There is a great lineage of "what if's" in sports that many of us can relate to from experiences in our own day-to-day lives. It isn't just the pivotal moments that could've gone one way and not the other, nor is it simply the paths that we've chosen to walk down when others were there to be traveled. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of both that leads us to where we're at and who we are. In life it can define our sense of self, while in sports, it often defines an athlete's legacy, shaping how they are remembered and how we as a sporting public view their accomplishments.
As the NBA trade deadline looms a few weeks down the road, one name that continues to pop-up has definitely made me think of what could have been as far as a player's career and legacy are concerned. I'm talking about Steve Nash, the two-time league MVP point guard for the Phoenix Suns, whose name is at the center of trade talks to a variety of teams that could most definitely benefit from his services. While my man Ian Thomsen can tell you it makes no sense for the Suns to trade Nash if they want to win now, I certainly hope they understand that their chances at success in the West are dwindling by the day. That way, they can let Steve find a happier home and get their rebuild project going now instead of later.
Full disclosure: I love Steve Nash's game. He is one of the most accurate three-point shooters I've ever seen at the point guard position and is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the modern NBA's crackdown on hand checking. Giving a guy with his quickness, vision, and playmaking ability free motion off the dribble is damn near criminal, evidenced by the way he weaves in and out of the lane, even under the basket and back, to find open teammates or a good look at his own shot. He has everything you could want in a point guard and his career statistics get gaudier by the year. At the end of the day, we're talking about a back-to-back league MVP that will sure-as-shit be in the basketball Hall of Fame (oh yeah, he's tough as nails too, click here if you need some proof).
Nash is closing in on 37 though, damn-near ancient as far as NBA players go, and while he is a no-doubt hall-of-famer and one of the greatest point guards of his generation, Nash's career is an acute study in what might have been. He came into the league by traveling a unique path: he's Canadian, went to a small college (Santa Clara) and was largely unheralded on the national scene when he was drafted with the 15th pick by the Phoenix Suns in 1996. After a couple of less than impressive seasons with the Suns, they shifted him to Dallas, where the spry Canuck flourished alongside seven-foot sharp-shooter Dirk Nowitzki.
Things went well in Dallas and the team was on the rise, but after the '04 season, Dallas owner Mark Cuban decided to let Nash move on in free agency, when he landed back with the team that drafted him, the Phoenix Suns. In retrospect, this was a crucial move for both parties involved. Cuban obviously didn't think it was worth it to match the Suns' offer and probably felt more comfortable moving forward with extra cash on hand to build around the younger Dirk. Nash did what was better for him financially, taking the Suns offer of more money and more years on the deal. It's a shame too, because it sure looks like Dirk and Steve had good times on and off the court...
In all seriousness though, I think if you asked Cuban and Nash, they would both tell you they wished they could have worked things out. The Mavericks have been to the Finals and lost, but other than that have found themselves step-brother to the real titans of the Western Conference like the Lakers and Spurs. Nash meanwhile has found himself in a similar situation, reaching only as far as the Conference Finals in his second tenure with Phoenix. Together, Nowitzki and Nash might have built a team to rival LA and San Antonio, but apart, both parties have failed to reach the promised land.
It's one of those things, in life and in sports, where diverging paths most certainly would have led to different outcomes. Instead of being part of a stellar team in Dallas, Nash finds himself swimming with small fish from the NBA talent pool in Phoenix, especially now that Amare Stoudemire has bolted for New York to join the Knicks as their go-to guy. Interestingly enough, most prognosticators led us to believe that Stoudemire would most certainly miss Nash in NY, but after his MVP-like start to the season, it seems more and more apparent that Nash is the one who misses his big man in the middle, and not vice versa.
Nash is now left to wonder about another move, perhaps to chase a championship if he can have any say in the matter. It's sad to think that Nash's legacy will be one as the best two-time MVP to never play in (let alone win) an NBA Finals, but it's the hand that been dealt him to this point in his career. Success in sports is just as much luck and happenstance as it is ability and desire to win, and Nash has come face to face with this reality in the twilight of his career. It can happen to anybody if you think about it. Talent, ability, and intelligence are sometimes no match for luck, advantages, and the cold hand of fate in all walks of life.
Perhaps creating the most daunting obstacle for Nash is the sport he happens to play. The NBA, more than any other major American sport, is a top-heavy league where only a handful of teams have the talent and pedigree to make a run at the title. Nash has honestly never been on one of those teams. You could argue that the Mavs had a chance at one point, considering their Finals appearance, but the way they folded in that series against the Heat says a lot about what it takes to win, and I'm not sure that even Nash could have put that team over the top. Similarly, the Suns have never played enough defense or had the depth to contend, despite Nash's brilliance.
In the years following the Mavericks Finals appearance, when the Lakers and Spurs were facing a bit of an identity crisis in alternating seasons, the Mavericks could have moved in for the kill with Nash and Nowitzki, but now that's all just speculation. Speculation that I can assure you has cost Steve Nash a few nights of restful sleep. I don't want to try and get inside of his head too much, but I think we all know that regret is a part of life that can drive you crazy if you let it, and in sports, where championships determine legacy more often than not, I'm sure that regret can reach levels unknowable to the general public.
So what's next for Nash? He is on a team that is going relatively nowhere--a playoff team, but not a contender. The Suns and Nash have to know that it's not going to happen, so shifting him before the trade deadline this season would be a boon to the aging superstar and perhaps the Suns as well in the long term. What I hope is that Nash is afforded the opportunity to find a contender with some money to burn and a few draft picks to let go of, so the Suns get something for him and he has a shot at a ring. At 37, Nash is in incredible shape and still has a spectacular game to go along with an obvious hunger to win.
Let's just hope he finally gets to eat at the big kids' table before all is said and done.