Eventually, as Halloween turned to Thanksgiving and there was still no NBA basketball outside of the occasional summer league showcase, Nash’s itch returned. While Phoenix stumbled out of the blocks once the season began on Christmas, working newcomers like Shannon Brown and rookies like Markieff Morris into the rotation, the point guard was still masterful.
In January, he averaged 16.1 points on an incredible 58 percent from the field. But for the first half of the season, the on-court product felt inconsequential, and was overshadowed by the future. Where would Nash be traded? The Free Steve Nash movement became an Internet phenomenon, for as great a year as Nash had, many expected him to leave by the trade deadline.
The Suns are in transition. Even at their best, no one could expect more than a quick, first-round exit next season. Whereas players like Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion once flanked him, last year Nash played the godfather role for a group of guys who had yet to find their niche.
Some think New York is a possible destination. They desperately need a floor general, and it’s a summer home to Nash. Dallas is rumored. He has roots there. Perhaps even Miami. Nash has maintained he would listen to any pitches coming from South Beach.
“You’re talking about a two-time MVP,” Johnson says. “Wherever he could go, I’m sure he could have an amazing impact right now and help turn something around.”
But as Dwight Howard flip-flopped and Carmelo Anthony coach-swapped, Nash stayed eerily quiet, content to play out the season in Phoenix and make a decision on his future this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
“I owe a lot to my teammates,” Nash says. “I’d hate to say, ‘I don’t want to play here anymore. I don’t want to play with you guys anymore. I wanna go to a contender.’ That doesn’t… feel right with me.”
Towards the end of March, Nash did finally admit the obvious on “The Dan Patrick Show”: the Suns would have to upgrade their roster to keep him around. But at this point, Nash’s future is still too cloudy to predict.
“That summertime is a long summer,” says TNT’s Kenny Smith. “It’s a long summer. It’s hard to project what franchises are thinking or who wants to bring him in. It depends on what happens in the playoffs.”
Sometimes, as Nash says, you have to take your “medicine” during a down year, and for the three-time All-NBA first Teamer, it’s not even about the comfort of Phoenix. It’s about loyalty. Nash is really the only link left from the glory years, and even with the once formidable “Seven Seconds Or Less” offense treading water, just eighth in the league in scoring this season, the Suns still nearly made the playoffs. After being blown out by the Lakers in mid-February despite Nash’s 17 assists, Phoenix sat at a disappointing 12-19. They finished a surging 33-33 with castoffs like Dudley, Channing Frye and the former Olympian Michael Redd.
“I think they do a great job of putting the right players around him,” the Clippers’ Chris Paul says. “He’s one of the great probers in the league in finding guys.”
It will always revolve around Nash. When he was on the court in 2011-12, the Suns scored nearly eight more points every 100 possessions, and he’s helped turn 6-11 Marcin Gortat, a career backup, into one of the NBA’s best young centers.
“He makes winning plays out there and doesn’t care if he scores,” Minnesota’s Kevin Love says. “A selfless player. He’s been around – I don’t even know how many years now – but he continues to set up guys, making scoring passes and a guy that is the leader.”
Nash finished second in the NBA in assists at 10.7 a night, and scored 12.5 points a game on a blistering 53 percent from the field, tying the highest of his career. At 38, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas and Clyde Frazier were all retired. Gary Payton was a ring-chasing backup shooting 39 percent.
Yet Nash is so good at this age that Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge admits you might know what’s coming, but you still can’t stop it. The league’s reining MVP Derrick Rose, says with a chuckle, “I don’t even think I’ll be able to play at the age of 38.”
“It’s unprecedented really,” adds Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher. “Maybe John Stockton is one of the few guys in history I can remember that was able to do it for so long for so great.”
But Stockton never won an MVP, much less two. And he wasn’t pacing the NBA in assists while approaching 40 years of age. While the former Jazz point guard was credited with dictating Utah’s style of play for nearly two decades, Nash helped change the culture of the entire league.
“He’s the type of guy where he plays basketball for everybody,” says former Knick and current free agent Renaldo Balkman. “He gives you all he’s got. He’s one of those guys who plays until he can’t stand no more, until he’s out of breath.”