Trade talk? Mediocre team? Nash still a star
It only seemed like the basketball apocalypse was at hand.
With a single work shift separating them from the NBA All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns had allowed a midseason uprising to be doomed by their own nonchalance.
They were unable to overcome the calamity of 39 first-quarter points scored by the Golden State Warriors, provoking a reasonable postgame meltdown from coach Alvin Gentry. Staggering into an eight-day vacation at 14-20 with only 32 more post-lockout dates to make up ground, it smelled like a time for grim declaration.
And then the microphones, cameras and notepads turned to Steve Nash.
“Well, it’s not the end of the world,” Nash said four days before making his eighth All-Star appearance. “No one’s sick or dying. It’s basketball. We’re disappointed in what’s happened thus far … but still … there’s no reason to hang your head and not enjoy your life.”
Does this come across as a bit cavalier? Maybe it would if those words were attached to another player. But leading into an NBA weekend that celebrates the individual, few individuals stand out quite like the Suns’ 38-year-old point guard. His perspective following Wednesday night’s momentum-crushing defeat parallels the way he lives life away from a sport that has escorted his rise to celebrity.
Nash’s commitments to philanthropy, conservation awareness and other high-minded pursuits present a natural bridge to how he prepares himself for the next opportunity to win a basketball game. As one of the greatest on-court coagulants the game has ever seen, his leadership has kept a deficient roster from collapsing under the recollection of past regular-season success.
“Without Steve,” Suns center Marcin Gortat said, “this team doesn’t exist.”
Well, it probably exists at the highest reaches of the NBA Draft Lottery pecking order.
As an obvious and appreciative beneficiary of Nash’s sleight-of-hand largesse, Gortat said what impresses him most is the two-time Most Valuable Player’s preparation.
“He works so hard,” Gortat said. “He’s always doing whatever it takes to be ready for the next game. That might be shooting, running, lifting … even on days off, he’s here … making sure he’s ready.”
The nightly challenge might be historically chronic back pain. It could be something as relentless as last season’s pubic-bone distress or this season’s stereo thigh bruises. To push back against the ravages of time and work-related deterioration, Nash leans on the restorative genius of therapy, preemptive fitness and a diet that’s frighteningly bereft of what the rest of us know as comfort food.
While he continues passing opponents on the road to Springfield, Nash has few fans with more conviction than Gentry.
“No one wants to win more than he does,” Gentry said of Nash. “No one is more competitive than he is. Steve only knows one way to play … he knows 100 miles per hour. He’s not going to pace himself.”
That’s why the Gentry wouldn’t have minded if his leader had been snubbed when tickets for Orlando were being dished out to All-Star reserves. Eight relatively blissful days between real games for an aging point guard? It could have been a coach’s dream come true.
“No one deserves to be in the All-Star Game more than he does,” Gentry said. “But I was kind of hoping he didn’t make it … that’s just a coach being selfish.”
As for this seasons’ qualifications, let’s check the numbers. Through 31 games (there were two Gentry-directed embargoes due to those thigh contusions), Nash is leading the league in assists per game at 10.9. He’s also making 54 percent of his field-goal attempts — including 40 percent from the 3-point range — and averaging 14 points per game.
“I feel like I’ve sustained a level I strive for,” Nash said. “I’d like to have won more games, but personally, I feel like I’ve battled and played at a high level.”
Leading the league in dimes on a team that’s registered a dip in field-goal percentage isn’t easy to accomplish, but Nash doesn’t snag any additional gratification for persevering through difficult times.
“I will say it’s rewarding to be an All-Star at this stage of my career because of all the sacrifices I’ve made,” Nash said, “but it’s not more rewarding because of the team situation. If anything, it’s less rewarding.”
As a sidebar reward, he’ll be dribbling into a media storm in Orlando, where many quasi-altruistic reporters — most of whom have been openly rooting for Nash to be employed by another team — will gather. While they’ll be diverted by Dwight Howard departure rumors, Jeremy Lin-sanity and Kobe Bryant’s state-of-the-Lakers sermon, Nash won’t receive enough screens to drive past questions regarding his future.
When he’s sworn into unrestricted-free-agent nation this summer, Nash will be a targeted expenditure for a Suns team attempting to parlay cap flexibility — whether it’s this year or next — into significant roster upgrades. He has said staying in Phoenix is a very realistic option … if the Suns offer what Nash believes he’s still worth.
Lon Babby, the team’s vice president of basketball operations, has been the spokesperson assigned with selling the Suns’ affection for Nash. He also realizes the on-court product eventually will have to proceed without Nash. This balance between striving to reach what Babby has referred to as “elite status” and keeping “the sun, moon and stars” of the franchise in the fold will provide compelling theater through the coming months.
Will the financial requirement to keep Nash compromise too many of the bricks set aside for the rebuilding process? If that appears to be the reality, will Suns owner Robert Sarver end this working relationship for the sake of what might be long-term progress?
His departure certainly would sting to many Suns followers. But Nash would assure us that such a development does not represent the end of the world.
The atmosphere, however, might feel a lot heavier on Planet Orange.