For starters, I highly recommend everyone go through elgee's Backpicks profile on Nash; if you do, you can skip most of this portion, because I am going to go through the contents here, but I know some people simply hate opening new tabs. Alternatively, it provides an excellent collection of videos of his play. I also recommend listening to the recent episode of his Thinking Basketball podcast where he discusses the all-time greatest playmakers (per a playmaking metric he put together); Nash is ranked second below only Magic (shocking). I have previously said I think elgee's work on passing is maybe his most valuable contribution to the broader discussion of basketball, and that makes him an essential starting point in any discussion of a player who draws a large proportion of their value from their passing ability. And since I am likely to cover multiple years, this type of broader look works well.
The article starts off with a strong summary:
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
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.
After some discussion of his development in Dallas, we arrive at the core of what makes Nash who he is:
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… It’s unlikely any player in history created as many open shot opportunities for their teammates.
And that creation translated. Here (https://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/indexe598.html?p=6205
) is a list of, per the blog's metric, the best offences ever. 2007 Suns at #1, 2005 Suns at #2, 2010 Suns at #4 (who needs D'Antoni/Diaw/Marion?), 2004 Mavericks at #6 (elgee's own calculus puts it higher, but he acknowledges they kind-of cheated to do so), 2006 Suns at #10 (who needs Amar'e?), 2009 Suns at #11, 2002 Mavericks at #19... This excludes modern teams, but the general point holds. Even if these rosters were offensively focused, Nash was the clear common element, and he was the force elevating them into the greatest ever. And elgee's own calculations agree:
Nash’s incredible passing and relentless creation spearheaded a plethora of historically great offences... His decade of offensive wizardry on two offence-first teams meant he played on the best offences in NBA history through his career and a mind-boggling six of the 15 best “healthy” offences ever:http://www.backpicks.com/2016/08/01/the-best-healthy-offenses-of-all-time/
The semi-well-known "top two offence for a decade" statistic is insane enough on its own. But that offence carried over through perpetually changing rosters, into the playoffs, and across time.
These attacks weren’t regular season frauds, either. The best four-year stretch for a playoff offence 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:
I took this next graph from egee’s Karl Malone profile (hence the Jazz highlighting); take a look at the top right corner:
I was not an avid viewer for this stretch, but I am sure the gap between Nash's offences and the rest of the league must have seemed outright comical. In 2005 specifically, the Suns set a record for relative offensive rating, with a substantial lead over second. And that one-way impact is the best on the list, ahead of even the defence of the 1997 Bulls and the 1964 Celtics. (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_AdaCB40YpgZGY1cGZheV8xcHM/view
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.https://replacementplayer.wordpress.com/2017/08/22/efficere-a-measure-of-shot-efficiency/
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:
In Goldstein's career volume/efficiency, Nash is comfortably at the top; this is a peaks project, and having your prime be in third behind two guys admitted weeks ago hardly matters, but just wanted to clarify. And he maintained his offensive excellence into the postseason, both in impact and in scoring. (https://web.archive.org/web/20111121071127/http://www.backpicks.com:80/2011/08/15/adjusting-playoff-stats-part-iii-30-post-merger-stars/
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. (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ukBETcjKmDbABCnlfz8LoHeQFmu7nq4pOAqns9KkfBk/edit#gid=1011679855
Here Nash is again arguably undersold a bit by elgee’s phrasing here. In WOWYR and game-level regression, Nash is not just top ten; as you can see in the metric profile at the beginning of this walkthrough, Nash is fifth in prime WOWYR, and in game-level regression, he is third. In AuPM, his offensive rating carries him to seventh among modern players, below four guys admitted in the top twelve and then Chris Paul and Manu. And in Engelmann’s PI RAPM data, Nash goes from 10th (probably undersold) to 4th to 2nd, with an average only trailing Manu and Duncan over that three-year period. Now, these are obviously not the end-all-be-all metrics, for reasons apparent as soon as you look at the other names on these lists, but I think everyone here acknowledges impact is at least a worthwhile piece of the puzzle, and across the board they clearly show Nash's offensive impact was enough to match the overall "impact" of anyone. If BPM is designed to approximate impact, using actual impact metrics should be more than enough to make up for his deficiencies in that flawed box-score calculus.
Speaking of impact, because we are at the box creation portion of the profile, I think this is as good a time as any to include the most relevant portion of that playmaker podcast episode I mentioned earlier:
He owns the best playoff run ever, according to this [playmaking] model, and it is by a large degree. In 2007, the model spits out a +2.9 value. I think the next best is around +2.5-2.6. If you are wondering what happened in those two rounds in 2007 (which I view as Nash’s peak season; absolutely unbelievable tour de force): box creation estimates of 17 shots created per 100 for his teammates, and a passer rating of 9.5/10. Just absolutely carving up defences with his playmaking.
I had a good bit of fun going through Basketball-Reference and looking at his effect on his teammate's effective field goal percentage, especially compared to other point guards (necessary because NBA.com on/off data is not available that far back). 2005 Nash had an estimated team shooting impact of +6.8/+3.7 (regular seasons / playoffs, respectively), 2006 Nash had a team shooting impact of +4.9/+6, and 2007 Nash had a team shooting impact of +8.2/+3.6. With the acknowledgement those are not the definitive values, as far as I can tell, no other passer comes close to that impact. Beyond that, further comparative impact statistics from NBA.com are available here: https://forums.realgm.com/boards/viewtopic.php?f=64&t=1892754#p78550299
That covers most of the case for his offence. Well, what about his defence? Look, people have their opinions, but by basically every objective indication, Nash was not a significant negative, by RAPM, on/off, or otherwise.
His physical tools left him shorthanded on [the defensive] 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… 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, he could still check the boxes on a number of help plays, preventing teams from finding easy looks or minimizing their power plays… 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.
A fair number of you are likely still saying it does not matter, because he was still a team handicap. In a literal sense compared to, say, Jason Kidd, sure. But in terms of team results? Not really; again, point guard defence generally is not a major needle-mover, as we can see when Nash's teams actually invested in some paint protection:
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)... 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 100.
And our very own LA Bird arrived at a similar conclusion four years ago, in the last peaks project:
There is actually no stat supporting the widespread myths that Nash regularly gets burnt by opponent PGs because of his weak and slow defense.
Team opponent PG efficiency relative to league average
Individual opponent PER relative to league average
2005: ? (can't find data)
Defensive RAPM numbers from J.E.'s most recent data (positive is better):
Nash's defense is a little below average but not exactly awful. And the fact that he is often among league leaders in offensive fouls drawn suggests that he at least puts in the effort to play defense.
Offensive fouls drawn
2006: 38 (19th)
2007: 62 (6th)
2008: 32 (26th)
2009: 53 (1st)
2010: 37 (14th)
IMO, Nash's defensive deficiencies are largely overblown. People harping about his defense while ignoring his GOAT-level offensive impact is missing the bigger picture as Nash is still a massive impact player despite his defense (Suns 14.2 SRS dropoff in 16 games without Nash from 05~07 is the largest margin in ElGee's WOWY data).
Having covered most of elgee's profile, where does that leave us in relation to other players?
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.
That MVP peak may not initially seem spectacular, but it actually is one of the highest peaks we have left. Durant matches or tops him, but otherwise, not Barkley, not Chris Paul, not Malone... Giannis and Westbrook and Harden are not covered by these profiles, so I will acknowledge they may have MVP impacts of their own which stand up well. But expanding beyond the calculus here is still favourable to Nash (per FTD
Here's the top SRS +/- impact evaluations
+7.5 -> 2012 Lebron
+7.25-> 2009-10 and 2013 Lebron, 1989-91 Jordan
+7 -> 2000 Shaq, 1993 Olajuwon, 1992 and 1988 Jordan
+6.75-> 2001 Shaq, 2011/14/16 Lebron, 1993 Jordan
+6.5-> 2002 Shaq, 2002-03 Duncan, 1977 Kareem, 2017 Lebron, 1994 Hakeem
+6.25 -> 1996 Jordan, 1973-74 Kareem, 2004 Garnett, 2015 Lebron, 1987 Magic, 2007 Nash, 1988-89 and 95 Hakeem, 1962-64 Russell, 1977 Walton, 1964 and 1967 Chamberlain, 2017 Curry
+6-> 2005-06 Nash, 1991 and 1995-96 Robinson, 1960-61 and 1965 Russell, 1968 West
For the next score I'll only list the peaks I haven't mentioned yet:
+5.75-> 1985 Bird, 2006 Kobe, 2009 Wade, 2016 Paul (when healthy)
For reference, 2019 Giannis and Curry have a +/- evaluation of +5.62 and +5.5 respectively.
As you may notice, Nash is the only one yet to be admitted to the project, and stacks up comfortably well with basically every player we had in our top fifteen. He is well, well, well past overdue. Now all that is left is to pick the seasons.
In 2005, against the Mavericks team which effectively low-balled him back to Phoenix, Nash had one of the most spectacular offensive series ever:
Game 1: 11/13 in 31 minutes of a blowout win
Game 2: 23/13 in a 2-point loss (+5 for the game)
Game 3: 27/17 in a comfortable win
Game 4: 48/5 on 20/28 shooting in a double-digit loss; the Suns famously had bad results when Nash was pushed to score more, and this has to be the prime example why Nash preferred to focus on setting up his teammates
Game 5: 34/12(/13); back to balanced devastation
Game 6: 39/12(/9); think Cuban got the message?
Overall, Nash averaged 30/12(/6.5) on 64% true shooting against the ninth ranked defence that year. If we were doing peak series, this would almost certainly go in the top twenty.
Anyway, his scoring explosion generally carried over into the Spurs series, but after two narrow home losses despite putting up an efficient 29/13 and 29/15, the numbers dipped back down, and the Suns fell into a 3-0 hole which ended in a 4-1 series loss. Still, he finished this postseason with 24/11(/5) averages on 60.4% true shooting, and (again) a historic and unprecedented relative postseason offence.
2007 was something of a different animal; watch the assists:
Game 1 (Lakers): 20/10 in a warm-up win
Game 2: 16/14 in 25 minutes of a blowout win
Game 3: 10/13 in a loss
Game 4: 17/23
Game 5: 17/10 to close out the series
Game 1 (Spurs): 31/8 on 11/18 shooting in a close loss
Game 2: 20/16 in a blow-out win
Game 3: 16/11 in a close loss
Game 4: 24/15 in a win
Game 5 ( ): 19/12 in a three-point loss without half the starters
Game 6: 18/14 in the close-out loss
Playoff averages of 18.9/13.3, with a 55.8 assist percentage; the only one to surpass the former is Magic, and the only ones to surpass or even approach the latter were guys with no more than five games played.
And finally, for you visual “learners” (passing highlights start at 9:28):