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Creative Vision

Nash isn't NBA's most talented player, but he sees everything on court and makes everyone on his team better

April 23, 2006|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Who's out of place in this group, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Steve Nash?

And the answer is ... Shaq, Kobe, LeBron and Dwyane?

You bet your most-valuable-player award.

A year ago the little Canadian with the floppy hair beat out O'Neal for the award. This season, at 32, Nash might beat out Bryant, James and Wade too, even if they're the game's brightest young players.

Of course, if the question is who's best, as opposed to most valuable, Nash might not get in the top 20. If it's possible to be a back-to-back MVP and still be underrated, Nash might be in the process of pulling it off.

"He's kind of unassuming," Sun Coach Mike D'Antoni says. "He's 6-3. He's a normal walking-down-the-road kind of guy. Your next-door neighbor has the same build that he has. He doesn't have blinding speed. He does it with great court vision and a will to win.

"People kind of overlook that. They have to touch something. They want to say, 'Well, this guy is the strongest guy, this guy is the fastest guy.'

"I even heard a radio talk show talking about who's the best player in the NBA and he was not mentioned because, 'Oh, he makes everybody else better.' Well, that is the game, to make everybody else better, and that's why I think he's best.

"But at the same time, if you're just talking about talent, you go away from him and that's where the discussion usually goes and that's why he gets overlooked."

Nash might be 6-3 in his dreams, and not only doesn't have blinding speed, he doesn't have a lot of speed. Skill is a whole other thing.

With C- or D+ physical ability on the NBA curve, he has proven himself to be more than merely great. He's a 100-point-a-game offense all by himself, who just took a revamped team with one other starter (Shawn Marion) and one reserve (Leandro Barbosa) returning from last season and won 54 games with it.

The last time one of Nash's teams failed to win 50, Bill Clinton was president.

Nor was it a coincidence. The Mavericks were a 20-win team when Nash departed Phoenix and arrived in Dallas in 1998. The Suns were a 29-win team when he rejoined them in 2004.

As Clipper assistant Jim Eyen noted recently, there are players who can shoot, drive and pass, but point guards who are great at all three come along every generation or two.

In John Stockton's heyday in the 1990s, coaches played the feared Utah pick-and-roll by going under Karl Malone's screen, hoping Stockton, who was modest to a fault, wouldn't take the open shot.

Nash isn't as modest. As D'Antoni notes, "You go under, he'll pull the trigger."

Nash just led the league in assists at 10.5, almost two ahead of the runner-up, and was second among point guards in overall shooting (51.2%) and on three-pointers (43.9%).

When he runs pick-and-rolls with Boris Diaw as he did with Amare Stoudemire, something is always open and Nash finds it. In the West finals a year ago, Nash and Stoudemire combined for 60 points a game with the same play over and over, sending defense-oriented Spur Coach Gregg Popovich home talking to himself.

Like Stockton, who wasn't a full-time starter until his fourth season, Nash spent two seasons as a Phoenix reserve and two as a disappointment in Dallas before figuring it out.

When Nash got it, however, the league was in trouble. From the 2001-02 season on, his teams have all been No. 1 in offense.

He always had plenty of firepower around him ... until last fall when the Suns, who had traded Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, learned Stoudemire needed knee surgery.

Of last season's 110 points a game, 58 were gone. Starting in their place were Kurt Thomas, Raja Bell and James Jones.

The Suns now say they were merely concerned, but only briefly, or as Nash puts it, "There was a day and a half or so at training camp where I think everyone was down a little bit."

Or maybe it was a month and a half, it's hard to remember. They started 4-5, losing four of their first five games at home. After that, it was just like last season with Steve, Shawn, Leandro and the new guys.

However, Stoudemire's attempt to come back lasted three games. The Suns weren't supposed to be able to win in the playoffs with him, and without him, they inspire even less fear.

"After the year we've had, for people to still doubt us, I think it's a little strange, but that's fine," Nash says. "That's all irrelevant to us. What difference does it make?"

None at all. Nash has always been the underdog.

"To be honest with you, I am," he says. "I've always been and I still feel that way. It's ingrained....

"I wake up in the morning feeling like an underdog. It's maybe my greatest quality, that I love to play, I love to work at it, I love to keep going. Being an underdog is part of that built-in necessity to keep working and keep going."

Actually, they aren't underdogs this week and that's OK. Just seeing those Laker uniforms will do.

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