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Approaching the Finish Line

Steve Nash is out to prove that he’s more than just a cap number

T   his is the accompanying column for the Steve Nash video series The Finish Line. If you want to watch the video before reading the piece, click here.

2014: $9,300,500
2015: $9,701,000

Steve Nash wears no. 10 for the Lakers, but it’s really 9.3. Next season, that turns into 9.7. Those are the numbers Lakers fans see. They see a walking cap figure.

You can’t blame them for feeling that way. The Internet changed the way we consume professional basketball. Whenever Blake Griffin unleashes a hellacious dunk, you can locate it on YouTube within eight minutes. If you’re dreaming about your favorite team stealing Kyrie Irving from the foundering Cavs, you can create fake Kyrie trades on the Trade Machine for hours. If you want to find every NBA salary from LeBron James to James Johnson, Sham Sports has them shaded in multiple colors.

Adam Silver once told me his league had evolved into a 10-month sport: from preseason (October) all the way through free agency and summer league (end of July). He was half-complaining, half-bragging and 100 percent amazed. But only the NBA offers a five-week stretch after its championship that’s nearly as interesting as the actual Finals. It’s a nonstop frenzy of mock drafts, calculated leaks, fake trades, unsubstantiated rumors, misleading tweets and hopeful executives knocking on front doors at 12:01 a.m., with everything feeding off the collective sophistication of the fans. Believe me, we didn’t always inhale summer that way. Right after ESPN.com hired me in 2001, I wrote a column handing out Boogie Nights quotes as “awards” for the NBA’s best and worst offseason signings. I didn’t have a feel for ESPN’s readers yet.

Will this piece go over people’s heads? Is there too much salary stuff in here? Do people care? Is this too nerdy? How many readers actually give a crap?

Thirteen years later, that piece reads as if I deliberately dumbed it down. You can only imagine how Kirk Goldsberry’s Expected Possession Value feature or Zach Lowe’s detailed breakdown of Brooklyn’s semi-resurgence would have played back then; I’m pretty sure it would have broken people’s brains. In 2014? You can’t nerd it up enough. Many NBA junkies care about building teams almost as much as they care about watching them. So salaries resonate more than they ever did.

I don’t remember cap figures mattering for me until 1994, when I came to the horrifying realization that I understood the cap better than my beloved Celtics did. That summer, we were already saddled with Sherman Douglas’s never-ending contract,1 Xavier McDaniel’s expiring toilet-clogger and two more years of the late Reggie Lewis’s expensive salary.2 That didn’t stop our bumbling general manager, M.L. Carr, from splurging close to $40 million on Dee Brown, Pervis Ellison and an aging Dominique Wilkins. Suddenly 80 percent of our cap was earmarked for two washed-up stars, a fat point guard, a guard without a position, a center who never played and someone who wasn’t alive. We had no way to improve — no real assets, no future stars, nothing. We were trapped under .500 for years.

To nobody’s surprise, the ’95 Celtics lost 47 games before getting bounced by Orlando in Round 1. On a Sunday that summer, I was driving back to Boston from a weekend in Vermont. I stopped for gas, bought a Sunday Globe and flipped to the sports section. Unbelievably, improbably, incredibly, Wilkins was reportedly ditching Boston to play in Greece. And I’m in the middle of nowhere, holding a gasoline nozzle with one hand and the newspaper with the other, and I’m yelling, “YES! YES! YES!!!!! CAP SPACE!!!!!”

Just a few weeks later, M.L. squandered that miracle by gift-wrapping Dana Barros $20.8 million over six stupefying years. Overpaying a 5-foot-9 point guard when we already had Douglas, Brown AND David Wesley?3 And what about M.L. naming himself coach as well? Since the Internet hadn’t taken shape yet, I couldn’t vent about Bizarro Red Auerbach to anyone other than my father and my friends. I didn’t have a column or a podcast, I didn’t have a message board … shit, I didn’t have email. I wanted to climb Mount Washington, Balboa-style, stand at the top and scream, “M.L. CARR IS RUINING MY TEAM!!!!”

So that’s when I started caring about cap figures. Those numbers are part of following hoops in 2014, no different from knowing someone’s stats, nicknames or shoe brands. You want to know what your team spends and how much it might be able to spend. Many times, that transforms players from human beings into salary pawns. I look at Gerald Wallace and think, $30.3 million through 2016. Knicks fans look at Amar’e Stoudemire and think, Off the cap summer after next. Phoenix fans see Emeka Okafor and think, $14.5 million, expiring, what can we get for him? Pistons fans look at Josh Smith and think, I have 54 million more reasons to handcuff Joe Dumars to a radiator in my basement.

And Lakers fans look at Steve Nash and think, 9.3 this year, 9.7 next year.

It’s no different from how I thought of ’Nique at that Vermont gas station — when I didn’t care about his 25,389 career points or his dunking-in-traffic legacy. I only cared that ’Nique was in the way. And that’s how Lakers fans feel about Nash. He just turned 40. His body keeps breaking down. The Lakers need his cap money — desperately — whether it happens through trade, medical retirement, buyout, stretch provision, whatever. He’s in the way.

Please leave, Steve Nash. We need that money for someone else.

It’s a cruel finish for such a wonderful player. I never saw Cousy and Oscar, obviously. I only caught the tail end of Frazier and the second (and inferior) incarnation of Tiny. I caught everything Magic and everything Isiah; they’re 1-2 on the “Best Point Guards I Ever Watched” list. After them, not counting current stars, it’s Stockton, Nash, Kidd and Payton in some order. Stockton submitted the most impressive start-to-finish career. Kidd and Payton were the most dominant two-way players. And Nash was the most skilled offensive player, a gifted playmaker who doubled as one of the most efficient shooters ever. Right now, his career shooting percentages are 49 percent (field goal), 42.8 percent (3-point) and 90.4 percent (free throw), which means Nash passed 10,000 career assists while also nearly creating the Lifetime 50-40-90 Club. Good luck seeing that again.

Nash peaked on those “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns teams, when Phoenix built him a high-powered Formula One racing car — with Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and a rotating cast of 3-point bombers as the engine, and Mike D’Antoni as the lead mechanic — knowing that Nash and Nash alone could steer such a complicated vehicle. Maybe they never won a title, but Chris Connelly nailed it when he called them “critically acclaimed.” Not the worst legacy in the world. Nash and D’Antoni reunited in Los Angeles four years later, only the pairing belonged to another era — wrong teammates, wrong situation, wrong point in Nash’s career. When he battled nerve damage in his back last November, rumors stupidly swirled that Nash might retire. You know, because it’s so easy to walk away from 10 million bucks. Anyone paying attention knew what was more likely: a 2014-15 season featuring phrases like “Steve Nash’s Expiring Contract” and “Keep Getting ’Dem Checks!”

Then again, that’s par for the course with great players. Only Russell left at the right time. Everyone else hangs around for an extra year or two — their bodies break down, they lose a step, their pride never totally kicks in. Eventually, they get it. Kareem needed to get shoved around like a rag doll by the Bad Boys. Jordan needed the Wizards. Hakeem needed the Raptors. Bird needed a 15-pound back brace. Barkley needed to blow out his quad tendon. Kidd needed to brick 225 straight 3s last season and postseason. You could keep going and going. And no, Kobe, Dirk and Duncan haven’t reached that “get it” point yet. But they will.

Steve Nash? I thought he’d already arrived. I thought he was there. And then, one night … my phone rang.

It was him.

♦♦♦

I have known Steve Nash for nearly five years. We met by phone during the summer of 2009, when Nash needed a copilot for a potential book project. Teaming up for a modern-day version of Life on the Run or The Game absolutely intrigued me, especially after chatting with Nash and finding out how perceptive he was. For instance, Nash didn’t just play with Stoudemire. He wondered why Stoudemire behaved certain ways in certain situations, and what internal and external forces contributed to that behavior. He wondered how to make him happy and keep him happy. He tried to figure out every conceivable way to make Stoudemire better at basketball, both on and off the court. And a lot of times, it didn’t have anything to do with basketball. Amar’e Stoudemire was a complicated puzzle that Nash never stopped trying to solve.

This was a whole other level of thinking. I was doing backflips. This could have been, potentially, one of the great sports books. Steve Nash would be allowing us behind the curtain. Of course, the most appealing thing about the project became the same thing that derailed it: Over the course of a few phone calls and emails, Nash smartly realized he could never publish the book he wanted to write. Not while he was still playing, anyway. He couldn’t be candid about teammates and coaches as he was leading them. Impossible.

Deep down, I knew this — that’s why I urged him to scribble out some thoughts while being as frank as possible. I promised I would never show anyone those emails. (And I won’t.) He sent a few. They were remarkably, staggeringly outspoken. And by the third or fourth one, he realized, “Oh yeah, it would be crazy for me to write a book right now.”

(And he was right.)

So we placed the book on permanent hiatus. Nash became involved with one of my big projects, 30 for 30, codirecting our film about Canadian hero Terry Fox. We spent a night at Sundance eating dinner with an oversize group; teammate Jared Dudley had borrowed Nash’s no-sugar diet to lose weight, so I have a vivid memory of Dudley pointing to menu items (like a little kid) and asking Nash, “Can I eat this? What about this?”4 After Nash’s Fox film received universally positive reviews, we remained in touch and recorded a few podcasts, crossing paths by accident a couple more times. His move to Los Angeles opened the door for a belated collaboration. Well, for about three seconds. Almost immediately, Nash’s first Lakers season degenerated into a full-fledged soap opera — Starring Dwight! And Kobe! And Jimmy! And Phil! And Mike Brown as Mike! — right as Nash’s divorce trial became weekly TMZ fodder. I never felt right about following up.

A solid year passed. My phone rang one night.

Nash???

Within a few seconds, he was spilling everything. He hated being a cap figure. He hated that his teammates only knew him two ways: as the quarterback of those delightful Suns teams, and as the banged-up geezer who was barely hanging on. He spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about basketball and his body, and not in that order, coming to the conclusion that he couldn’t retire yet. He wasn’t sure if that stubbornness was fueled by denial or hubris, or both. He wondered if the same trait that made so many athletes great — supreme confidence at all times — was their mortal enemy in moments like this. He didn’t trust his own instincts.

Did he have anything left … or did he just WANT to have something left? And how could he tell the difference?

He wouldn’t know for sure unless he killed himself to come back. And that’s what he had been doing, Steve Nash said. For weeks and weeks. He figured he could play quality basketball once a week. But in the NBA, you need to do that three or four times a week. That’s the subtle difference between being productive and being a scrub. He found that more frustrating than anything, Nash confided — being able to get there every once in a while, just not all the time.

I mean … who couldn’t identify with that?

Now, imagine you’re me. You’re sitting home on some random night watching hoops when the phone rings. It’s one of the five or six best point guards who ever lived, a two-time MVP, one of the most entertaining players of the past 40 years. He’s talking candidly, telling you about his myriad problems, vowing that he isn’t done yet. And then he says he’s been documenting this latest comeback with his production partner, Ezra Holland, and that 30 for 30’s talented-and-then-some visionary Jon Hock had gotten involved,5 and that maybe Grantland could get involved, too. At that point, I was waiting for him to say “Baba Booey” and hang up. Nope.

Halfway through the phone call, I started to comprehend the stakes. We finally had a chance to pull off that Life on the Run/The Game idea, only in video form, and in real time. You read those books, as great as they are, while already knowing the ending. This time around, the ending would write itself. We could root for Nash as it happened. A once-great athlete, trying to hang on, searching for a rare talent that may or may not have vanished from his body. He doesn’t know if it’s gone. Neither do you. Neither do I.

As if that’s not a good enough wrinkle, here’s one more: Nash spent a good deal of energy, legal and financial, to guarantee his children would be raised in Los Angeles. He doesn’t want to move them again. When we talked that first night, he mentioned the “stretch provision,” a newish cap wrinkle that allows the Lakers to waive Nash’s final year, then “stretch” his $9.7 million cap number over as many as four years.6 It’s a fancy way for the Lakers, or any bumbling NBA team, to dilute the impact of a damaging contract. Nash believed the “stretch” buyout was a looming threat — if it happened, he’d probably retire unless the Clippers wanted him.

I took the other side, believing the Lakers would be foolish to use the stretch. Wasn’t Nash more valuable as an expiring deal, both as a potential trade piece and a 2015 cap hold before free-agent studs like Kevin Love become available? Then again, the Lakers have done a variety of silly things lately. Who knows? Nash and I batted around the various scenarios like we were Wilbon and Kornheiser. Only later did I realize how surreal it was to discuss Cap Figure Nash with Real Person Nash.

We stayed in touch over the next few weeks, as Nash rehabbed his back in Vancouver and eventually returned to the Lakers’ lineup in Minnesota. I have to admit, I expected the worst. But he dished out nine assists and looked like the old Nash crossed with Old Nash. On his birthday a few nights later, he scored 19 during an encouraging performance in Philly. Less than 48 hours later, he tweaked his leg against Chicago. Now he’s day-to-day. Maybe when you’re 40, you’re always day-to-day. Regardless, I couldn’t believe how much I was pulling for him last week. Cap Figure Nash had morphed into Real Person Nash — the guy trying to save his career, his contract, his family and his inordinately special gift. I didn’t see 9.3 and 9.7 anymore. I saw only no. 10.

Whether Lakers fans follow suit remains to be seen. The day of that Minnesota game, a buddy of mine who loves the Lakers stopped by Grantland’s office. He knew nothing about our Nash project. As I started describing it, he hissed, “Oh God, I hope it’s a project convincing him to retire.” We showed him a rough cut. Within 10 minutes, he was begrudgingly admitting, “Now I’m rooting for him to come back.” In the wonderful world of sports, things flip that fast. Welcome to The Finish Line.

This article has been updated to correct the nature of Charles Barkley’s career-ending injury.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, NBA

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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