In pursuit of title, Nash may have to look beyond Phoenix

Does Steve Nash need to leave the Valley for a legitimate chance at a title? (AP Photo/Paul Connors)

Steve Nash’s career began in Phoenix, took a detour to Dallas, then brought him back to Phoenix, where he has given everything he can to the Suns for the past six and a half seasons.

The one thing both Nash and the team’s fans want most, however, remains elusive. Through countless teammates, three coaches and statistically dazzling performances, Nash has been unable to deliver an NBA championship.

At 37, Nash may not have many chances left to watch a banner rise to the rafters. With current hope of such an event fading in the Valley of the Sun, the question has to be asked: Is Nash really OK with spending some of the final seasons of his career in a place where he might not win it all?

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From 1956, when the NBA Most Valuable Player award was established, until 1994, every recipient was also an NBA champion at some point. Chares Barkley won the award in 1993, becoming the first of six MVPs without a championship.

Charles Barkley: Won MVP in 1993 seasons with Suns. Appeared in the Finals in the same year, losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games.

Karl Malone: Won MVP in 1997 and 1999 seasons with Utah Jazz (though arguably by default). Appeared in the Finals in 1997 and 1998, losing to the Bulls in six games both times.

Allen Iverson: Won MVP in 2001 season with Philadelphia 76ers. Appeared in the Finals in same year, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.

Dirk Nowitzki: Won MVP in 2007 season with Dallas Mavericks. Appeared in the Finals in 2006, losing to the Miami Heat in six games.

LeBron James: Won MVP in 2009 and 2010 with Cleveland Cavaliers. Appeared in the Finals (before winning an MVP) in 2007, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in four games.

This list might get whittled down by one by the end of the 2010-11 season, as both Nowitzki and James have a fair chance to win it all this year.

For those of you keeping track, note that Michael Jordan essentially denied MVPs a ring three times and Shaquille O’Neal did it twice. You’ll also note that that was only five players. The sixth (you already know who it is) is a special case.

Steve Nash: Won MVP in 2005 and 2006. Has never appeared in the Finals.

I don’t present that as any kind of breaking news, because it’s not. Everyone knows Nash’s Suns have never been to the big dance. It is, however, not as widely noted that Nash is the only NBA MVP (two time, at that) in the history of the award who has not reached the Finals.

Of course, the 2007 Finals will always be mourned as the Suns’ best chance, denied by a Robert Horry hip check (or Amare Stoudemire’s disregard for league rules, whichever you prefer). But that matter remains up for debate, as the series was lost in six games, not five.

For good measure, it’s also important to note that the list of two-time MVPs without a ring is even more exclusive (Nash, Malone, James). Of all nine other multiple MVP award winners, seven have more than one championship.

So why bring this up now? Why point out Nash’s greatest failure (and there aren’t many) as an athlete thus far?

This is not presented to devalue Nash’s career or his place as one of the all-time great point guards. It’s not presented to demean him as less than other MVPs (I know there are detractors who still protest Nash’s MVPs). It is presented to ask a simple question:

Steve Nash is in rare company with two MVP awards but no titles. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Is Steve Nash really OK with leading a rebuilding team in Phoenix?

(Disclaimer: this is not another “let’s stir up some Steve Nash rumors traffic” kind of piece. I will offer no rumors of talks or impending deals.)

Throughout the nagging Nash trade speculation that started quietly before this season even began, it has been noted that Nash is a class act (he is) who would never ask for a trade publicly (he won’t) and would only get traded if he asked for it (he might, at some point).

Whenever Nash is asked by another reporter looking for a sound bite his latest thoughts on leaving Phoenix, he mostly offers the same answer.

Part I (via ESPN): “Maybe I’m old school, but I signed a contract to play here and I want to honor it. I feel like I owe it to my teammates and the city and everybody to keep battling until they tell me it’s time to go.”

Part II: “I really don’t hear it until I come down here and you guys ask me about it. I think it’s all speculation from people that just need something to write. At this stage of my career, it really doesn’t bother me at all.”

Nash, who is under contract through next season, has also gone on record stating that he is willing to remain in Phoenix, even on a blown-up rebuilder. As we’ve established, Nash is a classy guy and would never say, “No, I don’t want to play for the Suns if they are rebuilding.”

Only Nash knows if he is truly OK with playing for a non-contending fixer upper, and maybe it’s a little unfair to speculate to the opposite of what he’s said, but it’s simply hard to believe that a 37-year-old still playing like an All-Star (but not getting selected as one, oddly) doesn’t want a shot at a ring as soon as possible.

The fact is, time is running out for Nash. Barkley, Malone and Iverson (assuming he doesn’t make some sort of sad comeback) are all out of luck. James has plenty of time, Nowitzki has less, and Nash has the least. He’s also got the worst chance with his current team.

Maybe the Suns will make another surprise run this season, but with the Spurs, Mavericks and Lakers to beat, an NBA Finals appearance simply seems unlikely.

I’m sure that it would be Nash’s dream come true to win an NBA championship in purple and orange, finishing what he started in the Valley. I’m also sure that Nash would rather not go the Gary Payton route and win a title on someone else’s coattails. It’s fair to assume that Nash would like to win a title as a key piece.

Whether or not there are options for Nash this season or next to play with a team in serious contention is the next hurdle. Of the teams known to have inquired about Nash, only the Mavericks and Magic (less so) appear capable of a title run.

It seems pretty unlikely that Nash is moving this season, but as reported, he might be shopped this offseason. The next issue becomes finding a fair trade with a good team. The Suns respect Nash too much to deal him somewhere like Cleveland or Minnesota.

So in the end, Nash may end up leaving Phoenix as a free agent at age 38 to pursue a championship somewhere else. Will it be too late at that point? Will contenders look elsewhere for that final piece to their title hopeful?

These are not questions that can be answered now, and maybe none of the questions I’ve asked can be.

There is one question, however, I feel I can fairly answer today the same as I would have last season and next: Would Nash trade his two MVP awards for an NBA championship?

I believe he would. Without thinking. The guy is such a competitor that he might trade them just for a shot at a ring.  But MVP awards are non-transferrable, so it doesn’t matter beyond the suggestion that Nash likely wants a ring more than anything.

Given that, it may be best for Nash’s legacy that he make his way out of Phoenix sooner rather than later. Such an exit, of course, would come in the classiest possible way and virtually no one would blame Nash for it. It also wouldn’t taint his career the way Malone did when he joined the Lakers. Nash has played in more than one place.

But maybe Nash doesn’t care about his legacy. Maybe he is content to be the only MVP in league history to never advance beyond the Conference Finals. Some would argue that Nash only cares about having fun and playing with a team he likes.

If such is the case, more power to Nash. Some might even commend Nash for simply enjoying the fact that he gets to play basketball for a living. But I can’t believe that a competitor of Nash’s degree is satisfied with never playing in the final series of the NBA season.

As hard as it may be to hear, that is probably not happening this season or next.

While fans call for trading Nash out of respect, pundits continue stirring the Nash trade rumor pot and his career inches closer to the end, Nash remains a Phoenix Sun, keeping the team in relative contention and plugging along in pursuit of a basketball player’s greatest achievement.

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