In the summer of 2004, Steve Nash signed a widely ridiculed five-year, $65 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. His former team, the Dallas Mavericks, would have liked to re-sign him but couldn't see making a long-term, expensive commitment to a 30-year-old point guard with back problems and a reputation for playing terrible defense.
Two years later, nobody's mocking the Suns. Nash and Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni have built an unorthodox and highly effective offense centered on the fast break and the 3-point shot. The Suns had the league's best regular-season record in 2005. This year, despite the loss of Amare Stoudemire, they made it all the way to the Western Conference finals. Along the way, Nash has won consecutive MVP awards; he's the only point guard besides Magic Johnson to win two.
So, do the Mavericks regret their decision to let one of the game's top players go? Not at all. The Mavericks, who knocked out the Suns last week on their way to the NBA Finals, are doing just fine without Nash. In fact, the two-time MVP was the one holding them back.
Most critics attribute the Mavs' resurgence to a newfound focus on defense. This has supposedly been inspired by the departures of the offensive-minded Nash and the offensive-minded coach Don Nelson (in 2005), along with the arrival of defense-obsessed coach Avery Johnson. Superficially, that seems right. In 2004, Nash's last year, Dallas averaged 105.2 points a game while surrendering 100.8; this season they score 99.1 and give up 93.1.
Look closer, however, and this defensive improvement is an illusion. The 2004 Mavs played very fast-paced basketball. That up-tempo Dallas squad averaged 93.2 possessions per game, second most in the league. This year, the Mavericks use 87.8 possessions per game, which ranks 27th of 30 NBA teams. Slowing down the game means you'll both score and surrender fewer points. The best measure of defensive effectiveness, however, is efficiency—how many points you allow per 100 possessions. In Nash's last season, Dallas scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions while giving up 106.9. This year's squad did only slightly better, giving up a middling 104.7 points per 100 while remaining an offensive powerhouse by scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions. (These stats are available at the invaluable Basketball-Reference.com.)
If Dallas isn't winning because it plays better defense, then what's the team's secret? The Mavericks are winning because they've unshackled Dirk Nowitzki. The conventional wisdom says that great players in general, and Nash in particular, make their teammates better. But in the case of the Mavericks, Nash made Nowitzki—the team's best player and his best friend—distinctly worse.
Playing with Nash turned Nowitzki into a half-star, half-carnival freak. Nash's penetrate-and-dish moves allowed the 7-foot tall, David Hasselhoff-loving German to take advantage of his uncanny accuracy from the 3-point line. It turns out, though, that having him spot up for 3-pointers isn't the best use of Nowitzki's abilities. Nash's great asset is his unselfishness and ability to find the open man. What makes Nowitzki special is that he doesn't need to be open in order to score. Nobody can guard him.
There's no use sticking a tall guy on Dirk—opposing big men can't move their feet fast enough to keep up. Teams abandoned that strategy years ago in favor of deploying shorter perimeter stoppers against him. This throws defensive schemes into chaos by creating mismatches elsewhere on the floor. Not to mention that, as of this year, the little guys can't slow down Dirk, either. Nowitzki can shoot over the heads of much-shorter defenders or, even better, post them up around the free-throw line. Low-post scorers such as Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal are often hampered by their poor free-throw shooting. Nowitzki's free-throw prowess—he shoots 90 percent from the line—means he's all but impossible to stop. Despite the new Mavs' much slower pace, Dirk's scoring average has gone up five points since Nash left. Playing closer to the basket has also made him a better rebounder. A strong case can be made that Nowitzki, not the MVP Nash, has now emerged as the best player in the NBA.
Nowitzki has gotten better by parting ways with the league's most unselfish player. And Dallas as a whole is proving that you can generate an effective offense by "playing the wrong way." The Mavericks run lots of isolation plays and don't usually bother passing to the open man. Nash's Suns ended 19.7 percent of their possessions with assists, the highest rate in the league. Nowitzki's Mavericks assisted teammates just 14.8 percent of the time. Only the horrifyingly bad Knicks had a lower rate. Meanwhile, the superselfish Mavs had the league's second-most efficient offense in the regular season. In the playoffs, they're third behind Phoenix and San Antonio, two teams they've eliminated. This has allowed them to get all the way to the Finals by being merely not-bad on defense.
Coach of the Year Avery Johnson deserves credit for the Mavericks' resurgence. He's just getting credit for the wrong thing. Johnson had the gumption to modify the Dallas offense to suit his star's abilities rather than his habits. It's extremely unlikely that the motivation would have existed to alter the Dallas offense, though, if the team hadn't lost its quarterback.
So, what to make of the conventional wisdom that great players make their teammates better? Based on Phoenix's success over the past two seasons it still looks sound, but with an important caveat: The truly great ones don't need much help, and the biggest stars shine brightest when they're on their own.