Nash continues to defy age, skeptics
But nearing his 36th birthday, Nash is showing no signs of decline. In fact, he just might be playing better offensively as any over-35 point guard ever.
“It’s incredible,” said Mark Jackson, who ranks third all-time in assists behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd(notes). “To me, he is in a discussion with any other point guard that has played this game not named Magic.”
Now in his 14th season, Nash is averaging 18.6 points and 11.3 assists – both of which are approaching his career highs – in only 33.5 minutes per game. His numbers compare favorably to what he averaged when he won the league’s MVP award in 2005 and 2006. The Suns also are winning, entering Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics with a 20-12 record.
Whether it’s Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Stockton, Jackson, Kidd or other point guard greats, none have had statistics over the age of 35 that have come close to matching Nash today.
“There are not many point guards that have played to 35,” Nash said. It’s not like it’s a huge pool of players. There is a compliment somewhere in there.”
Said Thomas: “He has mastered the craft of the point guard position.”
There are two knocks against Nash’s stats. The Suns play in a run-run-run system that promotes offensive numbers. Rules changes over the past 15 years – the league has cracked down on hand and forearm checking and opened the lane with the three-second defensive rule – also have made it easier for guards to score.
No one will ever know how the defensive changes would have impacted Cousy, Johnson, Thomas, Stockton or Jackson. Nash said he actually lost weight to become quicker to take advantage of the rules. Suns coach Alvin Gentry, however, believes Nash’s numbers would be similar regardless of the changes.
“They had hand checking when Tiny [Archibald] played and no one was able to hand check him,” Gentry said. “What Steve’s strength is he doesn’t allow anyone to hand check him. You can’t get close enough to move in to hand check him. I think that’s the advantage he has.”
Cousy also believes the Suns’ up-tempo style is tailor-made for an aging point guard. Phoenix is averaging an NBA-best 109.8 points per game. Without Shaquille O’Neal(notes) clogging the lane this season and new center Channing Frye(notes) spacing the floor from the 3-point line, Nash has more room to roam. Kidd, 36, is also averaging 9.2 assists for a Dallas Mavericks’ offense that averages 101.2 points.
“Up-tempo is easier to play for an older point guard instead of a slow-down grind where someone can pick you up at half court,” Cousy said. “When you run and shoot, that normally wouldn’t happen. There is nothing better for a point guard than the up-tempo game. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. You can pick the defenders apart in transition.”
Nash’s All-Star days looked like they might have passed him when he wasn’t selected for the West team last season, even though the game was in Phoenix. The guard ranks also seemed destined to be filled in the future by younger players like Chris Paul(notes), Tony Parker(notes), Brandon Roy(notes) and Deron Williams(notes), not to mention Kobe Bryant(notes).
But with his hot start this season, Nash now looks primed to make his sixth All-Star appearance, regardless of whether he is voted as a starter or selected as a reserve. Stockton was named an All-Star at 37, but Cousy, Johnson, Thomas and Jackson were either already retired or didn’t make it at Nash’s age. Kidd’s last All-Star appearance came in 2008, just before his 35th birthday.
“Not making the All-Star team didn’t hurt as much [last season] as being on a team that couldn’t find itself,” Nash said. “That hurt a lot more. It’s too bad of all the years not to be an All-Star, it was the year where we were hosting the game. That’s secondary to the pain we went through as a team trying to find kind of rhythm for ourselves.”
Stats didn’t matter much to Cousy, but he does remember his final Celtics days when he’d pace himself while trying to play as little as possible in the “21 exhibition games in 21 days.” “The Houdini of the Hardwood” first retired at 34 after averaging 13.2 points and 6.8 assists for the Celtics during the 1962-63 season. He appeared in seven games for the Cincinnati Royals seven years later as a player-coach.
Nash has two more years remaining on his contract after this season, but few would be shocked to see him play longer if he remains healthy.
“If you would have told me five years ago I’d be playing like this, I’d be surprised,” Nash said. “But I don’t feel any decline in my abilities. So on a day-to-day basis, I’d be surprised not to be playing well.”