The Nash Conundrum: Four Years Later

This morning, a commenter left this message under our Scottie Pippen Keltner List:

somebody from this website please tell me why Steve Nash has 2 mvp seasons? i still cant figure it out cause to me he was not even close to top 10 player in the league

This question (give or take some capitalization/punctuation) was probably the hot-button debate amongst hoops statheads about four years ago. I once wrote about the worst MVP votes of all time, and Nash’s 2005 win ranked right up there (this was before he won it again in ’06). John Hollinger wrote that Nash only won because he was “the new guy” on a Suns team that upgraded itself by 33 wins, and that the simultaneous, independent emergence of players like Shawn Marion & Amare Stoudemire to superstar levels of production was unfairly credited to Nash. Others even went so far as to make the rather outlandish claim that Nash won because he was white. Somebody out there had to have voted for Nash, but at the same time, from all the backlash it was difficult to find a non-fanboy who actually believed Nash was a worthy MVP (especially in 2006).

That’s how Nash simultaneously became one of the most overrated AND underrated players in the NBA for a brief time. On the one hand, Nash’s individual stats, while very good, were not MVP-caliber: he was 11th in Win Shares & 15th in PER in 2005, 10th & 12th in 2006, and his SPM was nowhere near the top of the league leaderboards in either season. No matter what statistical measuring stick you wanted to use, you weren’t going to find one that corroborated the opinion that Nash was one of the best players in the league. On top of that, there was the matter of his poor defense, which was only tangentially addressed by boxscore-based stat methods. The overall picture being painted was that of an All-Star-caliber point guard, but certainly not the best player in basketball.

On the other hand, there’s the effect he undeniably had on the Suns when on the court. In terms of raw on/off-court +/-, Phoenix was 15.0 Pts/100 possessions better with Nash in the game in 2005 (5th-best in the NBA), and 9.1 points better in ’06. This mirrors his impact in adjusted +/-: +7.21 in 2005, and +9.63 in 2006. In other words, Nash single-handedly boosted Phoenix’s efficiency differential by 7-10 points when he was in the game. Then there’s the war cry of Nash-bashers in 2006: “He wasn’t even the best player on his team!” I said it, others said it, and we meant it at the time — Shawn Marion did everything for those guys. How could he have been propped up by Nash? Well, since leaving Phoenix, Marion has posted a PER of 16.2 and 5.9 WS/3000 min., compared to 21.8 & 12.9 alongside Nash. Who was propping whom up again?

Needless to say, I’ve softened in my stance towards the Nash MVPs in recent years, thanks in part to the benefit of hindsight. Now, I’m not saying Nash “deserved” to be the Most Valuable Player in 2005 or 2006. He wasn’t the “best” player either year (the consensus would have been Kevin Garnett in ’05 and either Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in ’06). Then again, the NBA’s famously ambiguous MVP definition means the award does not necessarily have to go to the league’s top player. Besides, Nash (thanks to his incredible fit within the D’Antoni system) was clearly helping to boost his teammates’ stats, and as a result the Suns played so much better with him in the game than with him out.

Stoudemire was the stathead fave for “most valuable player on the Suns” in ’05, but without him they still managed to win 54 games and push the Mavs to 6 games in the Western Conference Finals. Marion became the new darling that year, but ever since leaving Nash he’s put up the worst numbers of his career. At some point you just have to swallow your pride and acknowledge that Nash was the driving force behind Phoenix’s turnaround in 2005, and therefore one of the league’s most valuable players. And that requires admitting that a substantial portion of his “value” to Phoenix was in areas that can’t be directly measured by the box score.

About Neil Paine

I work for I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on May 8, 2009, in Analysis, History. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. One factor in the two MVP titles is that there were no other blatant MVP contenders in 2005 and 2006. Shaq and, to a lesser extent Duncan were declining and Kobe and Bron-Bron were still improving.

  2. I agree that Nash basically won by default in 2005, since voters held the T-Wolves’ lack of success against KG (despite an epic season) and Shaq missed too much playing time. But this was not the case in 2006, a year highlighted by Kobe’s great scoring feats and LeBron’s Pantheon coming-out-party. ’06 is harder to explain without having to resort to the “incumbent effect” as a factor.

  3. I just kinda feel bad for Nash fans and Suns fans in general. They get all this hate dumped on their little Canadian hero as though he personally stole the MVP from more deserving candidates. He did his job, and his team won a ton of games. If voters want to honor that rather than the much higher production of KG or Wade or Kobe or Bron… that’s not Steve’s fault. Is it “right” for him to be a 2 time MVP? Not really, but it’s no reason to denigrate the good things he did bring the team and league.

  4. Yes, Garnett likely would have won in 2005 if his team didn’t go in the tank. I think the best way to explain Nash’s MVPs it to say he won them in a lull of other great players playing at their peek.

    I think what most people have a problem with is when you look at better players let alone better PGs who never had an opportunity to win MVP (i.e. Kidd, Stockton).

  5. I know Kidd was very close, but if he were in his peek in 2005 or 2006 I think he would have won.

  6. Marion playing small forward since leaving Phoenix has something to do with his drop in production, too.

  7. Here is the complete list of multiple MVP winners. Tell me which one doesn’t belong.

    Bob Pettit
    Steve Nash
    Karl Malone
    Tim Duncan

    Moses Malone
    Magic Johnson
    Larry Bird

    Wilt Chamberlain

    Bill Russell
    Michael Jordan

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

  8. I thought Wade should’ve won in 05. Shaq got all the credit for Miami’s success that year, but he wasn’t just being diplomatic when he called it Wade’s team. In retrospect it’s clear he was already the best player on that team.

    Looking back, I’m not bothered Nash won it; he took PHX from 29 wins to 62, best in the league; Stoudamire and Marion were putting up all-star stats before he came, but they weren’t winning games. Nash was essential to that team’s success, even if he wasn’t the most talented player

  9. Gabe, which one doesn’t belong?

    You’re not even worthy of typing their names.

  10. Let’s not forget that Nash came close to winning 3 MVP titles in a row, in 2007 Nowitzki had 1138 pts and Nash 1013. Can you imagine that?? Not even MJ won 3 in a row…

    In 2005 I would have voted for Shaq, as his presence immediately turned Miami into a contender. And by the way I still cannot believe that Nash has won more MVP titles than Shaq, I mean, come oooooooooooon !!! For anybody who saw Shaq play during the 2000-02 title runs, it’s absolute non sense. I see that Garnett is also mentioned, but he did not even make the play offs that year so there is no way he should have won it.

    In 2006 I think Kobe deserved it, even though his team was not good his scoring was just historical. James also deserved it more than Nash but he was just 21 at the time and still had a lot of room to improve as we’ve seen since.

    Overall Nash was clearly All-Star and All-NBA worthy during those years, but he is by far the most overrated multiple MVP in the history of the league. He has played with many good or even great players in his career (D. Nowitzki, M. Finley, A. Stoudemire, S. Marion, S. O’Neal) and has never even made it to the NBA Finals as his teams were constantly bullied by bigger opponents (the Spurs most of the time)

  11. Attributing Marion’s decline since leaving Phoenix to not being “propped up” by Nash isn’t any more valid than the argument that Nash was propping him up in the first place. There’s no question that the two made a formidable duo — Nash’s creative passing found a perfect match in Marion’s relentless cutting, running the floor, and finishing. As a thought experiment — replace Marion with Kwame Brown. First, Kwame never cut with the vigor (or frequency) or ran the floor like Marion. Second, Kwame wouldn’t have been able to catch the ball in traffic, which means that those daring (and amazing passes) become turnovers instead of dunks or layups. Third, Kwame couldn’t finish at the hoop like Marion, which means that even if he made the cut and caught the ball (dubious assumptions), a fair number of those plays would not have become scores. Marion’s decline likely has something to do with not playing with Nash, but it also has a lot to do with playing a different position in a different system; with injuries; and with getting older — he’s 30 now. And it’s also worth noting that Nash’s assists dropped when Marion went elsewhere.

  12. steve norris

    thanx alot for answering my question. i think if you win 2 mvps you should atleast make it to the finals once. i think kg or shaq should have won in 05 and kobe in 06. nash had alot of offensive stats playing in a run n gun backyard style. when you saw the good teams put him in a halfcourt he was less effective. like the spurs. nash is not a top 5 point guard

  13. A large part of Marion and Stoudemire’s games are dunks. Nash didn’t just get assists when playing with those players. He set those players up pefectly. He got no-doubt about it assists. He was also the best shooter in the league, among the best at the very least.

  14. @Gabe

    Which one doesn’t belong? I’d say Jordan

  15. I know I’m about 8 months late to this debate. But this topic is without question the one that has fired me up the most in NBA debates over the last 5 years. I strongly agree with most of the opinons already stated rebuking Nash’s MVP worthiness especially in ’05. I’d like to add to that evidence the fact that the team that Steve Nash fled to run with the Suns was actually BETTER without him!!! Yes the Dallas Mavericks went from a 52-win team with Nash in ’04 to being a 58-win without Nash in ’05. In my opinion that is a more difficult improvement than Nash “transforming” the Suns into a contender with the help of TWO other All-Stars help that Dirk Nowitzki has NEVER enjoyed in Dallas yet HE without Nash carried the Mavs to the finals in ’06, a desination that a Steve Nash team has never reached! A season in which Dirk not Nash led the league in PER and WS. Making that the 5 out of 6 seasons (6 out of 7 after ’07) that Dirk was in the top 3 in WS in the entire league! FIVE years in the TOP 2!! Nash wasn’t even in the top 2 on his OWN TEAM in ’05!!! So Neil thank you for giving me a forum in which to release some of the remaining pent up bitterness that I had towards Steve Nash’s unworthy MVP selections.

  16. I’ve been a Suns fan since the days of Connie Hawkins, but I also loathe him personally for his belligerent left wing opinions, so I have a clear mind about Nash. And I must say that after watching him closely, he must be one of the top five offensive players in NBA history. Since he’s arrived in Phoenix, the Suns have led the league in scoring five out of six years, frequently by large margins. Name me four other people in NBA history who have had that kind of effect on a team’s offense

    At first I wanted to believe that it was Dantoni’s system, but the Suns kept leading the league in scoring even after the system and coach changed. And as for Amare, I’m convinced that he was the beneficiary of Nash’s brilliance, not the other way around. Amare has some nice moves and can dunk like a beast, but Nash is the superior offensive player. Amare is a good offensive player but Nash is an amazing offensive player. Seeing as how the two are playing for separate teams this year, we may be able to get some perspective as to who was the engine and who was the rider.

    On the other hand, Nash is a below average defensive player, which probably undercuts any serious claim for MVP. Now if there were an award for Offensive player of the year, I think Nash could have won that three or four times.

    On the OTHER other hand, Nash has always been content to play for far less than he’s worth. ($13 mil last year, compared to $23 mil for Kobe) So take that into account when you assess his value. I know that if I had to start a team from scratch, the first player I would pick is Steve Nash at $13 million

  17. Nash is the only MVP winner in NBA History that has NEVER played in the NBA finals. And he’s a back to back MVP. That says it all. Very good player. An All-Star but definitely not an MVP. The biggest argument I had for Shaq winning in 2005 is the team he left went in the tank while the team Nash left won 58 games…wow. Young hoop lovers 20 years from now will wonder how did Steve Nash win 2 MVP titles and never make it to the NBA finals. While superior pg’s like Isiah, Stockton and Kidd didn’t win any MVP’s and other all time greats like Kobe and Shaq only won one apiece. In the words of Ricky Ricardo the MVP voters will have some splaining to do!

  18. Those attempting to knock Nash by claiming that his leaving Dallas in 2004 caused the Mavs to improve by 6 games need to review the rosters a bit. From 2004 to 2005, the Mavs lost Nash, Antawn Jamison (played a lot off the bench), Antoine Walker (started and played 35 awful minutes a night – 43% FG, 27% 3-PTFG, 55% FT – yes, those percentages are right), Tony Delk, and Danny Fortson. They gained Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry, a still functioning Keith Van Horn (12.2 PPG and much more efficient than Walker), Erick Dampier, and rookie Devin Harris. The Mavs’ personnel wasn’t as suited to Nash’s game in 2004: besides Dirk (who wasn’t playing on the perimeter as much as he later did), only Jamison and Michael Finley were decent to good 3-point shooters. Speaking of Dirk, he was more efficient the year after Nash left, largely because he was playing with a real center in Dampier (despite what Shaq might say). That freed up Dirk to roam the perimeter and be more of a playmaker. Ironically, he also got more rebounds in 2005.

    So there are a lot of factors that changed in Dallas between 2004 and 2005 besides Nash leaving. We now know the offensive system that fits Nash best: an athletic big to run the PNR with (Amare), good/efficient 3-point shooters, athletic wings (Marion, Joe Johnson), and run, run, run. The 2004 Mavs were pretty good at those things, but that wasn’t exactly their system.

    Here’s the change from several Suns’ players from 2004 to 2005: Amare (2004: 20.6 PPG, 47.6 Adj FG%; 2005: 26.0 PPG, 56.0 Adj FG%), Marion (2004: 47.4 Adj FG%; 2005: 52.0 Adj FG%); Joe Johnson (2004: 46.2 Adj FG%; 53.6 Adj FG%). Of course there were several factors that changed in Phoenix from 2004 to 2005; Nash happened to be the biggest change, and everyone else became much more efficient because of it. Whether he deserved to be a 2-time MVP is a valid debate; whether he made teams and players better and more efficient really is not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: