Caught Off-Guard

What is Steve Nash right now?
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We will always have Steve Nash. Not the Nash that was on the floor at the beginning and end of his career, the first hamstrung by strange use, the latter diminished by age and wear. But the Nash that was Nash—the one that won those two MVP's, the one that powered the most entertaining non-championship teams in recent memory—belongs to history, and has a spot in the memory of everyone who watched him humbly, vibrantly revolutionize and redefine his position. We'll remember Nash as that infallible wizard, and the most crucial on-court character to help spark the NBA’s ongoing offensive evolution. But of course Steve Nash isn’t that anymore.

What we see now, when we watch Nash, is a relatively old player who quite reasonably but quite palpably struggles to make NBA basketball look as easy as he once did. He can no longer spring free whenever he wants, regularly dribble the defense into collective emotional breakdown, or whip a perfect pocket pass with the automatic precision and unconscious ease that most of us bring to tying our shoes.

But it’s not like these things never happen anymore, either. They just don’t happen as often as our eyes and memories have trained us to expect from him. At one point, for a really long time, Nash seemed to have the power to skate across wood, gliding while everyone else stomped. Now, not so much. What a drag it is getting old.

But if that Nash is gone, a new—maybe not quite the word, actually—player has appeared in his place. He is, not surprisingly, also a pretty good NBA point guard.

***

Last Tuesday night, Nash had just two assists against the Orlando Magic, thanks mostly to approximately 93% of Los Angeles’ possessions ending in a Dwight Howard free-throw. But that first assist? That one should always and forever be described as artwork in motion, the purest pick-and-roll magic. Watch it and feel both awe and the need for another camera angle to appreciate/understand how in the hell Nash got the ball where he wanted it to go.

Orlando executed textbook defense to near perfection, here. Three players crashed the paint: Nash’s trailing defender, Howard’s man, and the weakside defender on the wing who begins to slide in once Nash reaches the left elbow area. Everyone on the Magic rotates with a second to spare, and as Nash nears the rim, two giants in white jerseys leap into the air while a third wrestles a bit with Dwight Howard beneath the basket. A split second later the ball is in Howard’s hands, ready to be thrown through the rim with a force capable of temporarily deflating a team’s will. Watch the video again, if you want. It's not exactly clear how it got there, but there it went, and there it was.

Ready for some profound analysis? Los Angeles’ offense is getting more efficient as Nash rounds himself into better shape. Over their last 20 games the Lakers have posted an offensive rating of 106.7 with Nash on the court. In their last 10 that number has climbed to 107.1.

Part of this is due to his shooting figures, which are really, really good, even for him: 49.4/43.7/92.2. More impressive still, he’s doing it on more shots per game than last year. (Though it should be noted that if he finishes with his fifth 50/40/90 plaque at the end of this season, it’ll be with fewer total free-throw and overall field goal attempts than Jose Calderon, the black sheep member in Club 50/40/90.)

Another thing that should be noted: as Los Angeles’ offensive production gets better, Nash’s assist percentage has gone way down. This contradicts everything we know about him, and everything we think we know about how assists work. It's weird, but it's not inexplicable. As was pointed out by Grantland's Zach Lowe, before Bryant landed awkwardly on Dahntay Jones’ foot, Nash had barely played this season without him.

And when the two share the court, Bryant is the one doing more or less all the things Nash was brought on board to do. Bryant, not Nash, regularly runs pick-and-rolls in the halfcourt, probes the defense, and sets up teammates for the open shots that keep them happy. It's not that Kobe Bryant is doing these things poorly; he's Kobe Bryant, he even tweets like a virtuoso. But why would anyone be asked to do these things while sharing the floor with Steve Nash, who has traditionally done them better than just about anyone in his generation?

There's blame to go around, and plenty of places to direct it. There’s Mike D’Antoni, Bryant and Nash himself, for starters. Like everything else having to do with the Lakers, it would be both easy and tons of fun to blame all this on Dwight Howard and work the specifics out later. But in the name of inconvenient narratives, there's this: when Howard and Nash are on the court at the same time the Lakers boast one of the three most efficient offenses in the league and a defense that’s slightly better than Miami’s, according to NBA.com/Stats.

Nash is one of the greatest shooters of all-time, and it’s a skill that obviously won't desert him anytime soon—would it surprise anyone if he’s coming off the bench on whatever team LeBron James is playing for in three years? But that familiar efficient scoring is not all Nash can do. His playmaking ability shouldn’t be buried just yet, and Nash still has the ability to make everyone on the court better. His defense is his defense, and always has been. But everything else that made Nash one of the great players of his generation is still there, albeit altered and slowed some by time and context.

Is it possible to underrate a certain Hall of Famer? Nash isn’t what he used to be, but he’s still eighth in the league in three-point field goal percentage and 13th in true shooting percentage, and doing things as a playmaker that nobody not named John Stockton or Jason Kidd have done so late in their careers. Nash can still be a lead ball-handler on a very good team, and those shooting numbers can still coax a SMH from any skeptic. The Lakers are not better with Bryant on the sideline, of course. But Nash may well be, and will at the very least be free to do the things that he does better than just about everyone in the world.

He isn't who he was, naturally; none of us are. But it should be interesting—and could well be dazzling—to see what Steve Nash becomes as the season goes on.


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