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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Steve Nash the Best Athlete in the NBA?

Athleticism is often defined very narrowly. In the context of basketball, athleticism is usually understood to refer primarily to explosiveness laterally (quickness) and vertically (jumping ability); in football, athleticism usually is defined by one's performance in the 40 yard dash and in the bench press. However, this kind of thinking leads to a lot of stereotyping and superficial analysis, usually along racial lines--i.e., Larry Bird being praised for his cerebral skills while Michael Jordan is commended for his athletic ability. The reality is that Bird was a phenomenal athlete, possessing superb hand-eye coordination, quickness for a step (a concept that will be explained below) and better jumping ability than most people seem to think; compare his blocked shot totals to those of legendary leaper Dominique Wilkins (Bird has the edge, with 755 blocks in 897 games compared to Wilkins' 642 blocks in 1074 games)--and while Bird did not have the broad jumping ability of a Julius Erving, he was more than capable of playing above the rim to get rebounds and even throw down some dunks (albeit ones that fans would term "generic"), particularly early in his career.

Last week, while covering Phoenix' 121-117 win over Indiana, I discussed the subject of how to best define athletic ability in a basketball context with Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni, former player/current broadcaster Dan Majerle, Suns President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Steve Kerr and Steve Nash (Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien's thoughts about this can be found by clicking on the above link). Here are those interviews, interwoven with some additional thoughts and observations of my own:

Friedman: "Sometimes people talk about the difference between athletic ability and skills but when they talk about athletic ability they pretty much confine that to running fast and jumping high and then they make a distinction between that and the ability to pass or shoot. What is your take on that? Do you define shooting ability and passing ability as just ‘skills’ or isn’t there an athletic component there as well?"

D’Antoni: "There is a little bit of a blurred line but those things are also an acquired skill. You can learn to shoot. You can’t learn to be fast; your body only permits so much--you can’t grow to be 6-9. There are some athletic traits that are just natural ability. Eye-hand coordination probably is an athletic ability. Being able to shoot real well or having the muscle memory to do certain things—there is a little bit of a fine line in there. I think that most people think that athletic ability is just running and jumping and how quick you are and the other stuff are possibly learned skills."

Friedman: "But don’t you think that the people who are the best shooters and the people who are the best players have certain traits that may be harder to define than just running or jumping but are also forms of athletic ability as well? Obviously, I’m thinking of Steve Nash, because a lot of people may say that he is not athletic."

D’Antoni: "Well, that’s where they are wrong because he is really athletic. He can pick up a hockey stick and be great; he is great at soccer. He is great at racquetball and tennis. He has athletic ability but you are right (about the perception of him). He’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest guy but he might be the most athletically skilled guy."

Friedman: "That is exactly the point that I am getting at. When someone says that Nash is not as athletic as this guy or that guy, I say that he might not jump as high but athletic ability is more than that. I’m actually not sure that he is not above average in quickness; I think he’s above average in quickness."

D’Antoni: "He’s pretty good. He’s good. He can’t outrun, from end line to end line, many guys on the team but for one step--his athletic ability comes from the anticipation of when to make that step. If I’m racing you and you get to say go then you are going to beat me if we are only racing one or two steps, even if I might be fast enough to catch you in 100 yards. Steve is like that. He can anticipate and he knows how to go."

Friedman: "In basketball you don’t very often have to beat someone in a full court race. Most of what happens in basketball that is significant happens in a confined space and if you get that one step over a person he doesn’t have 90 feet to recover."

D’Antoni: "You are right but I think that if both players started at the same time there are a lot of guys who would outquick him. He always starts before they do, because he knows when to go and how to go and he can anticipate what’s happening better. A little bit of his muscle twitch or his ability to be able to (anticipate), you know what I’m saying? There is a difference there."

Anyone who watched Phoenix' 103-98 victory over Utah on Wednesday saw a perfect example of this on a play in the first half: Nash used a pick to get half a step on Deron Williams, then Nash received an inbounds pass and slipped in a layup under the outstretched arms of Carlos Boozer. Williams is undoubtedly faster than Nash and Boozer is bigger, stronger and a better jumper than Nash but in a confined space--and with a "head start" based on the ability to anticipate or read a play--Nash beat both of them. That is an athletic play, even if Nash did not throw down a dunk that got replayed ten times on SportsCenter. Back to the interview:

Friedman: "So you think that he might be slower than many guys but—"

D’Antoni: "Like Larry Bird. Larry Bird, nobody ever stopped him even though he’s not the fastest guy in the world. He knew when to go, the angles to go and all of that stuff. That is a little bit of a learned ability but you have to be athletically gifted because at this level everybody is a great athlete. Now you’re talking being physically gifted for running and jumping, there are some guys who are just physically gifted for that and somebody like Steve who is very athletic can learn skills that make him even better than maybe he should have been."

Friedman: "Another thing that I think of as an athletic ability that a lot of people don’t mention is something that could be called ‘hands,’ which covers a lot of areas--the ability to catch, the ability to pass. Some guys can run and jump really well but their hands are so terrible they can’t do anything. Elaborate on that subject a little."

D’Antoni: "I’m not a scientist or a doctor or whatever but some guys have soft hands and some guys don’t. Some have great eye-hand coordination and some guys don’t. Those are athletic tendencies or abilities."

Friedman: "Obviously, you have been around the game a long time as a player and as a coach. Have you ever seen someone who when you first met him had what you might call 'bad' hands and then at some point that person developed 'good' hands?"

D’Antoni: "No, not really. You might see some improvement over the years but never to the point where you’d label him as someone who has ‘good’ hands. You either have 'good' hands or not."

Friedman: "So that is something that is an athletic ability."

D’Antoni: "Yes, it is."

Friedman: "Anyone can tell if someone is fast or has a great vertical leap; that is something that is obvious and you don’t have to be specially trained to see that. 'Hands' is a more subtle thing."

D’Antoni: "I think that just knowing how to play the game is an ability or talent that you are born with. It is like playing cards. Everybody knows the basic rules of a card game but then you have really good players who have an ability to assimilate things; I don’t think that you teach that finite thing of being a great card player."

Friedman: "Do you think that ability to play games is a sport-specific thing? From your observations, if someone has the knack to be able to play basketball does that translate into other sports?"

D’Antoni: "Usually it translates; if you are talking about eye-hand coordination (in basketball) then you will also be good at racquet sports or anything like that. You will have traits that carry from one sport to another and maybe other traits that don’t, although they don’t come to mind real quickly. Eye-hand coordination covers a lot of games."

Next I spoke with Majerle.

Friedman: "A lot of times people make a distinction between 'athletic ability' and 'skills' but I think that they make a mistake by defining 'athletic ability' too narrowly: they usually just mean running fast or jumping high. As a former player and as someone who gets to see Steve Nash play on a regular basis, what do you think of those distinctions? I think that Steve Nash is an excellent athlete even though he is not a high jumper or a fast runner."

Dan Majerle: "You’re crazy if you don’t think that Steve Nash is a heck of an athlete. I always think of athletes as guys who not only can jump and run and do those things but also guys who can play a bunch of different sports, guys who can play baseball, who can play golf, who can play football, who can play soccer like Steve does. If you are good at all of those types of different things then I think that you are a good athlete and Steve is one of those guys; whatever sport he tries, he’s good at it. He may not be the strongest or the fastest or jump the highest, but you put him in any competitive situation or any kind of other sport and he will more than hold his own. He’s just got such great body control and his central core, his strength and those kinds of things are amazing."

Strength is not the first thing one thinks of with Nash, primarily because bigger guards like Chauncey Billups or Deron Williams can use their size to back him down--but Nash is wiry strong and this strength reveals itself in subtle ways. A good illustration of this is a play that took place with a little less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter of Wednesday's Phoenix-Utah game. Nash dribbled down court at full speed and Matt Harpring picked him up at the top of the key. Without breaking stride, Nash drove hard to the left, got all the way to the rim, stopped, jumped off of his right foot while fading backwards, and then made a short bank shot over Harpring's outstretched arms. There are several important things to understand about why this was such an athletic move: (1) Harpring is 6-7, while Nash is 6-3; (2) Nash is right handed and most right handed players are more adept at jumping off of their left leg; (3) Nash stopped and jumped so quickly--and with just the right amount of fade--that Harpring could not recover. If Nash had dunked over Harpring, then the play would be shown five times and everyone would talk about how athletic Nash is--but what Nash did is an extremely difficult athletic play and he does those kinds of things on a regular basis; that is why he can shoot such a high percentage despite playing in a league in which so many players are allegedly more "athletic" than he is. If you don't think that this move took athletic ability, then the next time you are on a basketball court, try it yourself--it's not nearly as easy to do as it may sound or look. Back to the interview:

Friedman: "Would you agree that a lot of people define athletic ability too narrowly, only using a couple of the most obvious traits, like running and jumping?"

Majerle: "Yeah, definitely; if you look at a guy and call him an athlete just because he runs fast and jumps high--I don’t believe that at all. I think that is very, very narrow; he may not be able to throw a football or do anything like that, so just being able to run and jump does not make him an athlete."

Friedman: "Would you say that being able to shoot really well is an athletic ability or a skill set or some combination of the two?"

Majerle: "I think that it’s both. You have to be an athlete but it also takes a lot of practice. I think that anybody can become a good shooter. I really do--with practice and good fundamentals, anybody can become a good shooter."

Friedman: "But that raises an obvious question, because there are some guys who have been in the NBA for years and they are still poor shooters. Why do you think that is the case? Not to single out anyone in particular but we can all think of certain guys who are not good free throw shooters. Do you think that is because they haven’t worked on it?"

Majerle: "No, I think they work on it but they just don’t get it sometimes; it doesn’t click for certain guys for whatever reason. Guys like Shaq, maybe his hands are too big or whatever, for some reason it just doesn’t click for him. He makes up for it in other ways; obviously, he’s a great player and he can score, he just can’t shoot the ball real well."

Friedman: "Then you have a guy like Dr. J, whose hands are as big as anybody’s and he shot almost 80% from the free throw line."

Majerle: "Yeah, or you have a guy like Yao Ming (a 7-5 center who shoots better than .800 from the free throw line). Like I said, sometimes guys get it and sometimes they don’t."

Steve Kerr won five championships in a 15 year NBA career and he holds the all-time record for career regular season three point field goal percentage (.454). Now his job is to try to evaluate talent and put together the right mix of players to help the Suns win the franchise's first NBA title:

Friedman: "A lot of times when people talk about athletic ability they limit it to two very specific things: being able to jump really high and being able to run really fast. I think that leads to the misconception that someone like Steve Nash or, previously, Larry Bird, is not that athletic. As a former player and someone who is now in management, how do you look at this question of defining what constitutes athletic ability?"

Steve Kerr: "Being a slow white guy who couldn’t jump, I prefer to look at other attributes that constitute athleticism (Kerr chuckles before turning serious). I think that when you look at Nash in particular, balance is such a huge part of his game. Hand-eye coordination and balance may be things that the average person does not associate with athleticism but you can see that there are guys who can really run and jump who can’t make a shot from three feet away; are they more athletic than a guy who is slower and can’t jump but can make shots and do all kinds of things on the floor with his vision and his balance? I don’t know. It’s a word that is open for interpretation, I think."

Friedman: "Would you agree that it is probably too narrowly defined?"

Kerr: "Yeah."

Friedman: "It is defined by very obvious, dramatic things that anybody can see—'Oh, that’s athletic'—but to actually be functional as an athlete and to be able to perform as an athlete you have to have these other skill sets that are harder to measure or harder to appreciate."

Kerr: "I would agree with that. Having played in the league for 15 years, I came across an awful lot of guys who could jump out of the gym or run like the wind and yet they didn’t make the team because it didn’t translate. The so-called athleticism has to translate into whatever sport the player is playing. It translates through other mediums, like we talked about, through balance and through knowledge and through an understanding of how to play. People can be athletic without being good basketball players."

Friedman: "But can you be a good basketball player without being a good athlete? That’s almost the core of the question that I am asking, because I don’t buy the idea that Nash is not a good athlete."

Kerr: "No, if you’re in the NBA, you’re a good athlete. Everybody in the NBA is a great athlete."

Friedman: "Even the supposedly non-athletic guys."

Kerr: "Yeah. Trust me, I was always known as one of the least athletic players in the NBA."

Friedman: "Which I’ve always felt is a bit of a misnomer--and not just with you, but in general. There is a range of athletic abilities represented in the NBA but everybody who is there is a good athlete."

Kerr: "Yeah and there are different forms of it. Hand-eye coordination is a huge part of it."

Friedman: "I want to ask you about a specific aspect of that, which is the word in general: 'hands.' People will say that 'player x'—for instance, Tim Duncan—has 'great hands.' Then there are other players, I won’t mention any names, who have 'bad hands.' I asked Coach D’Antoni about that. I’ll ask you the same thing that I asked him: have you ever seen anyone, either as a player or a talent evaluator, who did not have good hands and then at some point in the future he developed good hands?"

Kerr: "No. I think that it’s a lot like jumping."

Friedman: "It’s an athletic ability."

Kerr: "Yeah. If a guy can’t jump now then he probably won’t be able to jump later--unless he gets those platform shoes they advertise in the basketball magazines."

Friedman (laughing): "I’m not sure those work, either."

Kerr (laughing): "I’m not either. The one thing that guys can improve is shooting--with enough repetition. Terry Porter became a great three point shooter by the end of his career. Magic Johnson became a solid three point shooter."

Friedman: "But even with that, wouldn’t you say that to become a truly great shooter a person must have some kind of athletic ability to be able to practice and develop that trait? I don’t think that you can just take anybody and make them a great shooter. You are talking about someone who is a great athlete and then he is practicing but he has a base of athletic ability to work with."

Kerr: "I guess I’m saying that some people are capable of getting better but they are already pretty good to start with. I think that Shaq can shoot 1000 free throws a day and I just don’t think that it is wired in his body to athletically put the ball through the hoop from range. It is the hardest part of the game for him."

Friedman: "It is so perplexing to see that he can’t do that one thing as well as almost anyone who played high school basketball and can make 70 percent of his free throws."

Kerr: "It was the same thing with Wilt."

Friedman: "Right. It’s not just Shaq."

Kerr: "Tim Duncan has a hard time with it."

Friedman: "Duncan is almost more mystifying because he has good hands and he can make that bank shot. With him, you really think that it’s--I mean, I don’t know."

Kerr: "Mental."

Friedman: "Strange."

Kerr: "I don’t know. A friend of mine has what he calls the 'ball and stick' theory. He says that if you want to figure out if a guy is a good athlete, give him a ball and a stick--which to me is just another name for hand-eye coordination. If you put a golf club in his hands, can he hit the ball around decently? If you give him a baseball bat, can he go to the batting cage and hit the ball consistently? There are some people who can run and jump but 'ball and stick'—they are not great."

Friedman: "By that theory, just to kind of put a bow on everything, Nash is a very good athlete. Coach D’Antoni talked about that Nash can play just about any sport."

Kerr: "Any sport. He’d probably be a scratch golfer. He could probably bowl 300. He just sees it and he does it."

Friedman: "From that standpoint, even though it might surprise the average fan, he might be one of the better athletes in the league--on the 'ball and stick' theory."

Kerr: "If you go by 'ball and stick' theory, he might be the best athlete in the league. Those are generally the guys who can shoot and dribble and pass with either hand. He’s definitely in the upper echelon of the 'ball and stick' theory guys."

Naturally, I sought out Nash's take on all of this:

Friedman: "A lot of times when people talk about athletic ability they seem to pretty much limit that to jumping and running. I think that there is a lot more to athletic ability than just those two things and I am interested in your perspective on that."

Nash: "Yeah, I mean in this league I am not going to win many races or jumping contests or weightlifting contests but I’m sure my athleticism is expressed in different ways."

Friedman: "Talking to Steve Kerr and Coach D’Antoni, they mentioned things like your balance, your vision, your hands--that those things are really athletic skills and athletic abilities as well."

Nash: "Court vision, rhythm, balance, timing, agility, creativity I think are all parts of athleticism, not just explosiveness."

Friedman: "Steve Kerr mentioned something to me that he called the 'ball and stick' test for athletic ability: if you give someone a ball and a stick--a baseball bat or a golf club--what can he do with it? He said that from that standpoint you might be the best athlete in the league or at least one of the better athletes. What do you think of that?"

Nash: "I think that you have to incorporate everything. You can’t just say that athleticism is explosiveness. It’s explosiveness, it’s coordination, it’s balance, it’s all of those things--like I said, even timing and creativity. Obviously, I think that there is a lot more to it...but it doesn’t really matter."

He smiled as he uttered the last sentence, almost like he did not want to say too much. I have always thought that it is advantageous for Nash that he does not "look" like a great athlete; that leads to people underestimating what he is capable of doing (and possibly heightens the credit that he receives for his accomplishments because people are wrongly surprised). Nash seems to combine a certain self-deprecation with a quiet confidence; while he readily acknowledges his relative lack of speed or jumping ability he also plainly realizes that his other athletic gifts--such as hand-eye coordination, balance, court vision--more than compensate for his shortcomings.

It would make much more sense for writers, broadcasters and analysts to define exactly what they mean when they use the term "athletic." Instead of saying that someone is "athletic," be specific: say that he jumps high or runs fast or has good hands. Otherwise, the word "athletic" too often is just a meaningless cliche or a codeword with a racial undertone; after all, how many white players are called "athletic" and how many black players are called "cerebral"? Steve Nash is certainly a cerebral player but he is also athletic and that should be brought to the forefront more often; sadly, that requires a level of depth in analysis that does not fit in with 30 second highlight clips, game stories filed under deadline or the way that the print and broadcast media in general are structured--but that does not mean that we should just completely give up trying to understand basketball in that manner.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 AM



At Friday, December 14, 2007 10:42:00 AM, Blogger Neshas® said...

From my point of view, EVERYTHING comes out of our heads.
Not out of the muscles.

Yes, one uses muscles to hammer the nail, but before that, one uses 'brains' to figure it out how and what to hammer, than gives repetitive 'command' to its arm. One uses brains to control the action so it doesn't hit one's finger. Finally, one uses its brains to stop the hammering.
So, muscles are in function of a brain. Brain gives commands, muscles execute them.

Unfortunately, more people thing vice-versa. Or, they’re just not aware of the process.
So, one must try hard to prove otherwise.

There are, and there were (and there will be) lots of players around the globe with less muscles - more 'brains' who achieved fantastic results (Pete Maravich, J. Stockton, Dragan Kicanovic, Nikos Galis,...).
Not only basketball players. Not only players (Steven Hawking…).

Overall, as a basketball fan, player (for more than 30 years at basketball, and former player of soccer, volleyball, athletics,…) and thorough observer, my opinion is that success is mostly achieved by 'brain' players. Muscles can help, if one KNOWS HOW (brains again) to use them. If one don't have muscles, that one uses brains to seize other values out of its body (eyes, coordination, speed, anticipation...).

That's why people attend practice. Learn how to use brains, how to adapt to the game, and to the team.

Of course, one needs lots of will (desire), love and dedication is needed, but then again you need brains for all that, not the muscles.
Or, should I say, you need to activate every bit of yourself, than use brains to coordinate bits and produce results.

Steve Nash is my fav player for last couple of years. Pity he can’t rich the top. But, only ‘one’ can.

At Saturday, December 15, 2007 4:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Brains are certainly important.

My point in this post is that athleticism is properly defined by many more traits than just running and jumping. Nash is a fantastic athlete because he excels so much at several of these other traits that this more than compensates for any deficit he may suffer as a runner and jumper relative to other NBA players.

At Thursday, December 20, 2007 6:37:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Very interesting article. As I stated in an earlier discussion, I agree totally that white players are too often stereotyped as subpar athletes who "outsmart" their opponents, while black athletes are stereotyped as lacking fundamentals and discipline and depending mostly on atheletic ability. I also would extend the argument a bit: I think traditional big men are too often denied credit for skills such as rebounding, shot-blocking and low-post moves. I don't buy the notion that any big guy should be able to do these things by virtue of their size. Look at Dirk. Almost anyone would say he's more skilled than Shaq, but Dirk can't post up anyone (even guys 4-6 inches shorter) to save his life.

It seems that most people believe that Nash has amazing balance and vision and body control. I've never seen anyone able to make the kind of passes he makes AFTER having jumped in the air. It's strange that so many observers ignore Nash's body control when body control is one of the main abilities that people single out when talking about great basketball "athletes" (think of Julius Erving).

There's one thing I forgot to bring up when discussing Nash's defensive shortcomings. You argued that Nash lacked great size and strength and that was mostly what prevented him from playing good defense. However, shouldn't Nash, with his quickness and instinct, be able to do a good job on Tony Parker? Parker is about as far from an overpowering guard as one can get, yet the Suns felt compelled to put Shawn Marion on him (thereby bringing their best defensive rebounder away from the basket) rather than letting Nash try to handle the job.

At Friday, December 21, 2007 11:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You make some excellent points.

Regarding Parker versus Nash, I did not specifically ask D'Antoni about this but I assume that the following factors come into play: Parker has more straight line speed than Nash; Marion is the team's best one on one defender and a lot of teams like to use length against point guards (Bowen often guards Nash); if Nash guards Bowen then he will likely not get in foul trouble and instead of guarding Parker in the paint (after drives) he will be on the perimeter, with a head start toward fast breaking after a rebound (or an inbounds pass).

D'Antoni insists that Nash is a good defender. Van Gundy said on ESPN that he thought that the Suns improved defensively last year but have regressed a bit this year. I would say that the athletic skills that help Nash as a scorer and passer are not as useful in certain defensive matchups that he faces. I consider him a below average one on one defender who has an excellent understanding of team defense (double-teaming, getting steals in passing lanes, taking charges--even though I hate what the rules allow in certain instances, he uses the rules to his advantage).

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 2:44:00 PM, Blogger Brian McCormick said...

There are many things left out of the different interviews. One important thing is that the skills and athleticism require different things to train, especially for a 25-year-old. You can learn to be fast; but, you have to do it at an early age. You can learn to shoot better, but the same thing applies: a 25-year-old has an autonomous skill. To improve, he has to change his skill execution and basically re-learn the skill from the beginning. Otherwise, he is practicing how to perform a skill poorly.

Athleticism is defined too narrowly. And, in team sports especially, it is tough to distinguish an athletic skill, like reaction time, which contributes to another athletic skill, acceleration, from a tactical skill, like anticipation. Anticipation is the understanding of situations within the game. This is not an athletic skill, per se. Reaction time is an athletic skill. Anticipation is basically the tactical application of an athletic skill. So, how do you decide whether Nash anticipates because of his understanding, his reaction time or his first-step acceleration? Does it matter?

Anyway, I discussed this subject in a couple old newsletters that I write as well as on my blog, www.thecrossovermovement.com. My argument started that Roger Federer is the best athlete in the world right now, even though he is not a big jumper or fast runner.

FWIW, when the question was asked to a number of strength coaches a couple years ago on a message forum, the strength coaches eventually came to the consensus that gymnasts are the best athletes because of the varied athletic skills they must master.

At Tuesday, January 15, 2008 4:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I realize that there are other aspects of this topic that can be explored, but I was writing one article/blog post--and a long one at that--and not a book. This was a preliminary attempt to correct the false perception that athleticism consists solely of running fast and jumping high. If I can get people to understand and acknowledge that, then it is possible to have an intelligent discussion of how to break down the other aspects of athleticism.


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