With youthful outlook and game, Nash continues to defy his age
At 35, Steve Nash is playing like -- and getting the better of -- his younger foes
He's on a tear this season with 20-assist games against the Warriors and 76ers
Nash disputes the notion that his game slipped last season -- it was a style issue
Steve Nash is the grandfather who dances every dance at the family wedding. He is the millionaire who keeps showing up to work because he loves what he does. At 35, he continues to play like -- and get the best of -- the youngest point guards in the world's finest league.
His age? "It is irrelevant," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "Because first of all, the guy is in the physical condition of a 25- or 28-year-old. He feels like he can play until he's 40 years old. He loves the game and has a great feel for the game, and he's enjoying playing the way we play."
The Suns had no business opening the season 7-1 with a 37-year-old small forward in Grant Hill, a thinned-out frontcourt and a five-game trip through the East for their elderly point guard to navigate. Yet, they stand atop the West with their best start in nine years while Nash leads the league with 12.9 assists per game.
As recently as four years ago, Nash was winning back-to-back MVP awards, so he is ambivalent about compliments that he is now overcoming his age.
"A challenge?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't know if it's that, or if it's just another burden. I've had doubters since I was in high school. Once you finally think it's over, then they think you're too old. In some ways, I'm accustomed to it and I don't mind it -- it's just the way it's always been for me. That underdog mentality is just ingrained in me."
Last year, Nash heard whispering suspicions of erosion in his play. The 46-36 Suns were missing the playoffs for the first time in five years, and Nash's 9.7 assists and 15.7 points reflected a statistical decline. All of those numbers, he says, were reflections of a circumstance -- the half-court presence of Shaquille O'Neal -- that was beyond his control.
"The way we played at the start of the year, we wanted Shaq down low and we wanted Amar'e [Stoudemire] on the elbows," said Nash, who found his driving lanes clamped off. "I don't care who you are, there's no room for anybody, so it really limited my opportunities. Teams saw it as an opportunity to trap every pick-and-roll I ran and get the ball out of my hands."
Instead of looking to escape Phoenix as a free agent in the summer of 2010 -- the yellow brick road for free agents -- Nash chose last summer to sign a two-year, $22 million extension with the Suns that will be paying him $11.7 million as he turns 38 in 2011-12. To see the renewal of his old self is to understand why he chose to remain with the Suns, based on his affinity for Gentry and an organization that (except for last year's brief deviation) has shared his commitment to team play in the open court.
Less understood was the Suns' plan to rebuild around a point guard in his late 30s in addition to Hill, who also agreed last summer to a two-year deal worth $6.2 million through next season.
"There's been a lot of criticism, from what I've seen, of, What are we doing? Are we going young? If we're going young, why would we sign Steve Nash? Why would we sign Grant Hill?" Suns general manager Steve Kerr said. "To me, it's a no-brainer. If you've got a bunch of young guys, you'd better have some experience and some mentors who can teach those young guys. The object is to win games. So to think that we could get better by trading Steve Nash for some young guys is ridiculous. We're talented enough to still be pretty good.
"How many point guards are there in the league that you would rather have besides Steve? He's still one of the best. Those guys are hard to come by. We never considered trading him."
The inspired enthusiasm, the absence of body fat, the wispy hair falling in his eyes -- all of this makes Nash the Iggy Pop of the NBA (albeit with the none of the off-stage baggage of the Godfather of Punk). It is wrong to say that Nash is playing now as if he treasures every moment on the floor, because he has always played this way.
"Other than the experiment where we played a post-up style," Nash said, "my numbers and my effectiveness haven't changed. I think it was a little misleading or nearsighted for people to feel that my level of play has dropped dramatically, or at all."
Because he wasn't ready to scale back his ambitions, Nash approached this season knowing he would need to prove himself all over again. He loves making that point with each flick pass off the dribble, with each Roto-Rooter drive down the baseline and out the other side, with each crosscourt floater or fallaway three-pointer.
"It's having a challenge in my life, having something to go to bed thinking about and wake up having to pursue," he said. "Without that, life can be difficult. Obviously, I have my family [with his wife, Alejandra, and their 5-year-old twins, Lola and Bella) which is the No. 1 priority, but they have their lives. So when they're busy doing their lives, I've got to get after something that I enjoy -- and challenge myself, too. More so than the love of the game is that I have a nice structure in place to challenge myself every day.
"Some days are hard, but for the most part I still love it. I love being one of the guys, I still love waking up and going to work and trying to get better every day and trying to prepare to play, and after I play try to recover and get ready to play the next game. It gives me something to set goals and challenge myself and be directed."
Already this season, he's gotten the best of younger rivals Baron Davis, Rajon Rondo and Gilbert Arenas. Nash has produced 20-assist games in wins against Monta Ellis' Warriors and Lou Williams' 76ers, while throwing 21 points of his own at Philadelphia to conclude the Eastern trip. The next challenge comes Wednesday when 24-year-old Chris Paul brings the Hornets to Phoenix.
This is the first Suns team in 19 years to score triple figures in its opening eight games. Of course, that pace can't go on all year. They're hitting an outrageous 47.1 percent of their threes (and 50.2 percent of their shots overall), and Hill is their leading rebounder with 8.6 per game. They are, in all kinds of ways, a team in transition. And over the next five months, their weaknesses up front and on the bench will begin to show.
Even so, Nash will continue to provide hope of defeating those challenges, and he'll overcome more of them than any soon-to-be 36-year-old point guard should. Simply because he makes it fun.
NBA Truth & Rumors