Stephen John Nash, OC, OBC Photo Credit: Icon SMI
It was an ugly performance from the new-look Phoenix Suns on Sunday, a nationally televised 30-point loss and embarrassment that has generated plenty of chatter. The home crowd was booing loudly for much of the second half, something I haven’t seen in US Airways Center for a long while. Mike D’Antoni’s squad was roundly outplayed by Detroit in all facets of the game, but most noticeable was their complete inability to stop the Pistons from scoring at will right from the tip as all five Detroit starters coasted to double-digit points. The acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal sent shockwaves through the basketball community, with most people questioning how adding an overweight, plodding, lazy, past-his-prime center would affect the Suns dynamic offense. Those concerns were all well founded, and in fact floor general Steve Nash has only tallied 8, 5 and 6 assists in the three games since Shaq came over. I still think that’s going to continue to be a problem, but it’s never been their offense I worry about too much. It’s their atrocious defense, which starts at the top.
Opposing teams are averaging 104.2 points per game against the Suns, fifth most in the NBA — only defensive stalwarts Golden State, Indiana, Memphis and Denver allow more points. This season’s numbers are actually an improvement over last season and the year before, when the Suns allowed 110.2 and 108.4 points per, the most in the league both seasons. So why is Steve Nash never called out for being one of the worst defensive point guards in the NBA?
There’s the obvious caveat here: Steve Nash is a great player. He’s unquestionably the catalyst which has transformed Phoenix’s offense into the best and most exciting in the NBA over the last four seasons. In terms of smooth passing skills, court vision, ball-handling and pure shooting Nash is the best player in the league. I’m not taking any of that away from him. The fact remains, however: on the defensive end of the end of the floor Steve Nash is one of the worst liabilities in the league. Nash simply cannot contain penetration; he is routinely beat off the dribble and he struggles to get back on open shooters.
Sunday’s game was a prime example, with Chauncey Billups able to get anywhere on the floor he wanted to at any time. Mr. Big Shot put up a nice line of 14 points, 11 assists and only 2 TOs… in 20:19 minutes! And it’s not like Billups is one of the quicker points in the NBA, he’s a cagey vet with below-average speed and athleticism. The young guns in the West regularly make Nash look even worse. So why does nobody talk about it?
More Steve Nash bashing that’s sure to angry up the blood after the jump…
In February alone Baron Davis has torn him up for 27 points and 13 assists on 12-of-23 shooting, and closed that game out by hitting three straight baskets. A couple nights before that Chris Paul went off for 42 points and 9 assists on 18-for-33 shooting. These are the types of point guards Phoenix will have to go through on their way to the NBA Finals. And those aren’t freak occurrences, opposing points routinely put up their best numbers against Nash and the Suns. According to 82games.com opponent’s point guards average an All Star line of 21 points and 7.4 assists on 49.8% FGs. That’s killing Phoenix night in, night out.
Now, we should also point out that statistics of all varieties are inflated in dealing with the Phoenix Suns. They are consistently among the league leaders in total possessions per game simply because they run so much. But that doesn’t let Nash off the hook for his complete inability to stop anybody, especially in late-game situations. He’s gotten so bad in the final minutes that it seems prudent to sub him out of the game on key defensive possessions. Does that sound like an MVP? Again, he’s a great player, but an MVP to me is a guy with a complete game who does it on both ends of the floor — not a guy who consistently hurts your chances of winning with his play on one end. A player like Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant (who was better than Nash in each of his MVP seasons).
To be fair, the Suns have also been a weak defensive team as a whole. A big part of that has been Amare Stoudemire, a sub-par defender. But this year the Suns have been strong on the wing, with Raja Bell and Shawn Marion playing well all year and even Grant Hill being serviceable. On average this season, the only player in the Suns’ regular rotation to cause a higher opponent’s scoring average per minute is Leandrinho Barbosa.
The Phoenix Suns made the trade for Shaq because they didn’t think they could keep up with low-post teams in the West without a true center. And Steve Kerr may be right, perhaps it’s not possible to win the West without a presence in the paint. But Phoenix currently leads the NBA with 49.2% FGs, and they finished fifth in the NBA last season with 43.8 points in the paint per game. Amare Stoudemire’s 23.7 points per game are the most among all power forwards and centers. The trade for a center wasn’t so much to address scoring inside as it was for defense, which has been the major concern with the team since Nash came to town. Maybe it’s time to question the other end of the key: can they win an NBA title with such porous defense from their point guard?
In a Western Conference playoffs featuring offensively talented points of all ilks, bulls who excel at penetration like Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Jason Kidd and Baron Davis, I don’t think they can.
Addendum: Some people in the comments below have asked for stats which show a more direct correlation between Nash and defensive inefficiency, so here’s something else to consider: The season before the Nash came to Phoenix in 03-04 the Suns held opposing teams to 97.9 points per. They’ve given up over 102 points per in each season since.
Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks gave up 100.8 (second-most in the NBA) in 03-04, Nash’s last season. In the four seasons since his departure they’ve given up only 96.8 per, 93.1 per, 92.8 and 95.1 per while climbing into the NBA’s top ten in defensive efficiency. They also made it to the NBA Finals in 2006, something they never did before Nash left as a free agent. The Suns haven’t made it there with Nash either.
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