The Steve Nash-Dirk Nowitzki duo was one of the most loveable partnerships in the NBA. It’s like two goofy best friends got together to play some hoops. They were brought together at the same time, allowing their games (and their hair) to grow together.
The partnership between the German rookie and Canadian point guard started in the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season. Even though Nash was already a veteran in the league at that point, he was still looking to play a bigger role and show everyone what he could do.
After two years of playing together, they finally broke out during the 2000-2001 season. Nowitzki started to earn a reputation as a unique big man, one that could step out and hit the jumper from the perimeter. Nash, on the other hand, complemented Nowitzki as a pick-and-roll genius who could deliver the ball in the right spots.
Individually, Nash and Nowitzki continued their rise, earning several All-Star nods together. Nash started his career with Dallas averaging only 7.9 points and 5.5 assists per game. His peak with the team was in 2001-2002 when he put up nearly 18 points and eight assists per game. Nowitzki became a consistent 20-point scorer with Nash feeding him the ball.
With the two leading the way, the Dallas Mavericks went from a 19-win team to a steady 50-win team starting the 2000-2001 season. Their peak as a team with Nash and Nowitzki was in the 2002-2003 season when they won 60 games, tied for the best record in the league.
Unfortunately, their rise didn’t translate in the playoffs. Nash and Nowitzki made the playoffs four times together. The farthest they got together was the Western Conference Finals in 2003 when they bowed out to the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs.
After a string of early playoff exits for the promising Mavs, hard decisions had to be made.
The Mavericks, in their chase for a championship, loaded the team with several big-name players. In the ‘03-’04 season, they brought in Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker to bolster the Nash-Nowitzki duo. They had Michael Finley under a long-term contract at the time.
A few notches below the Mavericks were the Phoenix Suns, which were a team stuck in basketball purgatory. Back then, they were good enough to get wins here and there but not good enough to make the playoffs. They had an All-Star point guard in Stephon Marbury who brought big numbers but little wins. They also had a few young pieces in Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Joe Johnson who were aching to break out.
Heading into the 2004 offseason, Nash was on a high. He was a highly regarded free agent who could have signed with any team he wanted. But he didn’t want to leave Dallas and what he had achieved with the team that easily. The Mavericks offered Nash a four-year $9 million deal. His former team, the Suns, trumped that with a six-year $63 million offer.
Nash gave the Mavericks a chance to match the deal. Unfortunately, Mark Cuban was paying out big money to Nowitzki, Jamison, Walker, and Finley at the time. He just couldn’t afford to pay a 30-year-old point guard the same amount the Suns were willing to shell out.
With Dallas bowing out, Nash’s return to Phoenix was set.
The stars aligned to make Nash’s return to Phoenix not just momentous for the team but one that would change the trajectory of his career and how the game is eventually played.
Before Nash’s first year back with the Suns, the league decided to abolish the hand check rule. This meant defenders were not allowed to place their hands on opposing players out on the perimeter. This was groundbreaking for the NBA because it allowed guards and wings to operate without restraint on the perimeter.
Nash was also joining a revamped Suns team. The team made several moves during that same offseason to build a team around their new star point guard. The biggest one that they made was to make Mike D’Antoni the full-time head coach. D’Antoni was a visionary coach who instituted his “Seven Seconds or Less” system in 2004.
Playing under a new system—and with new rules in place—Nash reached heights he couldn’t even touch during his time with the Mavericks. Already accustomed to the run-and-gun game under Dallas, Nash was given the green light to push the pace even faster under D’Antoni. With the rule change, Nash was also free to move around as he pleased.
The offensive end of the court became a playground for Nash. Surrounded by offensive weapons like Marion, Stoudemire, and Johnson, he orchestrated the offense like no other point guard during the 2004 season. He averaged 11.5 assists per game, engineering one of the best turnarounds in NBA history. The Suns transformed from a 29-win team to one that tallied an NBA-best 62 wins. Because of that, Nash won the 2005 MVP award.
Nash followed up his first MVP with another one in 2006 when he averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 assists. His best year statistically came the year after, putting up close to 19 points and 12 assists per game.
That’s when the feel-good story of Nash’s return to the Suns ends. While Nash and the Suns enjoyed incredible regular-season success, he couldn’t bring the team far in the playoffs. They made the Conference Finals three times during Nash’s stint with the team from 2004 to 2012, but that was the peak of their playoff runs back then.
Even though the SSOL Suns never achieved the championship expectations everyone had of them, they’re still one of the most iconic teams in the league. They pioneered the small-ball style everyone is used to watching these days. Coming from the beat-’em-up defensive style of the early 2000s, the Suns opened up the league and fans a new style of basketball. They were a fun team that spiked their wins with incredible highlights. They showed everyone just how fun basketball could be.
None of that would have been possible without Steve Nash.