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Ball Don't Lie

Steve Nash returns to Phoenix … again

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Steve Nash in 2004 (Getty Images)

Steve Nash returns to Phoenix tonight as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s “returned” to Phoenix before, as a member of the Dallas Mavericks back in 1999 on a night that saw him miss all three of his shots, but this turn is different. Nash was a member of the Suns between 1996 and 1998, but that turn saw him act as a reserve in back of a guard rotation that at various times featured Kevin Johnson, Sam Cassell, and Jason Kidd. Nash was traded to the Mavericks during the 1998 draft and played expertly for a team that never made it out of the Western conference playoff bracket. He came back to Phoenix during the 2004 offseason after signing a contract that would drive the blogosphere wild were the same set of terms and circumstances to arise today.

In 2013, he’s a member of the famous but struggling Los Angeles Lakers, attempting to make their way after losing 25 of their first 42 games. On the eve of his return to Arizona, CBS’ Ken Berger spoke with Nash in the midst of his purple and gold whirlwind of a season:

"I'm sure I'll be a little bit [nostalgic] when I get there," Nash said. "... I really haven't had a chance to think about it much. We'll see. I'm sure it'll be a very special night."

Even though the ovation greeting Steve will be extended and appropriate, this whole re-introduction is a bit of a surprise. NBA followers have been obsessed with the Lakers since the offseason, and Nash’s return to the court he once dominated seems like an afterthought. In August, we’d probably expect to lead up to the event with a few days worth of “Nash in Phoenix” recollections, but because the Lakers’ storyline changes every 48 hours, the return has been overlooked.

That’s even with Nash’s longtime Phoenix coach, Mike D’Antoni, surprisingly running the Lakers soap opera. In talking with Berger on Tuesday, the former “Seven Seconds or Less” maestro broke down Nash’s current role on the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers:

"He was a lot younger and prettier back then," D'Antoni said. "He's not 30 years old anymore. Before, he could dominate anybody. Now, he picks and chooses his spots."

Nash isn’t 30 anymore. He’s 39. And when he was 30, his contract was a joke. We swear.

Steve Nash was 30 when he signed with the Phoenix Suns a few days into the 2004 offseason. Phoenix was coming off of a disappointing year – going into tank mode after dealing Stephon Marbury midway through a 2003-04 campaign that some hoped would build on the team’s promising 2003 playoff turn – and needed a marquee star to fill an arena that had just watched 50 games of rookie Leandro Barbosa attempting to work as a point guard. New owner Robert Sarver was giddy with free cash and cap space and he wanted the shiniest things around – a 2005 lottery pick from the terrible Chicago Bulls, still-hip Clippers wing in Quentin Richardson, and former Sun Steve Nash. It was an attempt to make up for a six-year old mistake.

Nash, after two full years of trade rumors, was dealt from Phoenix to the Mavericks in 1998 for a draft pick that eventually turned out to be Shawn Marion. After initial struggles, and owner Mark Cuban signing Howard Eisley in part to press Nash for the starting role, the point guard blossomed into an All-Star for a Mavs team that never got over the hump. After Don Nelson went all in during 2003-04 with a batch of players, including Antoine Walker, that took the ball out of Nash’s hands, the stage was set for Nash to consider other options. Phoenix made Nash an offer that Cuban rightfully, given what we knew then, decided not to match.

It was for six-year, $66 million contract. For a 30-year old, paying him over $13 million at age 36. Remember, this was a league just getting over watching 35-year old Gary Payton play like a senior citizen during the 2004 Finals, while making less than half of what Nash was set to make at the same age. John Hollinger, in his ‘Pro Basketball Forecast’ from that year, lamented the switch between the “better and younger” Stephon Marbury for Nash, pointing out that Nash would “likely be a mere shadow” of himself by the end of the contract. While Hollinger pointed out that Steve would “age more gracefully than some of his counterparts at the position,” he concluded that Nash “probably won’t be more than a bit player” by the end of the deal.

And before you jump all over Hollinger, understand that he wasn’t alone. This was the consensus. Again, had that contract been offered and accepted in 2013 considering the same ages and terms, in spite of our respect for Nash and understanding of the aging process, the internet would have teed off on it.

Luckily for Phoenix, Steve Nash has no understanding of the aging process. He won the NBA’s MVP award in 2005 and 2006, and may have had his best season in 2010 at the age of 35. His contract was more than worth it, as the Suns routinely both sold out their home arena and worked deep into the playoffs. His move coincided with D’Antoni’s rise and the NBA’s crackdown on hand-checking, which made for a more aesthetically-pleasing brand of ball which rescued the league from its Larry Brown-influenced post-Jordan era.

It was a match made in heaven, even when the Suns missed the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. Even when it was obvious that the aging Nash could not lead an aging team back to the brink of the Finals, much less the postseason. Even when it was obvious that Nash should have asked to work the final two years of his contract extension with the Suns for another, better, team.

Now he’s with that ostensibly “better” team, and in spite of some league-leading predictions the Lakers are still four games out of the West’s playoff bracket. The Suns are doing far worse, winning only a third of their games and dealing with all sorts of needless drama, so it isn’t as if this has been a perfectly-timed parting. Nor is it a perfectly-timed return, with the Lakers attempting to crawl out of an embarrassing midseason deficit and the Suns reeling, but this is how the league works sometimes.

Sometimes the great plans go awry. And sometimes the terrible ideas turn out perfectly. There’s no telling how this version will turn out. Like Nash, we haven’t had much time to think about it.

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