Former NBA players, if they were any good at all during their careers, tend to make terrible NBA coaches.
When you look at guys like Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins, and Nate McMillan, you see guys whose understanding of basketball strategy is rooted in the time when they played the game and tends to lag behind more innovative coaches who come from the college ranks or from the ranks of guys who may have played but never played particularly well (look up Pat Riley or Mike D’Antoni on Basketball Reference for an example of the latter.)
Which is what makes the hiring of Steve Nash in Brooklyn so interesting. The Nets have hired a guy for whom “former player who coaches in the style he learned during his career on the court” is rooted not in outdated notions of the right way to play the game but in terms of the greatest offenses relative to league average in NBA history.
Erik Spoelstra didn’t coin the term “pace and space” until 2013, but the principles that would lead to it started with D’Antoni in Phoenix in the mid- to late aughts, the offense, with Nash at the helm from the point guard position, that brought the NBA out of the Dark Ages and, but for some horrifying officiating and unfortunate injuries, might have won a title.
Oddly enough, the 2007 Suns were not tops in the league in D’Antoni Index; that was the Golden State Warriors, the team that upset Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs, in part because those Suns teams were terrible about getting to the free throw line (dead last in FTR that year), an attribute that would not become part of D’Antoni’s bag of tricks until his last year with the Knicks and would be refined into an art form first with the Lakers and later with the Rockets into the style we know and love today.
But now we have a rough idea of what “coaches like he played” is going to mean for Nash, and it leaves us with the question of “is Nash going to learn the right lessons and combine them with evolution of the game since he retired” or “will he take the wrong attributes away and find a special form of awful for the Nets’ offense?”
The Best-Case Scenario
Nash was on that 2013 Lakers team that was tops in FTR, third in the league in 3PAR (Kobe Bryant had a career-high 5.2 3PA per game that season), albeit 20th in the league in shots between 0-3 feet.
Meanwhile, also in 2013, newly-acquired force James Harden combined with the desire to innovate of Daryl Morey to post the league’s second-highest 3PAR, fifth-highest FTR, and third-highest percentage of shots at the rim in Houston, just for a bit of historical perspective in regard to D’Antoni’s later role coaching the team. That’s a story for another day but it bears mention.
The upshot of all this is that Nash was around long enough as a player to not only see the direction the league was going, but get actual game time in a system that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in 2020 and which can be easily adjusted for the near future—the Lakers had the fourth-fewest long twos beyond 16 feet as a percentage of total shots in the league that year, so Nash understands from a player’s perspective ball spacing as we understand the term today.
Indeed, Nash’s best-case scenario as a coach is probably Steve Kerr, a guy who as a player made his name as a spot-up three-point shooter in an era when that role was just beginning to be codified (and retiring as the all-time leader in shooting percentage beyond the arc) and who as an executive was involved with those mid-aughts Suns teams to fill in the gap in the knowledge between Kerr the player and Kerr the coach in Golden State—of course, Kerr has Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at his disposal, but so did Mark Jackson and that never ended well.
If Nash can bring the perspective he had as a player and refined in two playing stints with D’Antoni as his coach to Brooklyn, tweak the playbook to get the last vestiges of the Dark Ages out of it, and effectively coach the Nets’ players into bullying their way to the line, Brooklyn is in an ideal position to capitalize on continuity in terms of modern, efficient NBA offense (Kenny Atkinson consistently ranked near the top of the league in D’Antoni Index during his years in Brooklyn, one reason Pacers fans should be salivating at the prospect of hiring him.)
Of course, if he can also cure Jarrett Allen‘s case of the yips at the free throw line (Allen shot 77.6 percent from the stripe as a rookie but dropped all the way to 63.3 percent in 2020), so much the better.
The Worst-Case Scenario
Most of his assists came as a result of running traditional NBA sets common in the ’90s and the aughts whereupon the point guard was the primary ball handler throughout the possession, teammates moving off the ball in order to get open.
A pass-first point guard used to be considered an asset, but these days, the Jeff Van Gundy-coined term “selfish assist” is more in line with what you expect from a player who needs the ball in his hands to create for his teammates.
Bringing up Golden State again, this is the biggest contrast in terms of what kind of players they were between Kerr and Jackson. Jackson has just one fewer career assist (10,334) than Nash retired with. He couldn’t understand the concepts required to create an offense where the power forward leads the team in assists, the way Draymond Green did for four straight years between 2016 and 2019 once Kerr coached the last vestiges out of Steph of Jackson’s pigheaded attempts into turning Curry into a traditional point guard the way Jackson was as a player.
Will Nash fall into that same trap?
After all, the Nets don’t have good passing frontcourt players the way Golden State did. Kevin Durant might change that if he ever gets healthy, but throughout his career, point guard Kyrie Irving has played in offenses where he hasn’t had to be the primary generator of assists. He’s averaging just 5.7 a game for his career, and his career-high came in 2019 in Boston on a Celtics team where sure, Al Horford dished 4.2 dimes per contest and Marcus Smart often set up his teammates with 4.0 assists per game, but Horford and Smart aren’t Durant and Green.
Irving’s bread and butter years in Cleveland came on teams where the primary creator was LeBron. And Caris LeVert (at 4.4 APG) is the closest thing Brooklyn has to a passer in the frontcourt. LeVert plays significant minutes at shooting guard, far from the passing 4 that Green is.
The temptation will be there for Nash to run the offense through Irving, and as Kyrie’s first four pre-LeBron years in Cleveland proved, that’s the worst possible way you can use him. Irving is far better at moving off the ball and putting himself in position for give-and-go plays where the halfcourt ball handler isn’t him.
Again, Durant could change all of that, but we run the risk of Nash coaching the way Jackson did in Oakland, a dangerous prospect for Brooklyn and absolutely the worst-case scenario for the Nets’ chances of building a winner.
So What Have We Learned?
What have we learned? Who knows! We’ll have to see the actual games play out on the basketball court.
But it’s worth noting that some of the worst coaches who were former players were point guards when they patrolled the floor. Just look at McMillan, Jackson, Isiah Thomas, Jason Kidd…it will be interesting to see if Nash breaks the curse that seems to be laid on old ball handlers coaching modern offenses.