the ’98 season, he was sent to Dallas to serve as the full time starter, but he struggled with his health for his first two years as a Maverick.1

Nash played with all the same stylistic elements in those first few years — quick-triggered deadly shooting and aggressive passing — only as a shell of his future self. Here’s a play from 2000 where he frees up Michael Finley with a crafty hand-off:

Nash’s movement back then was disjointed and jerkier, but in 2001, his body held up, his quickness and agility improved and he erupted, zinging the prettiest fastballs since Magic Johnson:

Of course, Nash’s offense started with his threat to score. He would launch 3-pointers when given a modicum of space or attack defenders in vulnerable positions:

His shooting turned him into a deadly isolation threat. In tracking Nash, he attempted to score “on-ball” on about 20 plays per 100, using isolation or pick-and-roll.2 For perspective, that was more than Tim Duncan in my tracking (18 per 100), despite Duncan scoring far more overall than Nash. Nash was so rarely the finisher of an opportunity — especially in Phoenix — that his raw numbers undersold how strong he was at self-generating offense. But he was an MVP-level player because he combined a Jedi-like manipulation of defenses with pinpoint, Greg Maddux tosses:

Nash remained relatively healthy until 2004, when his back flared up again.3 He underwent another physical upgrade upon arriving in Phoenix, improving his conditioning and gait mechanics. By then, he possessed his full arsenal of Wayne Gretzky spins, lefty backhands and step-backs:

His passing exploded in Phoenix. With the freedom to play on the ball even more than he did in Dallas — and he was the most involved Maverick in Dallas — Nash’s passing graduated to a new level.4 He was always the master of the pocket pass, bounced from his hip to an eager roll-man:

But his interior and transition passing took on a life of its own. He would look for the smallest windows of opportunity and throw strikes nearly every time:

Nash delivered more quality passes, per possession, than anyone I’ve ever studied on film. In Dallas, he was already competing with the greatest passers in history, slinging a “good” or “great” pass on over 5 plays per 100. But in Phoenix, surrounded by better athletes and shooters that spaced the floor, Nash uncorked good passes on almost 9 percent of possessions! While Magic played in a time where there were fewer great passing opportunities, Nash’s wild forays into the paint created many of those small windows. If Magic exploited, Nash explored; he’d tug on defenses like a puppet master, waiting to see if big men would overplay his scoring while hoping help defenders would rotate to the wrong man.

Like a great quarterback, Nash didn’t complete every pass. Sometimes they came in too hot, and other times, the window was just too small:

Nash threw more problematic incompletions (or interceptions) like this than any player I’ve tracked, a natural tradeoff when gunning for so many high-leverage plays. Although the tradeoff was worth it; it’s unlikely any player in history created as many open shot opportunities for their teammates.

Defense, however, was another story; his physical tools left him shorthanded on that end and he was often hidden on the opponent’s weakest perimeter player. He had decently quick feet for much of his prime — a relic of his soccer-playing days — and was crafty enough to recognize sets and hedge in front of a screen, a common practice of his:

But even when he stayed in front of a good penetrator, his size still presented mismatch problems. Once Nash switches onto a big below, Dallas needs to send extra help and the Nets capitalize:

Nash’s biggest detriment, without question, was his size. He was simply too small to affect opposing shots, even when he played “good defense:”

His double-teams were less effective because of this, rarely able to bother post players or disrupt an offense:

Much like on offense, his defensive strength was his awareness. He was quite good at rotating to the right spot and positioning himself for charges, on or off the ball:

In my tracking, he forced 1.2 turnovers per 100 that weren’t counted by traditional scorekeeping methods. This is a small sample, but it’s reflective of his ability to make up for some of his defensive shortcomings with guile and basketball IQ. While his lack of verticality or physical strength curtailed the value of his team rotations,5 he could still check the boxes on a number of help plays, preventing teams from finding easy looks or minimizing their power plays. In the first clip below, he reads the weak side action and saves a layup, and in the second, he correctly funnels toward a good corner shooter and kills the possession:

Nash aged well, slowing down a touch in 2008, the first year of his prime that the offensive accelerator was not glued to the floor. Phoenix blew up its core that year, trading for Shaquille O’Neal, and Nash battled back soreness that bothered him during the ’05 and ’06 seasons. In 2010, he had his last high-quality year before turning in another two effective, but slower-moving seasons in Phoenix.

Impact Evaluation

Nash’s incredible passing and relentless creation spearheaded a plethora of historically great offenses. His diminutive stature limited his absolute value, but under the right conditions, he was one of history’s most valuable players; in Dallas, his impact numbers were positive but ordinary, yet in Phoenix, they were Herculean. This value is echoed by Nash’s box score metrics and deeper lineup-level analysis.

Nash arrived in Dallas for the lockout season of 1999 along with rookie Dirk Nowitzki (who played 20 minutes per game at age 20). While his presence coincided with an improved offense that jumped 4.7 points in relative efficiency, Nash’s role was ancillary, and he shouldered a pedestrian offensive load of 27.3 (50th percentile). However, when his health smoothed out in 2001 and he assumed command of the team, Dallas catapulted to a 54-win full-strength pace behind a +4.1 relative offensive rating (rORtg). Nash posted a 39.2 load (92nd percentile) that year, but Nowitzki’s burden hardly changed. Dirk’s efficacy took huge strides, as he improved his scoring rate by 19 percent on upper-echelon efficiency, but the machine ran through Nash.6

In Year Two of the prime Nash-Nowitzki show, Dallas ascended to a dynastic level on offense. The Mavs finished with the sixth-best rORtg in league history (+7.7), followed by the 16th-best in ’03 (+7.1) and then in ’04 became the only offense in NBA history 9 points better than league average for a full season (+9.2). Those numbers do require some mental curving; Dallas often played offensive-centric big men like Raef LaFrentz, and then in 2004 cheated their lineup entirely toward offense, playing Nowitzki at center full time and backing him up with the undersized Eduardo Najera or even (gasp!) Antoine Walker. As a result, the overall team performance declined behind a gossamery defense, slipping to 4.5 points worse than league average, in the 6th percentile historically.

That Mavericks four-year run of offense was the best in NBA history, averaging +7 efficiency during the stretch. The second best stretch? Nash’s Suns, from 2005 to 2008. His decade of offensive wizardry on two offense-first teams meant he played on the best offenses in NBA history through his career and a mind-boggling six of the 15 best “healthy” offenses ever. These attacks weren’t regular season frauds, either. The best four-year stretch for a playoff offense is held by Nash’s Suns, who were +10.7 in 51 playoff games between 2005 and 2008 (and his Dallas teams were in the top-10 too). Most importantly, all of this happened with  lineups shifting around him:

His coach during that stretch, Mike D’Antoni, is known for his point-guard friendly system, and a number of his lead guards manufactured career years under him, although the effect is quite small.7 D’Antoni’s Suns also skewed their lineups, sacrificing defense for offense by playing four wings alongside a power forward at center (Amare Stoudemire). But some of Nash’s most impressive team results were produced with traditional lineups.

In 2006, the Suns brought in Kurt Thomas to provide some muscle at center. In 50 games with Thomas, Phoenix was 3.6 points better than average on offense…and 3.4 points better on defense (6.6 SRS or 59-win pace). Nash guided Phoenix to a top-15 percent offense with a rotation of spot-up shooters (Raja Bell, James Jones and Eddie House) alongside Shawn Marion — who couldn’t create his own offense — a scorer who could also hit spot-up 3s (Leandro Barbosa) and a versatile post player (Boris Diaw).8 This echoed what happened in Dallas in 2001, when the Nash-Nowitzki-Finley trio paired with a traditional defensive center, Shawn Bradley, and crushed opponents by a league-best 17 points per 1009

Nash’s box stats compare favorably to the other modern offensive giants. Mathematically, his elite efficiency makes him one of the most valuable scorers ever. Using Jacob Goldstein’s method, Nash’s five-year run of volume and efficiency was the third most productive in NBA history, behind only Steph Curry and Michael Jordan. Per the scouting report, he could also ramp up his scoring when teams overplayed his passing: He tallied 25-point games nearly a quarter of the time during his Phoenix postseasons. And of course, Nash was the creation king:

Nash’s impact footprint extends beyond these team trends and Phoenix’s enormous single-season turnaround in 2005. His presence in the lineup correlated heavily with his team’s success, ranking in the top-10 in both WOWY and regressed game-level data. At the lineup level, he’s second in the Databall era in scaled offensive adjusted plus-minus (APM), behind only LeBron James. And his best scaled (overall) APM seasons are in the 99th percentile historically.

However, Nash’s situational value clearly changed from Dallas to Phoenix, as multiple APM methodologies demonstrate marginal impact in Dallas and seismic correlations in Phoenix. Improved health and the freedom-of-movement rule change were both factors, but I view these competing measurements as a classic case of fit. Similar to LeBron and Wade, Nash’s style of play created some diminishing returns. Unlike LeBron or Wade, Nash’s unheralded background and diminutive stature masked his poor fit in Dallas. Nash was more of a situational floor-raiser who could wash out in certain lineups next to ball-dominant scorers; he wasn’t as versatile as someone like LeBron, so pairing him with other centerpieces didn’t automatically supercharge such teams.10

He was also a victim of the “anchoring” effect discussed in Thinking Basketball. While his conditioning and game improved in Phoenix, many had a hard time believing he was so good because the Dallas years took place first. As a Mav, he was the fourth-best scorer on a three-headed team in an era when pundits underrated efficiency and creation, and severely underrated fit. Don Nelson hoarded offensive firepower in addition to owning a centerpiece in Dirk, so replacing Nash with a moderate creator (Jason Terry) left the offense in healthy condition. If time ran in reverse, talking-heads would have been trying to explain why Dallas’s MVPs could merely match what they did alone when they “finally” teamed up in 2004.

He’s also been widely panned for his defense, but, as discussed in the scouting report, he provided value with good rotations and by forcing more turnovers than his steals per game suggest. Point guard defense is rarely game-changing, and Nash’s D was further muted because he could hide on weaker offensive players in many situations; his defensive APM was right around (or even slightly above) average in five seasons between 2001-11. Based on all of this, I consider Nash a shade below average on defense in Phoenix and slightly worse in his Dallas days.

While he was able to log valuable seasons well into his mid-30s, Nash took a few years to hit his stride at the start of his career. By my valuations, he still racked up 11 All-NBA campaigns and five solid MVP-level seasons. Between his historically good shooting and passing, and the data suggesting nearly unrivaled value in Phoenix, I wonder if I’m underselling Nash’s peak. If I penalize him slightly less for poor fit, I’m still not sure he could crack the prestigious top-18, but I’m also not comfortable shaving too much more off his apex (which bounds him in the low 20s). With one of the five or six greatest offensive peaks ever, Nash lands at No. 19.

  1. Nash battled a back condition that he re-aggrevated before the 1999 season. Sometimes, injuries like that cause problems downstream, such as the ankle injury that caused Nash to miss considerable time in 2000.
  2. From a sample between 2001 and 2009 that consisted of over 600 possessions.
  3. This was the primary reason Dallas was concerned about paying Nash and let him walk in free agency. They also desperately needed defensive bigs.
  4. Re-watching those Dallas teams, they felt like Nash’ Suns squads with two offensive exceptions. First, Dirk popped more on picks than Amare. Second, Nash occasionally played off-ball in Dallas, running off screens or hiding in the corner for a Dirk iso.
  5. Except for that one time he blocked Tim Duncan.
  6. Comparable Nowitzki seasons based on the Big 3 box stats: ’07 Kevin Martin and ’03 Matt Harpring. In other words, Dirk was a finisher, not a creator.
  7. D’Antoni’s overall offensive impact is often overstated; his first season in Phoenix, the offense was worse than the year before, his first seasons in Houston and Los Angeles, the offense was nearly identical, and his first two years in New York, the offense was at league average.
  8. The defensive-heavy lineups consisting of Bell, Marion and Thomas outscored opponents by 11.5 points per 100 in 1,027 minutes alongside Nash and posted a 111 offensive rating.
  9. In those 936 minutes, that lineup also posted a 112.5 offensive rating, 9.5 points above league average. For perspective, the ’16 Warriors best 4-man lineup with at least 900 minutes was +18.4, the ’08 Celtics and ’16 Spurs +20.3, and the best team in basketball-reference’s database, the 2017 Warriors, was +23.2.
  10. A player like LeBron can also crash the boards, post up or slam home a teammate’s layup-pass. Nash cannot, and is more likely to be reduced to secondary off-ball action and the occasional spot-up opportunity. This pulls down his value on teams that have ball-dominant or isolation stars, which is largely what happened in 2013 with the Lakers.

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