Author: Kurt Helin


Why I am going to miss Steve Nash


When it comes down to it, what do we really want from an NBA player?

We want a guy who loves the game like we fans do.

A guy who is passionate, who cares when he’s on the court.

A guy that is entertaining to watch play and enjoys putting on a show.

A guy who is selfless and sets up teammates.

A guy who gets the most out of his natural ability.

That’s Steve Nash.

Which is why there were a lot of people around the league sad when the news broke Thursday Nash was out for the entire 2014-15 season. I was among them. Everyone understands that means his career has ended, even if the retirement is not yet official.

If you’re just a fan of good basketball it was hard to watch Nash struggle with injuries, to watch his body betray him the past couple seasons (when you spoke to him you could see how emotionally draining this was on him), because we remember the joyous player of his time in Phoenix. He was a team-first player, the best passing point guard in the game, who also made himself a very good shooter — he had four seasons where he shot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free throw line. There are only 10 such seasons in the history of the NBA. Again, Nash had four of those.

You could see Nash’s love of soccer (and his hockey upbringing) in how he played the game, holding his dribble and surveying for guys making runs (or as basketball calls it, cuts). He brought creativity to the court at a time the league needed some.

Nash was driven — you don’t get two MVP awards with his physical abilities unless you have put countless hours in to hone your body and mind. He didn’t wear his work ethic on his sleeve like some, but nobody around him questioned that drive. Later in his career he spent more hours in the training room and working in the gym to get his body ready for games than most fans can imagine. Even the past couple years, trying to fight back from injury, to retrain his body, you could see that passion, that work ethic, and that desire to leave the game he loved on his terms.

Sadly, that’s not how this chapter ends.

The book, however, ends with him in the Hall of Fame.

You can argue there were better players the two years he won the MVP, you can point to the fact Nash has no rings, but what he and those Phoenix Suns did (under Mike D’Antoni) changed the NBA. Watch a game now and you see a faster pace than a few years back. You see teams trying to get early offense before the defense gets set, to catch it scrambling and get an easy bucket. You see the Spurs winning a title using that concept and Popovich crediting D’Antoni’s Suns for the idea. But Nash was the maestro of that early offense style, nobody has since run it as fluidly, as beautifully as Nash.

He was a leader in the locker room, but one who did it through positive reinforcement, not in-your-face challenges. Leadership is not one size fits all. Different players, different players respond to different kinds of motivation (Duncan is mostly positive with his teammates and that has worked pretty well in San Antonio). Nash understood nuance, he understood building people up.

Nash was good off the court, with the community, with the fans, and yes with the media. (We all like people who make our jobs easier.) He was honest, and he wanted to be a part of whatever city he was in. He didn’t want to be a basketball-playing tourist.

He was, in the end, everything we want our NBA players to be.

That’s why I’m going to miss getting to watch him play.

J.R. Smith on triangle offense: “Being the type of player I’ve been, it’s a struggle.” Shocking.

J.R. Smith, O.J. Mayo, Jared Dudley

Anyone not see this coming?

J.R. Smith has real strengths as a player — he can get hot from deep, he can attack the basket, and he is one of the best in the game at making contested shots. It’s a skill set that won him Sixth Man of the Year just a couple seasons ago. But he is an unconscious, unrepentant gunner who looks for his shot and has never had much interest in whatever team concept the coach was preaching.

Now in comes Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher and they are putting in the triangle — an offense that asks its players to be aware of the defensive movements and make specific plays based on them, a very team-first system that needs all the players (particularly the role players) on the same page to get the proper floor spacing.

Smith admits he is struggling with that. Shocking. Here is what he told Ohm Youngmisuk of

“Yeah, absolutely,” Smith said when asked if he has had to make a conscious effort to play differently. “I mean, believe it or not, being the type of player I’ve been, it’s a struggle. I’m not going to lie.

“Trying to think about the rest of the team over myself or my scoring is something that I never really had to do before,” Smith continued. “I’ve always been in a situation to score, [now I’m] in position to take my time and let the game come and let my teammates succeed more than myself, I think that’s the ultimate win.”

Well, the first step to recovery is acceptance…. but I seriously doubt Smith is going to change his ways. Jackson said before that Smith has to learn the difference between a good shot and a bad shot, is that really going to happen in his 11th season?

Phil Jackson doesn’t get it, he had a talk with Ben McGrath of the New Yorker (as transcribed by where the legendary coach said triangle is not that hard to master.

“It’s not that complicated. It’s not rocket science. Sometimes it’s hard for players to understand exactly how (they) fit into this sequence of events. But that’s what we’re trying to do as a staff is to give them the idea (that) there’s an orderly way to play this game and when you do that it’s logical, there’s good shots. You play defense from it. You have second chance opportunities. You limit the turnovers and the transition by your opponents and it puts you in position to win.”

Part of the challenge for Jackson coming in was this roster was just not triangle friendly with the players it had. Carmelo Anthony can be a great fit, guys like Jose Calderon and Tim Hardaway Jr. can fit, but aside that there needs to be heavy roster turnover the next couple years to get the right role players in (and another star or two, but that’s a separate matter).

Smith has a player option for $6.4 million next season. He said he wants to retire a Knick, but if the cap jumps this summer to help smooth in the coming flood of TV money it will be tough for him not to jump into those waters.

Five teams poised to make a big leap forward this season

Houston Rockets v New Orleans Pelicans

Last year it was the Phoenix Suns — they made a huge leap forward, one few saw coming (they were considered a tanking team before the season). Credit Jeff Hornacek for putting together a system that really took advantage of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. The Suns were almost a playoff team in the deep West.

So who makes the leap this season.

It’s always a little tricky to predict, but here are my five picks for the teams that will make big leaps forward in 2014-15.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers. Well, duh. This is obvious but the list is incomplete if the Cavs are not on it. As everyone who has not spent the past four months backpacking through rural Thailand knows, they added LeBron James and Kevin Love to a roster that had the All-Star Game MVP in Kyrie Irving. Plus the roster has solid role players — Anderson Varejao, Mike Miller, James Jones, Tristan Thompson, and on down the line. The only questions about this team are of the “can this keep them from winning a title this year?” variety. The Cavs won 33 games last season with a bottom 10 offense, they are now likely to have the best offense in the league and push 60 regular season wins.

2. New Orleans Pelicans. There are a lot of reasons the Pelicans are going to jump from 34 wins up to contending for a playoff spot. First, Anthony Davis is going to make a third-year leap from “basketball fans know he’s very good” to “everyone knows he’s very good.” As in he gets mentioned in the MVP voting good. But it’s a lot more than one guy in the Big Easy. New Orleans made one of the most underrated moves of the off-season when they got Omer Asik from Houston — he is a rock solid defensive and rebounding center who lets Davis move to his more natural four spot. This should improve the Pelicans defense, which is the key to them making a step forward (they were bottom five on D last season). Also, this team gets a seemingly forgotten quality stretch four back in Ryan Anderson. If the trio of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can just stay healthy this is a high-40s win team. Even in the West.

3. Charlotte Hornets. Charlotte made a leap forward last season because coach Steve Clifford got a team anchored by Al Jefferson in the paint to be a top five defensive squad. He should have gotten more coach of the year votes because of that. But holding them back was the need for more shot creation — enter Lance Stephenson. He and Kemba Walker give them two guys who can create both in transition and in the half court. Charlotte’s offense will not be bottom 10 this season. The Hornets won 43 games last season and in a deeper East it’s not like they are going to win a whole lot more, they are not contenders, but they are a team that can make the second round of the playoffs and will be a tough team to beat nightly.

4. Dallas Mavericks. If you’re betting on Dallas getting considerably better — as I am — then you’re really betting on two things. First, and most importantly, that Tyson Chandler in the paint can lift the defense up from bottom 10 to above average or higher. He’s a big upgrade over Samuel Dalembert, but Chandler was slowed by injury to start last season in New York and didn’t ever move very well. He has to regain his form, and as a team the Mavs need to be more defensively focused. The other bet you are making is that Chandler Parsons is going to live up to his new, massive contract. His ability to draw defenders to the weak side, who then can’t jump in to help on the Monta Ellis/Dirk Nowitzki pick-and-roll should get everyone better looks (Dallas has had the third most efficient offense in the NBA during the preseason). If these two things happen Dallas can be a four seed and make the second round in the West playoffs.

5. Detroit Pistons. This is a vote for Stan Van Gundy. He’s going to make the Pistons better by first not trying to force feed the Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe/Josh Smith combination — it didn’t work, it’s time to move on. Second, SVG’s teams have always been fierce defensively and this Pistons team was bottom 10 on that end of the court last season (despite having Smith and some good defensive players). The Pistons aren’t contenders, but they are not going to be pushovers anymore. The challenge is even if they improve by 10 games this season, that only brings them up to 39 and that may not be enough to make the playoffs in the East this season. Bottom line, even though they take a step forward that may not get them to the postseason.

Josh Smith dunks all over Nerlens Noel (VIDEO)

Nerlens Noel, Josh Smith

I love that Nerlens Noel’s instinct was to go after that and try to block it.

But welcome to the NBA rookie. He’s not strong enough or ready to stop someone with the power of Josh Smith going to the rim.

Smith had a monster game — 17 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and five hockey assists (his pass led to another pass that led to a bucket). He did it a little bit of everything in the Pistons 109-103 victory.

PBT Extra: Miami leads teams taking step back this season

Miami Heat Media Day

When you lose the best player walking the face of the earth, your team gets worse.

Which is why when Jenna Corrado and I discussed teams I expect to take a step back this season, Miami is right at the top of the list. The Heat will still be good, they are still a playoff team in the East, but they are no longer the contenders they once were.

Another team obviously taking a step back is Indiana, a team that struggled on offense and now is without Lance Stephenson (left via free agency) and Paul George (injury). Going to be a rough season in Indy.

Finally, we talk Rockets. They are still a 50-win team, but they lost so much depth that it will cost them some games. And in the brutally deep West, that drops you fast down the standings.