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Steve Nash faces new challenge with Nets

Hall of Fame guard begins coaching career with roster featuring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Finally, we soon may have an answer to that oft-asked sports question: Whose NBA career would you rather have, Steve Nash’s or Steve Kerr’s?

If things go the way the Brooklyn Nets hope, the better answer over time will be: Nash’s.

But the Nets and their newly named coach have a long, long way to go. So in the meantime, sports fans will continue to hash out that debate over chicken wings or craft brews. Unless someone cops out by saying “either” or “both.”

The point of the question always has been to flush out a person’s sports values. Many would choose Nash’s fantastic individual career, with his undersized overachievement, his jaw-dropping style of play, those back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Awards in 2005 and 2006 and his enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame the instant he became eligible.

An eight-time All-Star playing for Dallas and Phoenix, Nash, 46, boosted the NBA’s profile in Canada, where he grew up, back when the Toronto Raptors still were learning to dribble and chew gum. Oh, and there’s the $147 million he earned in his playing days.

In spite of all that, some would choose Kerr and would have done so even before he became the coach who led the Golden State Warriors to five consecutive Finals and three championships from 2015 through 2019.

Kerr’s career as a player is the crux of the question: individual acclaim vs. team success. Life spent almost entirely as a bench guy (only 30 starts in 910 games) with meager stats (6.0 points, 1.8 assists per game) that pale next to Nash’s. He showed up four times to hoist 3-pointers on All-Star Saturday but never on Sunday. Career earnings? Approximately $16 million as a player, about 11% of Nash’s fortune.

But five trips to The Finals with the Bulls and the Spurs and five rings, to Nash’s none and none, clinches it for the Kerr crowd.

What the Nets are hoping is that Nash, with no prior coaching experience, can transfer the All-Star and MVP specialness he had as one of the league’s greatest point guards to their roster mix of exciting young players, some helpful veterans and a pair of future Hall of Famers in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Brooklyn, based on its injuries and an in-season coaching change (from Kenny Atkinson to interim Jacque Vaughn in March), overachieved in its own way in 2019-20, finishing 35-37 and winning five of its first seven in the Disney restart bubble to nail down the East’s No. 7 seed. Getting swept from the first round by Toronto simply got the Nets started sooner on their reset for next season, whenever it comes. That surprised no one.

The Nash hiring, on the other hand, surprised most of the NBA. His name had not come out publicly as a candidate in general manager Sean Marks’s coaching search. And Nash since his retirement as a player in 2014 had brushed aside queries about his coaching interest, talking about family time while throwing himself into soccer, broadcasting and film production pursuits.

His selection – without previous professional coaching experience – immediately sparked criticism Thursday, as did Nash’s race. Currently five of the 26 filled NBA coaching jobs are held by African Americans. Four openings remain: Chicago, Indiana, New Orleans and Philadelphia.

Twitter quickly had alternative candidates’ names trending, including former NBA players who also have worked as head or assistant coaches: Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, Tyronn Lue, Sam Cassell, Adrian Griffin, Darvin Ham and others.

One thing we do know about the Nets job, though, was that nobody was getting hired without Durant and Irving signing off on the move. Their games are too important to the franchises, their personalities too strong. It helps that Durant has a solid relationship with Nash from the former point guard’s five years as a player development consultant with Golden State.

Irving? Well, he has shown limited appreciation of coaches with lesser resumes than his own. That at least will get put to the test in 2020-21.

While the NBA currently is long on grinders who apprenticed on somebody else’s staff or made their coaching bones in college, it hasn’t been unusual for former players to snag jobs with no legit prior experience. Jackson, Kidd, Doc Rivers and Kerr himself skipped those steps.

If anything, Nash is the beneficiary of “MVP privilege,” a tradition that has seen some of the game’s legends hired to work the sidelines. Eight former NBA MVP winners, including four of the 13 men who won that award multiple times, had served as coaches.

Combined, the results are not pretty: a record of 1,116-1,282 (.465) in regular season games. In the playoffs, 76-66 (.535). The postseason numbers are tilted a little by Bill Russell, whose personal records as a coach were 341-290 (.540) and 34-27 (.557). But to be fair, in his first three seasons he won two NBA championships with the Celtics because he had the great Bill Russell playing for him, too.

Players were allowed to do both back then.

Meanwhile, six more – Bob Cousy (141-207), Wes Unseld (202-345), Wilt Chamberlain (37-47 in the ABA), Willis Reed (82-124), Dave Cowens (161-191) and Magic Johnson (5-11) – did better as elite players than they did instructing others. The trend of great players, mediocre coaches has been demonstrated across sports, too, including the NHL (Wayne Gretzky), the NFL (Bart Starr) and MLB (Ted Williams).

There’s more to it than sprinkling the pixie dust of one’s talents on the people on your roster. Maybe we’ll see some day, maybe we won’t, how it goes for San Antonio legend Tim Duncan, who actually has been logging gym and video time on Gregg Popovich’s staff.

The best of the MVP coaches: Larry Bird, who had 147-67 (.687) and 32-20 (.615) records in three seasons with Indiana, getting that team to the Finals in 2000 before stepping down. Bird had no problem grabbing the attention of the Pacers’ players with his reputation and his insights into the work required for greatness. He also made sure he had strong Xs & Os lieutenants in Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle.

With staff sizes ballooning in the 20 years since Bird last coached, Nash will have no excuse for not surrounding himself with capable, veteran assistants along with recent ex-players to help with relationships and overall buy-in.

He reportedly reached out to former teammate Dirk Nowitzki, but the future Hall of Famer isn’t looking for full-time coaching this soon.

Nash’s time spent running Mike D’Antoni’s ballyhooed “seven seconds or less” attack in Phoenix and immersed in the Warriors’ 3-point driven small ball tactics should serve him well. Better yet, his game was built on guile, vision, anticipation, geometry, conditioning, an awareness of his teammates’ and opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and a relentless competitive streak.

All of those qualities are available to players, Nets or otherwise, who are willing to work hard enough. Brooklyn’s foundation was laid by Kenny Atkinson, by Vaughn (who will remain as the lead assistant), by Marks and by the players who have made it into the past two offseasons. Nash has everything he needs – the demeanor, the knowledge, the feel – to take the Nets a step or three beyond that.

Just so he stays away from any rings throwdown with his star forward or, especially, his point guard.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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