Thursday, February 2, 2012

Steve Nash: Discount Price for a Hall of Fame Point Guard

An aging team needs to know when to let go.

Steve Nash, arguably the greatest shooter of all time, is at the end of his contract for the Phoenix Suns, the team from which he rose to prominence from the desert. His team terrorized the league with its fast-break offense and deadly pick and roll combo with him and Amare, they won 50 plus games year after year despite injuries, he won back-to-back NBA titles, but he never got that elusive title.

All are gone -- the coach and part architect, D'Antoni, to the Knicks; Amare Stoudemire is there as well; Barbosa is playing in Canada, Joe Johnson became a perennial all-star in Atlanta; Diaw out of shape and playing for the miserable Bobcats; Marion won a title as a role player for the Mavericks, Nash's former haunt; Raja Bell is starting for the surprising Jazz; and the only guy of note left is Grant Hill, who came to the Suns at the end of their run. Nash, being the nice guy that he is, refuses to demand a trade and insult his teammates. Consequently, Phoenix management, reluctant to betray their fans by getting rid of the face of the franchise, are holding on to a 37 year old star player on an expiring contract. It doesn't have to be this way, and it's better for both Nash and Phoenix to move on.

The Suns have a strange mix of veterans and rebuilding pieces. There is no question they're out of contention and would be next year as well when Nash's contract ends. Amare and his former coach in New York with the point guard position wide open, and it's likely he'll flee there or possibly Dallas, where the even older Kidd appears to be on his last legs and his German friend Nowitzki resides. Even with his love of Phoenix, there's little chance he'll resign with the team.

The best decision from any objective view is to trade Nash while you still can and receive something of value back to rebuild, preferably a good young player and a draft pick. Since he's only signed for this season and many assume he'll flee to New York this summer, Nash is essentially a veteran rental to a contending team looking to roll the dice and win now, or at least put up an interesting season.

Another likely scenario, unfortunately, is Nash resigning with the Suns and keeping the thin cast winning more games than they should but just good enough to be out of contention for a transformative top pick. This is what the owner Sarver wants, and it's breathtaking how terrible some NBA owners are. These guys have usually made a fortune in business, yet most seem unable to grasp the basics of how to run an organization. Sarver doesn't want to suffer through a rebuilding period, but what does he think will happen if he doesn't rebuild?

Looking at the teams fighting for playoff spots, the ones in need of a point guard or distributor are Portland, the LA Lakers, Dallas, Indiana, and Miami. I'm sure other teams would want him, but those are the main ones. The Lakers are the first team to cross off the list. What do they have of value? Bynum is off the table, Josh McRoberts is a good bench player, but they have no cap space or expiring contracts large enough to match Steve Nash's. Miami is in the same position. Mario Chalmers or Cole are not worth their franchise guy.

Indiana is the first team that makes sense. Although they have Darren Collison, he's a shoot first point guard and the Pacers are one of the worst passing teams in the league. They're also fighting for a top four playoff spot and have a rising star in Paul George who's a natural small forward, a spot former all-star Danny Granger already inhabits. Luckily, Nash's contract at $11.7 million is close to Granger's at $12.0 million for two years after this season. Maybe the Pacers would be reluctant giving up a valuable player for a one year rental, but they could also have valuable wing Jared Dudley, one of those high character guys teams love who can defend and hit from outside. Indiana has cap space and could absorb the contract sending out a draft pick to Phoenix or include another player, although I doubt they could get anything better than Granger.  Additionally, the Pacers wouldn't be as afraid for Nash leaving after the season because they'd still have Collison.

With a potential trove of cap space next summer for Deron Williams or Dwight Howard, Dallas is taking the long-view and passing on this season. However, that means Nash's expiring contract would fit right into their plans and they have someone with a similar contract also at the point guard position: Jason Kidd. With the intriguing Roddy Beaubois, Phoenix would receive a young player to help bridge the team to the next generation. Teaming up Nash and Nowitzki, of course, is the motivating factor. If Nash leaves Phoenix, I don't think there's a place where he'd be more comfortable.

The other city I believe contends with Dallas for swooning his heart is Portland. Steve grew up in the Pacific Northwest and would love a city known for its natural food culture, its biking, its love of soccer, and their rapid Blazers fanbase. Playing better than their record indicates by how much they're outscoring opponents, Portland got off to a great start despite poor shooting from Felton and a center combination 76 years old. They're also one of the fastest teams in the league with Gerald Wallace, Wesley Matthews, Batum, and Alridge running in transition. It's a team built for Nash, who would have great fun in throwing alley-oops to Aldridge or using him in pick and pop.

Who would be traded for Nash? The common answer is that the Suns would demand Batum, the promising 23 year old forward, and fans shoot down the idea at giving away Batum. However, at Steve's age with a rental contract, some say a package involving Felton and a young player like Elliot Williams would be enough. Even if that's how people view Nash right now, I think that's severely underestimating his impact. He's lost little to age and remains an amazing passer and shooter, and despite concerns about his defense it's really not atrocious as some claim. There's also evidence that he's still one of the best players in the league and can completely change a team offensively.

One way of estimating value is using statistical techniques on how teams play when a player is on the court versus off the court. Nash has been consistently excellent the past half decade hovering around +5 to +6 points per 100 possessions with a rotating cast of teammates and approaching 40. People may not care for plus/minus statistics or other advanced metrics, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming that he's still a game-changing player offensively. He's hasn't slipped yet either -- he's still shooting as well as he has before with a higher number of assists, and he keeps himself in great shape. His low per minutes a game is keeping his numbers down, but in the playoffs when it matters that can be increased.

With how Felton's playing, it's not unreasonable to assume Nash would be an upgrade of +5 or more from the above link for the Blazers. How much does that help them? A common method of predicting wins is the Pythagorean method, which uses offensive and defensive efficiency. Portland this season has an offensive rating of 100.7 and defensive 96.2. Their predicted winning percentage is 68%, about ten points lower than where they're at now. They do, however, have the greatest point differential in the western conference. How would Nash change the team? Given that he's playing 31 minutes a game, let's say he adds +3.2 to their offense. This puts their predicted winning percentage at 78%, better than anyone in the league, and it would project to 64 wins in an 82 game season.

I will admit that I don't trust that result, and partly it's because it doesn't include the effect of switching Felton and Nash's defense as well as whoever else is traded. I did, however, use a conservative estimate of Nash's offensive impact and ignored getting rid of Felton's terrible shooting, which is an aberration and should clear itself soon. Even with adding a -1 penalty to their defensive, they would still have a predicted winning percentage of 75%, which would be near the best in the league. With how well Nash's teams have performed over the years, I'm confident that those results are actually achievable, and they could be applied to other teams in the league. Who wouldn't be helped by an extremely efficient shooter and an astounding passer?

My favorite Nash trade? Nash and Robin Lopez for Felton, Batum, and Chris Johnson. Suns get a solid point guard nearly a decade younger in return and valuable young player Batum along with a prospect in Chris Johnson, a lanky, long-armed big guy, while Portland gets Nash to run the offense and a decent center who's young enough to not have served in Korea. I'd even be willing to throw in a draft pick.With how much others have said Nash can net the Suns in return, this is perhaps the best offer they could get.

To Blazers fans who say giving up Batum is too much: the common mistake in managing a team is overvaluing role players you've watched blossom on the team. Batum is certainly a nice player, but there's little chance he'll be a game changer. Players at Batum's level are easy to find; Steve Nash caliber guys are not. Roll the dice. Take the gamble. Felton and Batum will not win a championship, but Nash can at least give the Blazers an exciting season to recover from the dark cloud of Roy and Oden and a likely deep playoff run. With the Lakers in shambles and Oklahoma City still very young, strike now. Waiting is not for basketball.