In 2004 and 2005, as my Timberwolves were just beginning their long, painful shame spiral, the Phoenix Suns gave me a reason to keep on loving the NBA. There were many good reasons for this: their defiance of orthodox positionality; their feverish pace of play and relentless scoring; the palpable joy they brought to the game.
But the biggest reason the Suns enchanted me was the on-court relationship between Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. To the casual observer, the two seem as ill-matched as a some oddball pair in a buddy comedy, and just as racially typecast. The savvy, selfless, veteran (white) tactician meets the brash, unschooled but athletically magnificent rim-crushing (black) manchild. Hilarious misunderstandings ensue.
But the reality was that Nash and Stoudemire were meant for each other; their skills intertwined in radical and breathtaking ways. And so it was incredibly sad for me when the Suns allowed the final remnants of their juggernaut to dissolve by pushing Amar’e out the door.
Even sadder was the discourse that built up around Stoudemire’s free agent signing with the Knicks. The question that posed itself was: which one of these players was more important to the other? Some folks believed that Nash would suddenly cease to be an offensive miracle worker without his finisher. But many more wondered whether Amar’e would still be Amar’e without the point guard that made him who he is. That so many of us called the Knicks’ signing of Amar’e the worst move of the summer revealed that we had bought into this way of thinking: Nash was the cerebral genius, Amar’e the muscle.
But it hasn’t really turned out that way. Amar’e’s PER of 23.1 is his best in three years. He is the league’s second-leading scorer. He is leading a Knick resurgence that is captivating the league. Subtler differences make his accomplishments even more amazing. Raymond Felton, Stoudemire’s new running mate, may be a skilled and conscientious playmaker but, like just about everybody, he lacks Nash’s miraculous gifts of vision and passing. He and Stoudemire have yet to develop a pick-and-roll rapport that even approaches the fluency of vintage Nash-Amar’e.
So this season, Stoudemire has had to bear a much greater burden of creating his own scoring opportunities, finding many of his looks from faceups and isolations (last year, 61.2% of his baskets were assisted; this year, it’s 49.2%). Even so, he’s posting a true shooting percentage of almost 58.9%, down just 1 ½ points from last season. And when he does find himself in a pick-and-roll situation, he’s actually more efficient than he was last year. He is, in other words, a really tough cover.
Stoudemire’s departure has also had some significant effects on the Suns. Unsurprisingly, Phoenix has lacked interior scoring this year. Nash has had to generate scoring opportunities by probing the perimeter and by relying even more heavily on his astonishing ability to create (and see) passing lanes with his exploratory wanderings through the lane. That both his assist rate and scoring (in volume and in efficiency) are up this season speak to just how shockingly good the guy is.
Nevertheless, Sebastian Pruiti (with help from the Heat and their throttling D) showed us just how much easier defending Suns has become, despite Nash’s magic. Without Stoudemire, the Suns have scored three points fewer per 100 possessions. They play at a slower pace—probably because they are able to generate fewer easy points off of pick-and-rolls early in the shot clock—and get fewer shots at the rim.
More surprisingly, considering Amar’e’s well-earned reputation as a mediocre defender and rebounder (mediocre, that is, given his deluxe physical gifts), Phoenix’s defense is also nearly four points worse per 100 possessions and they grab 3% fewer rebounds; what’s more, New York’s D is 3.5 points better per 100. It seems that Stoudemire was important to the Suns in more ways than we ever understood.
As time has gone on, we’ve begun to see how these two have spilled over the boundaries of those preconceived roles. Nash has always been more physically gifted than he’s been given credit for, his performance as much a product of elite athleticism—balance, strength, dexterity, hand-eye coordination— than of anything as abstractly cognitive as “basketball IQ.”
And—especially as he’s grown as a player—Stoudemire has brought uncommon craft to the task of scoring. His ability to move in open space off the ball and to subtly maneuver his huge body around the basket is as stunning as his more gaudy above-the-rim performances.
Nash’s visionary floor game and Amar’e’s boundless skill and athleticism made the pick-and-roll, one of the most basic elements of basketball grammar, endlessly creative and endlessly productive: a thing of rare beauty. But although these two players helped create one another, they don't depend on each other to be fully formed, fully expressive players. We didn’t lose either one of them when they parted ways. What we lost was the marvelous thing they made together.