In this series, I’m taking a look at modern superstars and examining how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways. What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.
I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider the sample size of games missed, injuries to fellow teammates, and the context of the games, so those facts will be noted and considered.
Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Steve Nash.
First 2 Years in Phoenix (’96-97 to ’97-98)
There’s really nothing that can be deduced about Nash’s impact on the Suns during his first two years in the league since they barely played him. He averaged 10 minutes per game as a rookie while backing up Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd on a team that occasionally toyed with a 4-guard lineup. As a second-year player, his mpg jumped to 22, but overall he was still chiefly responsible for spelling the other PG’s. During these two years, Nash started only 11 of the 141 games he appeared in. It was clear Nash was coming along and had the makings of an NBA point guard, however (averaged 9 ppg, shot 42% from deep, and sported a very good 3.4 to 1.3 assists-to-turnovers [2.7 ratio]), so he was traded to Dallas in his second offseason for 19th overall pick Pat Garrity and a first round pick in 1999, which a year later became 9th pick Shawn Marion, an eventual running mate of Nash’s.
Dallas Mavericks (’98-99 to ’03-04)
Nash joined the Mavericks at the same time they acquired rookie Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas was a bad squad that had just finished 20-62 and essentially had no point guard. Nash was named a regular starter for the first time in his career, but the team was only 13-27 (.325) with him and 6-4 (.600) without. It was Don Nelson’s first full year coaching the Mavs, Gary Trent was the squad’s best player while Dirk got his feet wet, and people still weren’t sure what direction the team was taking.
In ’99-00, Nash lost his starting spot to Robert Pack who had been injured the previous two seasons. That didn’t last long, however, as Pack sustained multiple injuries before Christmas. Unfortunately for Nash, he also got bit by the injury bug and ended up missing two months from the end of November to the end of January. He only started 27 contests on the year, but even though Nowitzki’s improvement was becoming apparent, the team’s improvement followed Nash’s presence, not Dirk’s. During Nash’s 25 starts in which he wasn’t playing hurt (played a grand total of 24 minutes in his last two starts before missing two straight months), the team went 19-6 (.760), while only 8-19 (.296) when he played a supporting role, and 9-17 (.346) without him altogether.
In ’00-01, Nash was the full-time starter, and the Mavs went 48-22 (.686) with him but only 5-7 (.417) without. Those missed games chiefly occurred during a 6-game and 4-game streak, so they are significant. Nowitzki and Michael Finley started in all 82 games. It should be noted that the team’s Pace was up to 4th best in the league just two years after being 14th, and the team’s Offensive Rating was up to 4th just two years after being 15th.
Over the next two seasons, Nash started every game as the Mavs went 117-47 (.713). Dallas’ Offensive Rating was 1st in the league both years, and they even went 4-2 (.667) without Dirk in ’01-02. Although they fell to the Champion Spurs in the 2003 Western Conference Finals with Dirk sidelined for the last 3 games of that series, the Mavs had gone 1-2 with the big German and 1-2 without, so his absence wasn’t their downfall.
In ’03-04, Nash’s final season in Dallas, the team went 50-28 (.641) with Nash and 2-2 (.500) without. For comparison, the team went 3-3 (.500) with Dirk hurt during a short stretch one month into the season. Again the Mav’s Offensive Rating was 1st in the league, and their Pace was now up to 2nd. Nash signed with Phoenix in the offseason, and the Mavericks went with Jason Terry and rookie Devin Harris manning the point the next year as the club went 58-24.
Nash’s impact on W-L’s: As odd as this is to believe, it looks like Nash’s presence on the Mavericks during these six years was even more impactful than Nowitzki. Although the team showed that they could reasonably get by without Dirk for short stretches, the Mavericks were much much worse when Nash didn’t play, although it must be noted that their post-season success was varied during his tenure (in fairness, they never lost to a lower seed during this time) and they didn’t seem to get any worse after he left; in fact, they made it to the Finals two seasons later and should have won, but then you also have to take into consideration the amount of money Dallas has been able to throw at talent during this era. Overall, I’d say Nash’s impact during these six seasons was very significant.
Phoenix Suns (’04-05 to ’10-11)
Even though he had played in two All-Star Games as a Maverick and finished as high as third in the league in assists per game his final year in Dallas, we still consider his re-joining with Phoenix the real jumpstart to Nash’s career, which is particularly odd when you realize he didn’t play for them again until he was 30.
Before his arrival, the Suns in ’03-04 already had Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Leandro Barbosa, and were coached by Mike D’Antoni from December on. Stephon Marbury and to a lesser extent Anfernee Hardaway controlled the point for the first 34 games before getting dealt to New York, and after that it was a fastbreak free-for-all. The team’s Pace was 5th best in the league, but their Offensive Rating was 21st, and overall the team had no cohesion as they ended the year 29-53 (.354).
In ’04-05, Nash stepped in, Stoudemire played 80 games (55 the year before), and D’Antoni was running the ship for the whole season. The result was that the team’s Pace and Offensive Rating jumped all the way to 1st in the league and the Suns ended up in the Western Conference Finals against the Champion Spurs. Even with Stoudemire only playing 3 games the next season, the Suns again were 1st in Pace, were still a phenomenal 2nd in Offensive Rating, and again advanced to the Western Finals; it was clear that Nash was the guy making this team go.
Looking at these past seven seasons overall, we see that Stoudemire consistently had injury issues and eventually left, Marion peaked and was then traded for the anti-speed Shaq who was around for just a short time, Barbosa peaked for a couple years and his since been slowed by injuries, Joe Johnson was dealt for Boris Diaw and the Rajon Rondo draft pick, Diaw did great next to Nash and was then traded, Rondo was traded on draft night for a 2007 pick even though he showed all the skills in college and Nash was 33, Jason Richardson has come and gone, D’Antoni left for New York, etc. It all boils down to the fact that owner Robert Sarver is extremely cheap and should not be in charge of a sports franchise that plans on winning, especially with any consistency. The GM’s he has hired definitely didn’t help things out at all, and the only reason this team kept on winning was due to Nash. Need some proof?
During these seven seasons, the Suns have been 362-179 (.669) with Nash in the lineup and a terrible 10-23 (.303) without. Even with Nash turning 37 in the middle of this past season on a rapidly-declining team that’s lost any sense of identity and that went through massive roster upheaval mid-year, the Suns were still 39-36 (.520) with Nash in the lineup yet an abysmal 1-6 (.143) without. A couple other key seasons to demonstrate Nash’s impact include ’04-05 (60-15 [.800] with Nash, 2-5 [.286] without) and ’06-07 (59-17 [.776] with Nash, 2-4 [.333] without).
Nash’s impact on W-L’s: There is no player today who has been more associated with a team’s offensive identify than Nash and the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense developed by Mike D’Antoni. Even with the never ending roster changes and sale of first round draft picks that often look even worse for the Suns in retrospect than they did at the time (it cannot be stated enough how bad Sarver is for that franchise), Nash has kept Phoenix looking like a contender throughout his 30’s. They’ve crashed and burned without him, and until this past season have been great with him, even though his defensive ineptitude is well known. It is clear his impact is extremely significant.
For a player who only really plays on one side of the ball, it is absolutely amazing the impact he’s had on teams’ W-L numbers throughout his career. Even on the Mavericks where he was clearly playing on Dirk’s squad, the team did worse in Nash’s absence than in Nowitzki’s. The degree to which the Phoenix offense from ’04-05 to ’09-10 (team was 1st or 2nd in Offensive Rating every year) relied on Nash’s precision and playmaking was huge, and because he fit the bill so masterfully, that offense was able to carry a very poorly run franchise to the Western Finals three times. Not many other PG’s have ever had to be that singularly responsible for making a very specific team work, but Nash has done it. That is why his impact has been so impressively positive for the past 13 years.