Most Vexing Possibilities
For any sports fan, there may not be any question more tantalyzing or agonizing than "What if?" As an admitted homer of the Dallas Mavericks, I can testify to our storied tradition of what ifs: What if Dale Ellis, Sam Perkins or Detlef Schrempf had spent their careers with the Mavs? What if Jimmy Jackson and Jason Kidd had never met Toni Braxton? What if Roy Tarpley could have just said no? Finally, perhaps the most torturous what if of all: What if Steve Nash had re-signed with the Mavs?
Nash, you might remember, came to Dallas from Phoenix Suns with Michael Finley as part of the Jason Kidd trade. Along with Dirk Nowitzki, Nash and Finley formed the Mavs' "big three," the franchise cornerstones who led the team back to the playoffs after a decade of irrelevance. It was in Dallas, as a Maverick, where Nash's talents and abilities began to gather acclaim. Each player utilized a unique skill set, which, when combined in Don Nelson's clever offensive schemes, was nigh unstoppable. Bringing to the game a chemistry rooted in a strong off-court friendship, Nash and Nowitzki comprised a versatile and potent offensive one-two punch. They represented Dallas at three All-Star games, but it stands as a testament to their individual talents that they accomplished so much more separately than they did together.
After the 2004 season, Nash's contract expired, and the conference-rival Suns signed him to a lucrative offer sheet. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to match the offer, and the rest is history. Nash went on to win two consecutive MVP awards running the league's most explosive offense. Although his $10 million salary is gaudy, it is far below the league maximum which an MVP winner might command, and it now seems ironic that Cuban didn't deem Nash to be worth the investment.
To be fair, the primary reason that Cuban could not afford to re-sign Nash was the outstanding talent of Nowitzki, who himself commands a max contract. Without Nash, Nowitzki has blossomed into an MVP candidate and perhaps one of the NBA's greatest players. After leading the Mavericks to the NBA finals last season, Nowitzki has them knocking at the doorstep once again, with a league-best 61 wins and counting. The key to Nowitzki's emergence as a MVP-worthy clutch performer might well have been Nash's departure, which allowed Nowitzki to take over as the team's leader and go-to guy.
Nash has benefitted from the divorce as well. The Suns' team was perfectly suited to his run-and-gun style, and with the NBA altering its rules to encourage a faster pace of gameplay, Nash was enabled to maximize his talents. The result has been Nash's ascent to the ranks of the game's all-time great guards. To put his success into perspective, since the introduction of the MVP award in 1962, only five guards in NBA history have recieved the honor: Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Nash. Of those five, only three have been repeat winners: Johnson, Jordan and Nash. Not a bad menage-a-trois in which to be included.
Of course, the Nash/Nowitzki debate is only magnified by the fact that they are, respectively, the leaders of the league's two best teams, with each is receiving MVP consideration this season. Dirk's supporters allege that he deserved the award last year in leading the Mavs to their first-ever finals appearance. Nash's groupies are quick to point out that he is enjoying the best statistical season of his career and arguably deserves MVP this year more than seasons past. Nowitzki proponents would counter that his Mavs are not only in sole possession of the league's best record, they are on track to win more than 65 games, putting the Mavs in the discussion of the all-time great teams in NBA history, alongside the 1977 Lakers and 1996 Bulls. It is not an easy debate in which to choose sides, although the fact that Nash has already won two MVPs seems to preclude him from coming out on top again this year.
The real question is, for those Mavericks fans who choose to consider the possibility, what if Nash had never left the Mavs? Would it have been possible to acquire the supporting pieces to complement Nash and Nowitzki? Would either player have developed into the MVP candidates they are today? Could the duo have lead the Mavs to a title? Could they have been on the level of other famous all-time great tandems such as Magic and Kareem, Jordan and Pippen, Stockton and Malone or Shaq and Kobe? Could they have been one of the most versatile and indefensible combinations in NBA history, even if for a short while? Those questions will remain forever unanswered, leaving perplexed fans with only what ifs.