After six successful seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, in 2004 Steve Nash left for the Phoenix Suns. His tenure in Dallas included two All-Star Game appearances and being named to the All-NBA team twice. The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals in 2003 with Nash leading their offense.
Mark Cuban declined to offer Nash a new contract due to concerns about his health going into his thirties. “I’m really sad to leave my teammates, but I’m glad to be going somewhere where they really wanted me,” Nash said at the time. Nash went on to win consecutive MVPs with the Suns.
Things worked out for the Mavericks. They went to the Finals in 2006, and won a championship in 2011. But we all still wonder—what if Nash never left Dallas?
There are easy things to say. Nash probably never wins an MVP award if he stays in Dallas. Despite his incredible skill, there’s no way he would have the usage to put the kind of numbers needed to win MVP. The Mavericks’ offense would always revolve around Dirk Nowitzki, no matter how much Nash improved. With his size and skill, Nowitzki was the most elite player.
“Sometimes you think Nash, the player he developed, turned into in Phoenix was unbelievable. I think the athletes he had around him, we didn’t have here. He was a two-time MVP. That system and what they had around him was absolutely perfect…” Nowitzki said years later.
The Mavericks might not have won a championship, either. Through Nash’s six years in Dallas, the Mavericks only made it to the third round of the playoffs once. Dallas would find success in later years by surrounding Nowitzki with four other players who could defend at a high level. Defense was never Nash or Nowitzki’s strength.
As the playoffs progress, teams become more adept at attacking weaknesses on the defensive end. You can get away with one average defender, especially if they have size. But if two of the five players on the floor can be exposed on defense, the offense has too many options. And despite their ability to score, Nash and Nowitzki made it hard for the Mavericks to get consistent stops on defense against the elite teams in the late rounds of the playoffs.
Maybe the Mavericks end up like the Utah Jazz of late, flaming out again and again in the playoffs while holding onto the dream that continuity would give them an advantage. But we would get a lot of fun stories of Nowitzki and Nash on the court together, as well as out on the town. That is, until Nash was traded because it just wasn’t working out.
That’s the thing, when we imagine these “what if” scenarios, we tend to bend toward the positive. It not only works out for everyone, it works out in almost fairytale fashion. Nash and Nowitzki don’t just win one championship together, they win three. Nash retires and takes over as coach, and they win another couple. And so on.
What if Nash stayed, and things worked out with your college girlfriend, and your best friend never moved away, and you took that job with the startup that took off. The thing is, it almost never works out like you think it will. The fact that the Mavericks got their fairytale ending in 2011 is amazing in itself. It’s a rare thing in sports.
Nash would have continued to put up numbers in Dallas. He and Nowitzki would have won a lot of games together. And maybe one year, things would have broken right for them. The two of them would have held the Larry O’Brien trophy together, smiling, beaming with pride over what they’d accomplished. An ending that only Hollywood could write. What if that had happened.