Don Nelson couldn’t seem to get the message to his pass-first, shoot-last point guard to sink in.
Nelson knew Nash, who was booed by home crowds early in his Dallas tenure, could be one of the NBA’s premier shooters. He just couldn’t convince Nash to look for his shot during games.
Nelson firmly believed that Nash’s hesitancy was costing the Mavs wins. Finally, the coach decided that it would cost Nash money if it didn’t change.
“We had a situation where I demanded that he shoot at least 10 times a game,” Nelson said. “I threatened to fine him if he didn’t.”
Finally, in the 2000-01 season, Nash’s third year in Dallas and his fifth in the NBA, he reached Nelson’s minimum, averaging 11.3 field goal attempts per game, an increase of almost five a night from the previous season.
Not coincidentally, Dallas ended its decade-long playoff drought, winning 53 games and advancing to the Western Conference semifinals as Nash, Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki established themselves as one of the NBA’s elite young trios.
Suddenly, Nash was on the path to the Basketball Hall of Fame, where Nelson will present him on Friday night.
The eight-time All-Star and two-time MVP will be remembered as one of the best passers in NBA history, leading the league in assists six times for the Phoenix Suns and ranking third all time with 10,335 dimes. He was also a historically accurate shooter, as Stephen Curry and Kyle Korver are the only players to make at least 1,000 3s with a higher long-range percentage than Nash (.428).
“I never took it to the heights that the numbers validate in today’s day and age, where I probably should have shot the ball 20 times a game. It probably would have made a lot more sense.” Steve Nash
As great as Nash was, just imagine what he could have been in today’s NBA — or if he had played point guard with the scorer’s mentality made acceptable in the modern-day game by the success of stars such as Curry and reigning MVP James Harden.
In other words, what could Nash have been if he fully bought into Nelson’s vision?
“Nash was a purist,” said Mike D’Antoni, who coached Nash with the Suns from 2004 to 2008. “Steve’s a Hall of Fame point guard. He was unbelievably good. I just think instead of averaging 15 or 16 [points], he could have averaged 30 for us.
“He was that good of a shooter, and I don’t think it would have screwed the team up. Traditionally, a point guard is pass first, shoot second, and Steve believed that. He’s in the Hall of Fame for that. But I think he could have passed and shot about the same and his numbers would have gone up.”
D’Antoni’s biggest regret from his time with the Suns, when Phoenix was a contender that never broke through to win the West, is that he didn’t force his point guard to shoot more.
“Just coming down, playing pick-and-roll, and if they even give a hint of going under, just whap it,” D’Antoni said, flicking his wrist in a shooting motion. “Not looking for a better play.”
The 10 shots per game Nelson demanded of Nash? That’s cute compared to players such as Curry and Harden, who shoot that many 3-pointers per game.
It was a different time during Nash’s prime, when the Suns were criticized for shooting 3s in record-breaking bunches that would rank near the bottom of the league now. Nash never attempted more than 4.7 3s per game in a season — barely more than Boston Celtics light-shooting point guard Marcus Smart last season, by comparison — and only 3.2 per game over the course of his career.
Nash’s field goal attempts per game: 10.6 for his career, and never more than 13.6 in a season.
Nash, now a player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors, sees in hindsight how being more aggressive would have been a form of selflessness. Put another way, Nash believes his team would have won more if he had hunted for shots like today’s superstar scoring point guards do.
“My personality was to feed my teammates, and I loved getting in the seams and being creative and making the game fun for my teammates,” Nash said. “But Nellie frankly said, ‘That’s bulls—. You’re a better shooter than these guys. I want you shooting the ball.’
“Nellie [launched] my career in pushing me to be aggressive and score the ball. But I never took it to the heights that the numbers validate in today’s day and age, where I probably should have shot the ball 20 times a game. It probably would have made a lot more sense.”
Nelson and D’Antoni agree that Nash could have still been one of the best passers ever to play the game while shooting almost twice as much. The coaches believe Nash was capable of the kind of shot-making — from deep range, off the dribble — that has made another back-to-back MVP such a transcendent talent.
“He could have been right up there with Curry if he wanted to score more,” Nelson said of Nash. “Oh, yeah, he had the same type of game, just a different mindset.”