Steve Nash vs. John Stockton: Why?

Congratulations, Steve Nash! You’re now in seventh place on the all-time assist leaderboard, passing Gary Payton during last night’s win against the Jazz. Your prize?

You get to be unfairly compared to some of the all-time greats in NBA history!

As soon as the ball passed through the basket on Nash’s 8,967th assist, fans and analysts felt compelled to throw around names like “Stockton” and “Magic”. The Suns’ broadcast last night posted a graphic comparing Stockton and Nash at age 37 and argued that a comparison between the two isn’t even close – in favor of Nash. ESPN’s NBA chat barely discussed the remaining game in favor of arguing about whether Nash was a top-10 point guard all-time or not.

In any other circumstance, I’d delve into the numbers and begin to compare the two. I’d cite Stockton’s massive assist total, the length of their careers, the height of their peaks, and, if I wanted to make Nash look good, I’d bring up the number of MVPs each won.*

*This must be what it’s like to be a Lakers fan. Tell people to COUNT THE RINGZ (or MVPz!!).

These comparisons, however, are absolutely ridiculous to me. It’s not because I believe that Nash isn’t in the top-10 all-time. It’s not the product of an aversion to history. It’s not even because of arguments about the productivity and prowess of each player’s teammates. I simply don’t see why every player must be compared to his predecessors; I don’t know why we must enumerate and list the quality of players relative to each other. I understand that many people out there love to discuss this type of thing over a drink or on twitter…but these conversations so consistently devolve into shouting matches and sword-fights (and I don’t mean the weaponized kind) that I question what value they have. If your conversation is prone to driving you to dehumanize your counterpart, why have it?

Any comparison across eras is moot. Players are capable of performing at their peak for a longer period of time in this day and age, thanks to advances in training, medical staffs, diet, practice routines…the list goes on and on. More importantly, the elimination of hand-checking in the league opened up the game in a way that can’t be overstated, particularly when it comes to influencing Nash’s success. As Zach Harper noted in last night’s DDL, it’s probably not a coincidence that Nash was considered a very good player before 2004-2005 but became a two-time MVP when he could no longer be hand-checked. The absence of hand-checking allows Nash to move more freely around the court, take an uncontested first step, and use his classic rocking back and forth motion to create space for an open shot. Furthermore, the acceptance of moving screens throughout the league significantly helped a player (and a team) so adept and dependent on the pick and roll.

And again we come to the problem with comparing players. I feel compelled to defend my Steve Nash-fan credentials because I’m making the argument that Nash has taken advantage of rule changes and dietary/training improvements. I shouldn’t have to point out that Steve Nash is my favorite player ever and one of the most entertaining players I’ve seen. Because I acknowledge the context in which Nash has excelled, I run the risk of being labeled a “Nash hater” or a traitor to Suns fans, and that’s ludicrous.

In an era of vitriol and anonymity, it becomes too easy for a discussion to become heated and turn to animosity. Attacks become personal, assumptions are made, and we turn into beasts, each trying to be more vocal than the other and trying to impose our will. It’s an unfortunate by-product of not necessarily knowing with whom you’re conversing and the ease with which we can communicate.

Steve Nash is the greatest player in history at being Steve Nash. He’s an amazing shooter (threatening to become the first player to shoot 50% from the field, 40% from deep, and 90% from the line), has incomparable court vision, and employs a style that’s visually thrilling and entertaining to watch. That’s sufficient for me; how he compares to John Stockton or Tiny Archibald or Jason Kidd is a superfluous consideration. If you insist on having that conversation, allow me to buy a drink or three first.

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Tags: All-time Assists Comparison Gary Payton John Stockton Steve Nash

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