Steve Nash knows what folks are saying — both the obvious (he has never coached in any capacity before) and the more serious (his hiring by the Nets brought claims of white privilege to the surface, levied at the man who hired him, Sean Marks).
He probably also knows that Nets fans who might already be skeptical of his hiring as head coach might today also be feeling a little buyer’s remorse now that Billy Donovan, a deserving finalist for NBA Coach of the Year this year, has parted ways with Oklahoma City. And Donovan, as it happens, grew up in Rockville Centre, a mere 18 miles away from Barclays Center as the crow flies.
All of that is fair. All of that is fine. He runs away from none of it.
“I did skip the line, frankly,” he said during a Zoom press conference alongside Marks, the two men alone with a camera lens inside the HSS Training Center in Industry City.
Said Marks: “When we have talked, Steve always wondered, ‘What does life after basketball look like?’ It came very naturally this summer.”
The 8,000-pound pink elephant in the room, of course, is actually a soon-to-be-32-year-old 6-foot-10 franchise cornerstone named Kevin Durant. From the moment the hire was made, the most obvious way it made sense for a win-now team with a limited championship window to hire a coaching neophyte was because said neophyte was friends with Durant.
And Nash was smart enough not to downplay that friendship.
“Kevin and I have a relationship going back to when I was a player,” Nash said. “We’re friends but I didn’t talk specifically to him about this when I decided to throw my hat into the ring.”
What Nash — and Marks — choose to emphasize is subtler than that — and, if this all works out, what will actually allow it to succeed. For there truly is something to be said about hiring someone who is among the very best to play the sport, and to have played a position — point guard — that is a natural coach on the floor.
And even Nash’s harshest skeptics have to concede that, when they watched Nash do what he did in his prime, for both the Mavericks and the Suns, he was every bit that coach-on-the-floor he was describing himself as. And it wasn’t just the way he would forever encourage Dirk Nowitzki or Amar’e Stoudemire, an arm around their shoulders an encouraging word in their ears.
The way he played was done in the language of coaching, the understanding of the whole floor, the engagement of the whole team, the instincts that allow the very best of the breed to know exactly when to pass, whom to pass to, when to shoot, when to drive, when to take a chance, when to pull it out, when to take over and when to delegate.
Do yourself a favor: Google “Steve Nash” and “basketball” and “genius.”
You’ll get over 585,000 hits. Watching him play inspired hyperbole even in normally even-keel observers. Why is it so difficult to believe the description won’t translate from one job to another?
(And, yes: being pals with the best player doesn’t hurt, either.)
But as much of an advantage as Durant may have given Nash over other potential members of the field, it was Marks’ belief that Nash the coach could be just as accomplished as Nash the player that led him to do this. Remember: it isn’t like Marks has nothing on the line here. He has already sacrificed one coach, Kenny Atkinson, at the altar of player preference. He has exactly one playoff-game victory to show for his tenure here.
He has done what was necessary to clear out the graveyard and to set the Nets up. But getting this one wrong, at this tipping-point moment in franchise history, would doom whatever his legacy is going to be.
“I don’t envision myself as a yeller and a screamer,” Nash said, which is the only answer for an NBA coach in 2020 even if that wasn’t his nature to begin with. “If I’m anything other than myself, it’s not going to work. I can’t conform to what I think a coach is going to be. We need to come together and build chemistry.”
Sounds like a job a Hall of Fame point guard might be able to tackle, actually. Good thing Marks happened to know the number of one, one of the very best ever.