The timing of this unconventional NBA season worked out to give Steve Nash a little punctuation on the first half of his first season as a head coach.
This year’s All-Star Game does fall right at the midpoint of the league’s schedule — the Nets have played 37 of their 72 games — and it’s been slotted in right at the start of month. So Nash is going into the break fresh off of being named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for February, on the same day Brooklyn’s James Harden was recognized as the conference’s Player of the Month.
“I think that represents how many people have an impact on these guys,” said Nash. “Our coaching staff is outstanding, our performance team does a great job preparing them to play every night and the players, they do the work. Anytime James gets player of the month, we’ve got a chance to be coach of the month. I could thank James and the rest of the players, but really, great coaching staff, great performance team. Everybody plays a part in our success and when you win games you get recognized, but it’s a big, big group that deserves the credit.”
Nash has the Nets in second place in the Eastern Conference with a 24-13 record, a half-game behind the Philadelphia 76ers. They’re even with the Los Angeles Lakers for the fourth-best record in the league, and they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, including a franchise-record seven straight on the road. These Nets have also been at their best against the best, with a 13-4 record against teams currently in playoff position, including an 8-1 mark against teams in the top four in each conference.
They haven’t gotten there in a straight line. The Nets lost Spencer Dinwiddie to an ACL tear in the third game of the season. Kevin Durant has missed 18 games, nearly half of Brooklyn’s schedule. Kyrie Irving was away from the team for two weeks. The big trade for James Harden reshaped the roster and the Nets are still shuffling there; 23 players have appeared in a game for Brooklyn this season and the Nets have used 20 different starting lineups. As the Nets navigated all that, there was some inconsistency that led to losses against teams sitting in the bottom half of the standings, but they seem to have left that behind over the past month.
“I think adversity builds resolve and toughness and a cohesion,” said Nash. “I think it's hard to say when you've had the requisite adversity. But I think we've had plenty of stuff thrown at us. We've had some bad losses, we've had some poor performances, we've had a waterlogged schedule, we had lots of change in our roster. So lots of different things have been thrown at us, and to see us rounding into some sort of cohesion has been really rewarding. You want to walk that fine line between getting punched in the gut repeatedly and winning games. And it's at the same time still building, moving forward and gaining that resolve when one for when it counts.”
Nash’s hire in September took the NBA by surprise. The path for former players into a head coaching role without previous coaching experience is uncommon, but far from unprecedented. In Nash’s case, he brought the credibility of an 18-year, Hall of Fame career that included two MVP awards.
“Steve is obviously extremely competitive,” said Joe Harris. “But I think he’s just one of these guys, where he really has his emotions in check. He's not ever too high or too low. It's very even-keel most the time, even when stuff is difficult. But I think for us, it's sort of nice to know that that's like the constant; it doesn't waver a ton, regardless of what's going on. It's always optimistic and positive. Yeah, in terms of showing the fiery side, there are definitely maybe moments here and there, whether it's halftime, after a game, whatever it is. But a majority of the time, it's just sort of the consistency that he's shown from the beginning of the season, to now.”
DeAndre Jordan described Nash as a “great player’s coach,” who has the right instincts to read what the team needs, giving them room at the start to sort things out before stepping in.
“I think that comes naturally. Coming from a place where I was a player, I wanted to encourage these guys to problem solve, to communicate,” said Nash. “That’s growth to me. If you can problem solve, critical think, communicate on the fly, you’re building something that can be very helpful down the road. As a former player, I think it was really important to me to allow them their voice, allow them to connect, allow them to hold each other accountable, because it’s not just about the problem solving, it’s also about growing together and forming deeper bonds. And sure, sometimes that can go the other way, where players can get pulled apart, but I think we have a strong enough group and culture and environment where we won’t allow it to go too far. We’ll allow it as much as we possibly can because I think it’s really healthy and good for our team, but at the same time we want to protect them if it’s overkill.”
From the beginning, Nash acknowledged a learning curve. He’s said his been influenced by all the coaches he played for, and brought in his former Phoenix coach, Mike D’Antoni, as an assistant after D’Antoni had been in head coach in Houston for the last four seasons.
“It's been great. I've really enjoyed it,” said Nash. “It's much different leading a team from the sideline then leading a team on the floor. There's a really firm line between that that sometimes I think as a former player you forget; ‘Oh yeah, coach isn't in the locker room all the time.’ All those things. So there is an adaptation to how different the role is and all that it encompasses. Only a small part of it is coaching at the end of the day. But it's been a thrill and I got a great staff, great organization, all our departments are incredible. Great people to work with so I've had a ton of support and have felt really at home and feel like I'm learning and growing and it's been a great experience so far.”