This year's free-agent class is unusual in that perhaps the most interesting player on the market is probably not going to be the one that draws anywhere near the most dollars. Steve Nash is a two-time MVP who once again led the NBA in assists, but he's 38 years old and likely has just three more years to win a title. Clearly that's not going to happen in Phoenix, so while Nash has been admirably loyal to the Suns over the years, chances are he's going to be donning a new uniform in 2012-13.
For any player weighing his options, there are four basic criteria: 1. Chance to win; 2. Money; 3. On-court fit; and 4. Off-court fit. For Nash, you would think that the best combination of a Nos. 1 and 2 will carry the day; however you can't discount off-court fit either for a guy that is known as a cosmopolitan kind of dude. Money? Well, Nash has made $119 million in his career in salary, plus endorsements and shoes, etc., so one would think that is a secondary consideration. Some players can blow through huge sums of dough to be sure, but Nash subsists on a diet of that would be the ideal of any book-writing nutritionist. He doesn't strike me as the type to lead an opulent lifestyle.
We can't get inside the head of any player, so when we speculate on where he may be playing next season, we're basing it on what we know about the player, on and off the court, from an observational standpoint. We take that information and imagine how the NBA puzzle is going to re-organize for next season, and see what fits, and what doesn't. In Nash's case, there seem to be a lot of scenarios bandied about that would land him with the recently-eliminated Lakers. Let's take a look at how L.A. fits into Nash's possible pecking order.
Forget about these teams--he ain't going to any of them: Boston Celtics, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards.
These teams are all disqualified from consideration because the either already have an elite--or potentially elite--point guard (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, L.A. Clippers, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Washington), have more pressing needs (Denver, Golden State, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee) or are in a full-out rebuilding mode (Charlotte, Detroit, New Orleans, Sacramento). In most of these cases, it's hard to imagine Nash picking one of these teams even if conditions were different.
Chicago has actually been mentioned as a possible landing spot for Nash, but the Bulls are seriously strapped for financial flexibility. The Bulls will likely have to use their midlevel exception to retain Omer Asik, and beyond that they will be looking to save as many luxury tax dollars as possible. Chicago will make do with C.J. Watson, John Lucas III and/or next season's equivalent of Mike James until Derrick Rose returns to action. Sure, if Rose returns, you could limit his minutes with a guy like Nash, but it's still not going to happen. If Nash is intent to merely chase a ring regardless of role or dollars, than it's possible he could choose to be Tony Parker's backup in San Antonio. He's got too much ball left in him for a role that small.
It's not going to happen, but one can see how it might make sense.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks will likely try to shake things up this offseason in hopes of staving off organizational rigor mortis. While current point guard Jeff Teague is young, talented and already productive, he's got that Devin Harris-like quality of being too much on the side of shot-taking as opposed to shot-creating. If Teague and Josh Smith could be packaged for a wing who can run the floor, than Nash might be a nice on-court fit. Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala comes to mind. So from a fantasy -- as in imagination, not roto -- standpoint, a lineup of Nash, Joe Johnson, Iguodala, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia is interesting. Horford would be a killer pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop partner for Nash, and Johnson once shot 48 percent from 3-point range playing alongside Nash in Phoenix. The problem is, can you really see Nash signing in Atlanta for an exception? Given the other options Nash will have, the off-court fit doesn't work, not for just another experiment in basketball chemistry.
Indiana Pacers: The off-court element stands out as the biggest argument against a Nash acquisition, but it's not the craziest idea in the world. The Pacers' payroll will jump next season after Roy Hibbert hits the free-agent market, but Larry Bird (or his replacement, should Larry Legend retire) can still offer Nash more than a midlevel exception if he decides to let George Hill walk. Pure playmaking is the Pacers' biggest deficiency and there aren't many shortcomings on Indiana's roster. Bird showed a willingness to be bold by acquiring David West in December and perhaps he could do a similar sales job on Nash. If the Pacers don't win this year's title, by the time everything is said and done, a player like Nash might look like the missing piece.
Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers haven't had a pure point guard since Andre Miller left as a free-agent and Philadelphia is a good-sized market for Nash. It's not far from his offseason home in Manhattan, either. The Sixers are a deep, well-coached bunch who still have designs on this year's Eastern Conference title. Plus, if Philly decides to amnesty Elton Brand, they'll have some of money to spend, though much of that could be eaten up by retaining restricted free-agent center Spencer Hawes. There are probably too many moving parts here for Nash's taste, but Philadelphia has a young, energetic owner in Josh Harris who would love to make a splash.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns rise from one-star status based on Nash's history with the franchise, but it's difficult to imagine him staying put based purely on money and sentiment. He's stated for such a thing to happen, the Suns would need to upgrade their roster. While the Suns have some potential cap space, this isn't an attractive locale right now for free agents and it's not an impact class anyway. Phoenix doesn't have the assets for a game-changing trade, either. For the sake of everyone, it looks like time for Nash to turn the page on the Suns.
Utah Jazz: The Jazz could use an upgrade at point guard and could swing a sign-and-trade with the Suns involving Harris. Just don't see it happening though, as Utah's strength is its youth and flexibility. Utah doesn't have a lot of shooters to surround Nash with and the off-court fit is poor. Nash has been known to appreciate a good beer now and again in the relaxing atmosphere of a fine pub, the kind of which are hard to find in Salt Lake City. (I have a certain amount of experience with this dilemma.) I'm not saying Nash won't sign with the Jazz because of beer, but I can't see him in Utah, either.
It's not hard to craft a scenario where this would work.
Los Angeles Lakers: For the first time in his career, Kobe Bryant was asked to play alongside a prototypical point guard in a non-Triangle offense, unless you want to count Nick Van Exel back in the 1990s. While Ramon Sessions played really well alongside Bryant after coming over from Cleveland during the regular season, he wilted in the playoffs. This promises to be a tumultuous offseason for the Lakers, who may be in on the Howard sweepstakes, in which case they may be looking to give up Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. While Nash and Howard would be dynamic together, how does Bryant fit into that scenario? Is he really going to go from using 35 percent of his team's possessions to relinquishing control to Nash?
Perhaps ... if Mike D'Antoni were suddenly to enter the equation. You can imagine a season or three of Nash, Howard and Bryant in D'Antoni's free-wheeling offense, featuring the most dangerous pick-and-roll option in the game and the ultimate bail-out player in Bryant. You'd still have Metta World Peace around for spot-up shooting and defense, and this combination might entice a high-quality veteran to come along for the ride and a mini-midlevel exception. How about Malibu resident Kevin Garnett? Did I just blow your mind? Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of dominoes that would have to fall for this scenario to become reality.
Brooklyn Nets: If the Knicks decide to cast their lot with Jeremy Lin, the Nets lose Deron Williams and Nash really wants to play in the New York metro area, then the Nets are a good fit. If Nash really wants a legit shot a ring next season, then the Nets don't make much sense.
Orlando Magic: Orlando has no coach, general manager or financial flexibility, and has a franchise player reportedly fleeing for the nearest exit. So it's probably not a good fit for Nash. However, if D'Antoni pops up as a coaching and/or GM candidate then maybe--probably not, but maybe--Howard can be convinced to stick around. That dream Nash-Howard pick-and-roll would be augmented by the arsenal of shooters the Magic still have on hand. Remember how good Boris Diaw was playing with Nash? What do you think Nash could do with Ryan Anderson? The Magic is an intriguing possibility based strictly on potential on-court fit.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers have a chance to be major players in the offseason, with an exceptional core player in LaMarcus Aldridge, a solid running mate in restricted free agent Nicolas Batum and plenty of financial flexibility. What the Blazers don't have is a permanent general manager, nor much certainty about who they could surround a core of Aldridge, Batum and Nash with. Portland could possibly win Nash over on dollars and cultural fit. Rip City is definitely Nash's kind of town.
Toronto Raptors: Even though it would be great to see Nash play in his native country, the Raptors are so far away from winning that you can't imagine it would happen. However, Nash was recently named the general manager of Canada's national team. It's an appropriate choice. If that nation's best-ever hoopster really wants to transition into a post-playing career as the face Canadian basketball, then maybe the Raptors make sense. But you know what? He can go chase rings for a couple of years and still tack on a season with the Raptors down the line. Now is not the time.
Clearly worth a shot.
Dallas Mavericks: Everyone expects the Mavericks to go hard after hometown hero Deron Williams this summer. Williams could surprise everyone, but it seems likely he'll end up in Dallas or will remain with the Nets for their rebirth in Brooklyn. If it's the Nets, then the Mavericks are going to have money to spend on Nash, who is still tight with Dirk Nowitzki. Also, Nash's old running mate in Phoenix, Shawn Marion, is with the Mavericks. And then there's the wild card that will dictate much of this summer's high-level player moving: Dwight Howard forcing a trade from Orlando. What if the dust settles and the Mavericks wind up with Howard and Nowiztki? Well, in that case, they probably couldn't afford Williams, so Nash would become the third part of a new Big Three. And a scary trio it would be.
New York Knicks: Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald has limited options in terms of improving his roster this offseason unless he's able to elbow his way in on Howard by offering up Tyson Chandler. (Or he could trade Carmelo Anthony, but we won't go there today.) Barring a major shake-up such as that, his offseason really boils down to this: Jeremy Lin or Steve Nash? A point guard is going to land the Knicks' MLE, and these are the two obvious choices. With Lin, there is more room for grwoth. However, Nash might be the better short-term fit. Let's not forget that much of Lin's rise to prominence was fueled by creating his own shot -- he had a usage rate of 28 percent. Nash fits as a decision maker who can also knock down a high percentage off the ball. And of course there is the fact that he lives in Manhattan. The question Nash has to answer is whether playing alongside Anthony, Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire means a real shot at a ring.
Marriage made in NBA heaven.
Miami Heat: Imagine the possibilities: Nash to Chris Bosh in the pick-and-pop. Nash to Dwyane Wade, or LeBron James, on the break. Nash as an off-the-ball option to spread the floor when Wade and James go to work in isolation. Nash breaking down the defense on close-outs and feeding a world class athlete coming along the baseline from one corner or the other. Nash could make a healthy Miami roster nearly unstoppable on offense, even given the lack of a knock-down 3-point shooter. This is his best chance to chase a ring, and catch it.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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