Player Capsules (Plus): The Flickering Candle of Stephen John Nash

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? The thieving tendrils of age, the noble escape thereof, and the elusive arts of Stephen John Nash.

My grandfather came over one day. Early 2000s. Said hello, dropped off some coupons. Shared some deals he’d seen at Walgreens. Small talk. He didn’t come upstairs — he hated climbing the staircase — and I was busy working on a high-school essay, so I simply yelled out my greetings and love from upstairs in my room. He yelled back, we exchanged our regular jokes, and he went his merry way. It was as any other day, and I assigned no added value to it. I had no way of knowing, really.

That week, he fell and broke his hip. Not one week later, he was gone.

There was a lot of confusion, when he passed. Scattered, broken feelings of guilt and depression. Should’ve come down to see him. Should’ve said hi in person. Quite a few tears. It’s true, in retrospect, I had no real way to know that the visit would be the last time I’d have a chance to see him alive — by his request, if I recall, other than my mom and my grandma, nobody visited him in the hospital. He didn’t want his grandchildren to see him enfeebled. I do remember asking my mom if I could go and see him — she said no, and that was the end of it. I figured he’d recover. Broken bones are awful things, but I’d never really had firsthand experience with the torment they exact on the elderly. I just knew that a kid in my cub scout camp had broken his wrist and come back fine not one month later. “Wrists are more complex than hips. Grandpa will be fine. We’ll be okay.”

I was wrong, so very wrong. There was a lesson there, one I will never take lightly. It’s rather simple. Many wonderful things come with age — wisdom, experience, understanding. But age doesn’t bear its gifts unconditionally. It’s tricky. Age steals, too. We lose the wonder at everyday life we exhibit in youth. We lose our thirst for the new and different, replaced with a humdrum acceptance of the rote toil of everyday life. But most importantly, we lose our vitality. Age steals it away, furrowing the remnants into photographs and record tapes. We watch in vain as the strength and vigor of youth fades into a natural fragility and exhaustion of old age. A slow attrition of our former glory. We take our greatest efforts to stop it. We try to counteract the disease with fitness and exercise, wrinkle cream and penny dreadfuls. We pour funds into the illusory concept of perpetual youth. We try to lash the sickness from our bones. But age will always take it back, someday. Virility never lasts forever.

• • •

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

• • •

When I watched Steve Nash play, late last season, I felt that something was a tad bit off. It wasn’t that the general average of Nash’s play was altogether different than it used to be, it was that the distribution of his play had completely changed. Sure, Steve Nash had bad games before the 2012 season — many, in fact. But in earlier seasons, it was a remarkably rare event that Nash would have non-factor games. In 2012, there was a subtle sea-change in the way Nash produced for his team. His PER was roughly in the range it has been for the last 10 years — low 20s, or thereabouts. His per-minute win shares were the second lowest in that time period, but not wholly out of order. Shooting percentages seemed intact, his passing was still brilliant, and he still had those games that made you wonder whether he wasn’t still Chris Paul’s better, even now. He was still Steve Nash, by most appearances.

But in the big picture, something changed. To put it simply — the variance went up. A whole lot. There’s this one metric — it’s called Game Score. It’s very simplistic, essentially just a weighted average of what the box score gives. You can find the equation here. For this exercise, where I’m measuring volatility in his box score performances, that’s pretty much what we need. Over time, a player’s game score is relatively consistent. If you adjust game score by playing time (to ensure the same base minutes), Steve Nash averaged per-36 game scores of 17.1 in 2008, 15.4 in 2009, 17.1 in 2010, 16.2 in 2011, and 14.4 in 2012. All very good totals. A small dip in 2012, even when you adjust for his lesser minutes played, but he was still a quality player. However, we’re measuring volatility — we need the standard deviation. That, in this case, measures the standard “distance” from the mean for a Steve Nash game in a given year. Basically, Steve Nash’s game score would generally stay within one to two standard deviations of the mean. If his standard deviation was 0, that would mean he had the exact same game score for every game. If it was 5, that would mean the vast majority of Nash’s production would be found within 5 to 10 units of his mean value, in both directions. So on and so forth. Here are the standard deviations that go with the aforementioned means. In 2008, Steve Nash registered a standard deviation of 6.9 on his per-36 game score. In 2009, 7.2. In 2010, 6.5. In 2011, 6.8. And 2012?

A standard deviation of 8.84.

This is a pretty big shift — that’s a 4 point boost to the confidence interval, in a metric where individual points really mean something. What this means is that Nash’s production, as he gets older, is beginning to lose consistency. A touch. He isn’t giving you the same box score with the same consistency he would as a younger man — when Nash has an off night, the night is VERY off. When he has an on night? VERY on. In the last 5 years, as measured by game score, Steve Nash’s best two games and worst two games came during the 2012 season. Not kidding. It’s sort of beautiful to consider that he’s having his best games of the last half-decade at the age of 38. But it’s also, given the context he’s about to be thrown into, a somewhat scary proposition. Consider that the Lakers are taking the backup point guard situation he worked with in Phoenix this year and actively worsening it. Sebastien Telfair had a relatively good swan song this last season, and even Shannon Brown is better than the refuse the Lakers have dug up to play point guard behind Nash. If Nash is off, the entire complexion of this Laker team changes. It becomes mortal, if only just.

Now. Let’s dial this back a bit, and note the obvious. When Nash has good games, the Lakers should be quite literally unbeatable. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that. Imagining a fully-functioning Nash-Howard pick and roll with Gasol and Kobe as weakside options is absolutely sublime. The wealth of top-flight talent on this team, combined with a fully-active Nash, could manifest as one of the greatest teams to ever take the court. It could be — and may be — just that simple. If Nash is healthy, his good days will more than make up for his bad days. But that’s the thing. While we can envision this to the high heavens and assert the Lakers to be the new title favorites, that isn’t how age works. Once you get into the weeds of extremely old NBA age — which, make no mistake, is exactly where Nash is headed — you start to get into unprecedented territory. The only really distinctive, all-encompassing fact is that players who stay in the league at Nash’s age tend to see an increased volatility in their contributions. One night they’ll be classic — or even better. A shining example of everything they always were. One night later they’ll have no lift, no instincts, no shot. So on, so forth. Variance inflates, and merely assessing the “average” game becomes more and more misleading.

For the 2012 Lakers to match their potential and become the unbeatable teeth-gnashing beast we’ve imagined, they require much of Steve Nash. At least considering that Artest is virtually gone, Howard’s back is balking, and the Gasol-Bryant dynamo is aging as we look the other way. They don’t simply require some certain set of averages, a dismal checklist of mean production. They require Steve Nash’s guile to remain intact. The creativity to sustain. They require Nash’s candle to flicker at just the right time. There can be no letdown game, no nagging injuries, no disappearing act behind the velour curtain. Part of the great conceit of this roster is the concept that they must be better than the sum of their parts. That Nash’s brilliance will salve the cuts and soothe the wrinkles away. That Pau Gasol, in Nash’s presence, will return to his 2010 form. That Bryant will become more efficient without having to carry such a heavy load. That Howard’s offensive game will emerge from the fire’s of Mordor even better than before, and pole-vault Bynum’s production. On Nash’s good nights, none of this will be a problem. It should be rudimentary, in fact. And on Nash’s bad nights? It could be troubling.

In a lot of ways, the frequency of those bad nights decides the fate of the Lakers’ season.

• • •

The great thing about old age in basketball is that it simply doesn’t have the same implications it does in real life. Players who were basketball-level old in the 70s are still alive today. Steve Nash’s creeping fragility doesn’t mean that Steve Nash the person is on the verge of death, it simply means that he’s losing some of the gifts and glory that make him entertain millions on national television. It’s a pity, but life will go on. For us and for him. And thank God for that. Nash is one of the funniest people in the league. He’ll find ways to keep the ball rolling after he retires from the game. And even if he doesn’t — we’ll always have Paris, Steve. I mean, videotapes. We’ll always have the highlight reels, the commercials, the streams of interviews and grainy rookie grins.

The real key now is whether he can win an NBA title, and find validation for a career that in large part doesn’t need it. At least in my view. Nash brought to the hardwood a tincture of joy to every stride. A grin to every face that ever rooted for him, a better appreciation for the beauty of a wonderful game. Nash made those around him better, and I don’t simply mean the players. His fans were made better for his presence in their lives. His coaches, his handlers, the league as a whole — Nash’s legacy is best measured outside of the stats, in the grins and smiles that spread across faces across the entire nation. The love he gave and the love he took. The unfettered abandon. The speed, the hours in the gym, the incredible holistic work-ethic he applied to all aspects of his game and life. These are the metrics that you must measure to really understand Steve Nash’s mortal legacy as an NBA superstar. But all that said, he’s in Los Angeles now, and he wants to win a title. He’s accomplished everything he could in his youth, become a global phenomenon more than a man.

From a purely basketball perspective, as age saps his abilities and takes away the outlets for his creativity, he’s become evermore mortal — he’s reflecting the fragility of age, the realization that he simply doesn’t have much of a chance left. He can’t spend years frittering away with the Suns anymore — if he does, he’ll be gone before he knows it. He can’t go retire in his home country, adored by the populace, playing for a low-tier Eastern playoff unit. He can’t sip scotch at a villa on a hill with his best friend Dirk, an expanse of promise before them. Those days are gone, replaced with a new age, replete with dreams of a dominance he’s never tasted. A bubbly he’s never supped. A roster that’s on-paper better than any he’s ever played on. Pieces new and foreign, ripe for molding, that in his youth he could have molded into a whirling dervish monster unlike any ever seen by man. He’s older now, and his capabilities lesser. He can’t do that every night. But he can do it some nights, and he can work as hard as he’s ever worked before, and he can try to stave off the clutching tendrils of age a tad bit longer. He can hold it off, if only the Lakers help him. And he shall as captain set the sounding furrows and sail anew, a voyage wrought with peril, in search of one last thrill before age concludes its fateful, dreadful hunt.

One day, age will catch up to him, and complete its petty thievery. But surely, it hasn’t happened yet.

• • •

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

For more Laker capsules, check the Los Angeles Lakers page in the Player Capsule Directory.