Originally posted on Chasing 23  |  Last updated 3/5/12

I’m going to do something in this post that will undoubtedly cause many of you to flood the Comments section calling me crazy, idiotic or worse. Actually, it’s three things: (1) I’m going to criticize Steve Nash, (2) I’m going to criticize him for being loyal to his team, and (3) I’m going to call out some of you fans as suckers for your loyalty.

Just hear me out first.

LeBron James was ripped for lack of loyalty, among other things, upon departing Cleveland in 2010. The same for Kobe Bryant when he demanded a trade from the Lakers in 2007, Carmelo Anthony when he forced a trade out of Denver last year, and Dwight Howard for requesting a trade out of Orlando this year. But Nash offers a telling counter-example, showing that loyalty can be detrimental and can make no sense. The thing to keep in mind with Nash is that he has let himself be used by an owner who isn’t committed to winning and by a front office that has been incompetent at best. In so doing, he has found himself toiling for a team which isn’t close to being a contender and doesn’t figure to become one anytime soon. In my view, no amount of loyalty is worth that, esp. considering how short NBA careers are and how fleeting opportunities for contention can be. It didn’t have to be this way. By the summer of 2009 two things had become manifestly clear:

1. Owner Robert Sarver was only interested in saving money, as evidenced by (a) trading multiple draft picks, including the rights to Rajon Rondo in ’06 and Rudy Fernandez in ’07, for nothing but cash,[1] (b) trading a young-and-emerging Joe Johnson in ’05 for what turned out to be Boris Diaw and Robin Lopez because they didn’t want to re-sign Johnson at the going rate and (c) trading Kurt Thomas AND a pair of first-round draft picks in ’07 for a second-round pick just to get his salary off the Suns’ books.

2.  The Suns’ front office was inept and/or complicit in ownership’s stinginess, as evidenced by (a) the failure to insist that the Hawks drop top-3 lottery protection for their ’07 first-round pick as part of the Johnson trade,[2] thus enabling the Hawks to take Al Horford with that year’s #3 pick and (b) the Shaq trade in ’08, which cost the Suns their best defender in Shawn Marion and their up-tempo fluidity.[3]

These moves had the effect of turning the Suns from a dynamic, up-and-coming team which reached back-to-back conference finals in ’05 and ’06 to an old team which missed the playoffs in ’09. The trend line was clearly pointing downward. Nash was a year away from joining the much-ballyhooed free-agent class of 2010; his presence in that class would have been a game-changer for many teams, and would in all likelihood have landed him in a much better situation than the one he was in at the time, or that he is in now. Yet in that same summer of 2009, a year before his contract was due to expire, Nash re-upped with the Suns for two more years.

Why? Before signing, Nash had received explicit assurances that the Suns would do what it took to field a competitive team, and yes, they did come within two wins of the 2010 Finals, losing a hard-fought conference finals to the Lakers in six games. But that was a lightning-in-a-bottle scenario that could not be sustained beyond that season without an upgrade in talent. Instead:

* In the summer of 2010, the Suns let Amare Stoudemire walk, offering him only a three-year deal because they were worried about his knees. Uh, excuse me? His knees had been an issue ever since he underwent microfracture surgery FIVE YEARS earlier. The Suns had to have known that in that superheated off-season, some other team (the Knicks, as it were) would trump their offer, which tells me that they were NEVER serious about re-signing him. In that case, why didn’t they trade him before then and get some value back for him?

* To fill the void left by Stoudemire’s departure, the Suns signed Hakim Warrick, Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu to long-term deals, which tied up their cap flexibility and left them with little to no room to improve.

* Early in the 2010-11 season, the Suns sent Turkoglu and Jason Richardson (who, along with Nash and Stoudemire, were the key contributors to their playoff run the season before) to Orlando for Vince Carter’s expiring contract and Marcin Gortat (and I put them in that order because, while Gortat has been solid for the Suns, I’m convinced that their main motive was to salary-cap relief).

Did the Suns flat-out lie to Nash in order to induce his contract extension, or were they just being incompetent? Whatever it was, the results have been predictable; the Suns missed the playoffs last season and are likely to do so this season. Yet through it all, Nash has said nothing. He did not demand or request a trade after ownership and management dismantled contending squads not once but twice in the name of saving money; in fact, he signed an extension even when it was, or at least should have been, clear that ownership and management lacked the motivation and smarts to win.

Many, perhaps most, fans applaud Nash as a rare and refreshing example of loyalty, but I don’t. Rather, his seeming willingness to abide the deterioration of the team around him makes me wonder if he really wants to win, or if he’s too comfortable in his current environment to want something better. I’ll go a step further: whether intending to or not, Nash has enabled the deterioration of the team around him, as ownership and the front office surely came to the conclusion some time ago that they could act (or not act) with impunity because Nash wouldn’t rebel or leave no matter how bad things got.[4] (This is where my observation that “some of you fans are suckers for your loyalty” comes in. Any fan who continues to buy tickets, pay for arena parking and concessions and/or buys the merchandise of a team whose commitment and/or competence is lacking is an enabler of that team’s continued struggles. That means you, Suns fans, and you, Clippers fans (before they lucked out big-time with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul). Looking at other sports, that means you, Cubs fans, Bills fans and Maple Leafs fans, among others.)

 Fortunately, Nash is approaching one final chance to change course.  His contract expires this summer; it is a virtual certainty that he will not be traded by next month’s deadline, and it would not surprise me at all if he were to re-up with the Suns yet again.  But I hope that this time, he will choose to go to a team that actually wants to win, that has the financial commitment to field a winning team and the front-office smarts to do so as well.  I hope that this time, Nash will choose to be loyal to the one person to whom he will have to answer as far as whether he truly did everything that he could to win – himself.

[1] Yes, I know that Rondo and Fernandez are both point guards, and that neither of them would have cracked the starting line-up anytime soon.  But the Suns could have kept one of them and groomed him to be Nash’s successor while trading the other to fill other roster needs, or they could have traded both of them to fill other roster needs.  Instead, they traded both of them for cash.

[2] Was this an inadvertent error on the Suns’ part, or a deliberate decision in order to save money at all costs? Either way, it doesn’t speak well to them.

[3] No one is a bigger Shaq defender than I am; I was definitely on Shaq’s side in the Shaq-Kobe Civil War era of recent Lakers’ history.  That being said, it’s beyond dispute that he was a poor fit for their up-tempo style, and the loss of Marion from an already defensively suspect lineup was too high a price to pay.  It’s also quite likely that the trade for Shaq was motivated by financial considerations; his salary for the remainder of the ’07-’08 season and the entire ’08-’09 season was less than the combined salaries of Marion and Marcus Banks, the other player in the trade, and in the summer of ’09 he was traded to Cleveland for Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, saving the Suns $10 million.  The fact that the Suns immediately waived both players suggests that their sole motive throughout their history with Shaq was to save money.

[4] As I mentioned, Kobe was ripped for his trade demands in ’07.  But without them, would the Lakers have made the trade for Pau Gasol in February ’08?  That is uncertain.  What is certain is that without that trade, the Lakers would not have made three straight Finals and won the title twice.

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