Steve Nash’s place in the point guard pantheon

David Friedman Columnist

By David Friedman, David Friedman is a Roar Expert

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    Steve Nash’s recent retirement is hardly a surprise. His body has failed him since he joined the Lakers three years ago, he has not made the All-Star team since 2012 and he has not made the All-NBA team since 2010.

    So where is Nash’s proper place in pro basketball’s point guard pantheon?

    Before answering that question, here are three career stat lines to ponder (the name of each player appears at the end of this article):

    Player A: 13.1 ppg, 10.5 apg, 2.7 rpg, 51.5% FG, 38.4% 3FG, 82.6% FT
    Player B: 14.3 ppg, 8.5 apg, 3.0 rpg, 49.0% FG, 42.8% 3FG, 90.4% FT
    Player C: 15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg, 2.6 rpg, 47.2% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 90.4% FT

    Nash led the NBA in assists five times (2005-07, 2010-11) and he ranks third all-time with 10,335 assists, trailing only John Stockton (15,806) and Jason Kidd (12,091).

    Nash is the only player who posted four 50-40-90 seasons (50% field goal shooting, 40% three point shooting, 90% free throw shooting).

    Nash’s strengths are his shooting efficiency and his playmaking skills. Defenders could not leave Nash alone at the three-point line and because Nash had to be guarded closely this opened up lanes for him to penetrate into the paint, collapse the defence and dish to open teammates.

    Nash’s major weakness is that he was a below average defender. His teams scored prolifically but they also gave up a lot of points and even though this style proved to be effective during the regular season it did not work nearly as well in the playoffs. Consequently, Nash never made it past the Conference Finals.

    Nash received back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. He is one of 12 NBA players who won at least two MVPs (Mel Daniels earned two ABA MVPs and Julius Erving captured three ABA MVPs before also winning an NBA MVP).

    Nash’s MVPs will forever be a source of interest and controversy. A good case could be made even at the time that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant respectively should have received those awards.

    After Nash moved from the Dallas Mavericks to the Phoenix Suns in 2005, the Mavericks replaced Nash with Jason Terry, advanced to the NBA Finals twice and won the 2011 title.

    Nash and Karl Malone are the only players who won at least two MVPs and did not also win at least one championship. In fact, every two-time ABA or NBA MVP won at least two championships except for Steve Nash, Bob Pettit, Karl Malone and Moses Malone. Pettit and Moses Malone each had singular, dominant championship runs.

    One could endlessly compare the supporting casts of various great players (Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing are three other great players who never won a title) but, no matter how you look at it, Nash is an outlier among the multiple MVP winners.

    Nash is on the short list of all-time great point guards, but it is difficult to rank him ahead of Bob Cousy (an MVP who also ran the show for six championship teams), Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton and Jason Kidd. All of those players except Stockton won at least one championship and all of those players (except possibly Cousy) were much better defenders than Nash.

    The player most similar to Nash in playing style and statistics might surprise some people: Mark Price. He mastered ‘splitting’ the pick and roll during an era in which big men did not hesitate to knock a smaller player to the floor when he embarrassed them.

    Price’s career was cut short by an ACL injury but for a brief period in the early 1990s he did for the Cleveland Cavaliers what Nash later did for the Phoenix Suns. Price led the Cavs to the 1992 Conference Finals, where they fell to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls much like Nash’s teams later lost to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers.

    As some final food for thought, here are the names of the three players listed at the beginning of this article. Player A is Hall of Famer and Top 50 selection John Stockton, Player B is Steve Nash and Player C is four-time All-NBA team member Mark Price.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.

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    The Crowd Says (41)

    • March 30th 2015 @ 7:33am
      TexasSportsFan said | March 30th 2015 @ 7:33am | ! Report

      He hasn’t been an All-Star since 2012? He was 38 in 2012 and that’s the same year he broke his leg playing for the Lakers, effectively ending his career (although it took a couple of years for it to play out). There have been few All-Stars at 38. I would have never heard of Mark Price if he hadn’t had the FT record that Nash broke, and I don’t think anyone believes he was better than Nash. There is no question that Nash deserved those 2 MVP’s, and the continual whining about it is pointless. The Suns won more games than any other team in that first MVP season, and they couldn’t win a game without Nash on the floor. That second MVP season they played all but 3 games without Amare and still went to the WCF’s. How many games would they have won without Nash? Single digits at best I imagine. Nash’s Suns fell to the Spurs mostly not the Lakers. They lost to the Lakers in 2010 when most of the better players had left the Suns for higher paydays. Nash never got past the conference finals? Chris Paul hasn’t even gotten past the 2nd round so let’s not pretend that getting to the WCF’s 4 times is nothing. Both the Mavericks and the Suns were horrible teams before Nash arrived. His place in the Hall of Fame is assured. He is Top 5 all-time in my estimation and no less than Top 10 in anyone else’s. Nash transformed the PG position, and the NBA you see today is a result of the D’Antoni system and the PG play of Steve Nash. I think you’ve got your stats switched. B is Nash not C.

      • Columnist

        March 30th 2015 @ 11:00am
        David Friedman said | March 30th 2015 @ 11:00am | ! Report

        My point is that, although Nash announced his retirement recently, Nash has not been an impact player for several years. I did not intend to disparage him but simply to state that his de facto retirement happened a while ago.

        I don’t know what people believe about Price but knowledgeable basketball observers credit Price with changing the way teams played the pick and roll offensively and the way that they defended it defensively–and Price did this in an era when much more contact was allowed on the perimeter.

        Nash had a great career and I know that his fans very passionately defend him but the reality is that he won less than any other player who received two MVPs. That does not mean that Nash was not great but it does suggest that maybe he did not deserve two MVPs, particularly in an era when Shaq, Duncan and Kobe were dominating the league.

        I agree with your implication that Chris Paul is somewhat overrated in the sense that some people tout him as an MVP candidate at times even though his playoff success has been very limited–but this article is not about Paul.

        Of course, you are right that the stats were switched. That is my fault and the error has been fixed. I guess the numbers are so similar that even I got confused, which proves my point 🙂

    • March 30th 2015 @ 11:47am
      Johnno said | March 30th 2015 @ 11:47am | ! Report

      ort comment

      Best point guards ever in order

      2)Isiah Thomas
      3)Bob Cousy
      4)The glove
      6)Jason Kidd
      7)Walt fraizer
      8)Chris Paul
      9)Tim Hardaway
      10)Kevin Johnson

      I didn’t include Derrick Rose as he’s not retired yet. Mark Price was more a shooting guard wasn’t he. DJ Johnson was good, but he was more a shooting guard to, who would play PG at Celtics as Danny Ainge was shooting guard. But DJ would fill the PG role. Oscar Robertson was more a SG, but back then they didn’t make names for PG.
      And Michael Jordan had a few games at PB, and did very well, but the Bulls coach in the 80’s moved him back to SG.

      • March 30th 2015 @ 1:04pm
        express34texas said | March 30th 2015 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

        Sorry, but Nash is way too high on your list. Magic, Oscar, Payton, Stockton, Thomas, and Kidd all should be clearly ahead of Nash. All of these players were either much better offensively and/or played both ways. I think David is very generous saying Nash was just a below average defender.

        It might be true for part of his career, but I’ve never heard anyone say Oscar was a SG. He’s only listed as a PG on basketball-reference. And no none-PG has approached his assist totals before. West was small, and played PG and SG, but I thought he was primarily a SG. I don’t hold the early era NBA too highly. Not that there won’t some great players, but they look like they’re playing in slo mo compared to today’s game. Cousy was very unathletic and only shot .375 for his career in a weak defensive era. Relative to eras, sure, he could have a case as best PG ever. Comparatively, not a chance. BOS had a monopoly on the NBA, of course they’re going to win a lot of titles. With only 8 teams, and only having to win 2 series some years, and never more than 3, so much easier for them then than today’s teams.

        David, I’m surprised you didn’t mention Payton amongst other great PGs. I think he’s the only PG to win DPOY. He had a long career. He was a beast defensively. And I would take him offensively over Nash. He was much more athletic and bigger. He was a much better scorer, and would intimidate opposing PGs. Magic, Oscar, and Thomas are the top 3 ever for me. I think Payton is right behind them. Stockton had a little more longevity than Payton, but that’s pretty much it, and being much smaller put him at a disadvantage.

        • March 30th 2015 @ 1:44pm
          Johnno said | March 30th 2015 @ 1:44pm | ! Report

          Of course they play slower, it was a different era. It’s like saying Margaret Court, has no right to challenge Seles,Serena Williams etc, as the game wasn’t a power game or as powerful as today. Evert and Navratalova, hit the ball much less hard than Serena Williams,Sharapova etc, of course the past the players were less professional and didn;t have all he mod con’s of today.
          Watch some old Bjorg V McEnroe wimbeldon finals, the power is nothing like today.

          • March 30th 2015 @ 2:14pm
            express34texas said | March 30th 2015 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

            Agree mostly, and that’s why I don’t consider Cousy that highly among other things. Though he deserves credit for being a top PG in his era. And this is the main reason why I like the nba a lot more than college men’s, which I like a lot more than college women’s. The athletes are so much better. Tennis is a little trickier since they used to use wooden racquets and it’s more of a skilled sport, but it should be obvious the athletes today are so much bigger/stronger on average and much more powerful.

            • March 30th 2015 @ 2:30pm
              Johnno said | March 30th 2015 @ 2:30pm | ! Report

              But that’s got nothing to do with dominance, athletes being more powerful today.
              Greatness is measured by how dominant you were in your era with the participation numbers of a sport.
              One argument with guys like Cousy and West, and even Magic and Bird, is they played in a era when basketball had much less global participation numbers, and smaller participation levels in US too.

              • March 31st 2015 @ 2:49am
                express34texas said | March 31st 2015 @ 2:49am | ! Report

                You might be right for the majority of people regarding how greatness is measured, but I don’t quite believe in that definition. Dominance shouldn’t necessarily mean greatness. While it’s much harder to compare eras than within a particular era, it doesn’t take much intelligence to realize the game today is much more physical, athletic, and faster. There’s always outliers like Wilt, but I’m talking about the average player. And you’re right about global participation. The game has picked up the last 20 years, and more and more each year still.

        • Columnist

          April 1st 2015 @ 6:16am
          David Friedman said | April 1st 2015 @ 6:16am | ! Report


          I agree that Payton could be mentioned rather prominently on a list of all-time great pgs. The list in my article was not meant to be comprehensive but just to suggest that for each era from the 1950s through the 2000s there are pgs who should be ranked ahead of Nash. Walt Frazier could be added as well, plus some others.

          Regarding Cousy, he was a big-time scorer and playmaker during his era. The field goal percentages at that time were universally low (other than Wilt’s); some of that had to do with playing conditions, travel circumstances leading to fatigue and even the rough nature of the game (fights did not necessarily lead to ejections and other forms of physical contact might result in a missed shot but not a foul). Also, I think (but am not sure) that at least for a certain period missed field goal attempts that resulted in shooting fouls were counted in the statistics as a miss. Cousy was the best of his era and even though he was small he was not smaller than Stockton, Isiah, Price, Nash and others who succeeded in more recent times. I think that if a young Cousy were transplanted to the modern era he would do quite well.

      • February 11th 2016 @ 9:55pm
        Walt Coogan said | February 11th 2016 @ 9:55pm | ! Report

        For prime or peak value, Kevin Johnson was the second-best point guard in NBA history, behind Magic Johnson (again, not counting Oscar Robertson). For career value, John Stockton was the second-best point guard after Magic. K.J. certainly proved superior to the likes of Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, and Tim Hardaway, none of whom were nearly as efficient or as explosive.

    • March 30th 2015 @ 1:03pm
      Swampy said | March 30th 2015 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

      Interesting that johnno puts up that list of all-time greats.

      Not many Titles in that list after the top 3 (and the top 3 had plenty of help). So in reality how important is it really to have a Hall of Fame point guard to contend?

      Nate Archibald is missing by the way johnno, and, even though I’m a Sonics fan, the Glove is far, far too high up that list.

      Nash is probably my favourite player of the last 15 years but I know in the long run he will grouped with the point guards that didn’t win titles when discussing the best ever. No different to Malone and Barkley when discussing the great power forwards. For me Stockton is far and away the leader of that group.

      Regardless, Nash was a superb player and great fun to watch. Every short guy now has the off step floaters as part of their repertoire when entering the lane. Nash perfected that shot. He also perfected the high pick and roll. He may not have been much of a defender but he left his mark on the way the game is played now.

      PS. Mark Price was a gun. He was one of the best shooters ever. When he was in peak condition the Cavs (with Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Hot Rod Williams) were the best team in the East. Price had the purest pull up jumper on the fast break ever – that thing was money if you dropped off him.

    • March 30th 2015 @ 1:07pm
      Gobbler said | March 30th 2015 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

      “I didn’t include Derrick Rose as he’s not retired yet. “.
      Yet you include Chris Paul? Good logic…

      • Roar Rookie

        March 31st 2015 @ 9:03am
        Squidward said | March 31st 2015 @ 9:03am | ! Report

        Plus Derrick rose may never make any top 10 list. Could’ve and shouldve but damn those legs

    • March 30th 2015 @ 1:12pm
      express34texas said | March 30th 2015 @ 1:12pm | ! Report

      It’s unfortunate Nash won 2 MVPs. Obviously, looking back at his career now, it seems very odd at best that he won them. He has as many as Duncan, and as many as Kobe/Shaq combined. He was never a serious MVP candidate with until he joined PHO at age 30. Players just don’t suddenly get that much better, and I don’t think he did either. The system they ran in PHO helped everyone’s stats to inflate. Nash was also able to dominate the ball a lot more than with DAL. Naturally, his scoring, shooting, and assists went up a little, but not that much. He played with multiple stars for pretty much his entire career, but yet never made even one finals appearance.

      Swampy does make one good point, though. Having a big-time PG isn’t that important to winning a title. I think the PG and C positions are the most important positions, but your best players don’t have to play those positions. You probably need a competent PG to win, but he doesn’t have to necessarily be a star or even close to a star. And just looking at the top 25-30 PGs today, they could all be good enough on a title team. Look at some past starting PGs to win titles: Chalmers, Fisher, old Kidd. Not exactly high-quality PGs.

      • March 30th 2015 @ 3:02pm
        Swampy said | March 30th 2015 @ 3:02pm | ! Report

        It’s not really that unfortunate. Nash had two really good back to back seasons just when other superstars weren’t being as dominant. Even if you argue he wasn’t the MVP those two seasons, he was very much in the conversation as one of the leading candidates.

        • March 31st 2015 @ 3:00am
          express34texas said | March 31st 2015 @ 3:00am | ! Report

          It completely is unfortunate. I know he has a lot of fans and isn’t considered negatively by anyone, that’s important to remember. And I like that guy, too, but I just don’t overrate him like most. He is the #1 example why I don’t consider the MVP that relevant sometimes. PHO and Nash were great stories for a couple of years starting in 05. It’s obvious MVP voters can be very bias, and media darlings get more votes usually. It’s more about the ‘story’ than anything else. KG was a great player, and had a great year in 04, not sure if he should’ve won, though, but he had a case. However, he was maybe only slightly worse in 05, and basically got no consideration. 05 wasn’t a great year for MVP, true, but almost all of the guys immediately below Nash were better players, and they all had very good years. Plus, while Kobe’s team stunk and he missed some games because of injury, it’s ridiculous he didn’t get even 1 vote. The award really shouldn’t matter how good your team is. It’s not your fault if your teammates are terrible. Nash hardly improved from 04 to 05. And that should be expected, since he was age 30 in 05. His previous team got better without him. He now has as many MVPs as Kobe/Shaq combined. That’s just ridiculous. Given how good his teams were for most of his career, and if he really is a 2x MVP, then there’s no excuse for why he shouldn’t have 1 or probably more rings. He didn’t even make the finals once. It doesn’t add up.

      • April 7th 2015 @ 7:23am
        TexasSportsFan said | April 7th 2015 @ 7:23am | ! Report

        It’s unfortunate Nash won 2 MVP’s? Many people thought he should have won 3. Looking back now is not the same as being there watching those games and seeing the impact he had on those teams. As I said, they couldn’t win without him on the floor, so the system can’t be given all the credit and neither can his teammates like Amare & Marion. Without him they were like a football team without a QB.

        Having a great PG isn’t necessary in some systems (like the Triangle). Of course, you’ve got to have great players like Kobe & Jordan. In D’Antoni’s system the PG is critical. Kidd was still a good PG when Dallas won their title. He might not have been as good as he was in his prime, but he was still a very important part of that team.

    • March 30th 2015 @ 1:46pm
      Johnno said | March 30th 2015 @ 1:46pm | ! Report

      I will all in agreement Magic is the best point guard ever, past or present players.

      • March 30th 2015 @ 3:06pm
        Swampy said | March 30th 2015 @ 3:06pm | ! Report

        Hard to argue against him. He won a lot. High School, College & NBA.

        Plus he made the All-Star Game watchable.

        • March 30th 2015 @ 3:15pm
          Johnno said | March 30th 2015 @ 3:15pm | ! Report

          Isiah Thomas was more clutch than Magic in big games.

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