Because he has set the gold standard for point guards over the past decade and because people are enthralled, to an embarrassing degree, with appearances, nearly every white, assist-happy point guard to emerge into the league in recent years has been compared with Steve Nash. (Every time Luke Ridnour did anything last night, Suns’ announcer Eddie Johnson would remind us that coming out of college Ridnour was considered “by everybody,” to be “the next Steve Nash,” which can’t possibly true. Is that true?) But this has been particularly true in the case of Ricky Rubio, who not only seems like Nash’s heir as The League’s Most Visionary Passer but also shares with Nash a certain flouncy-haired, European, soccer-playing panache and a preternatural feel (probably also soccer-related) for the games’ overarching organizing principles.
But when you actually sit down and watch these two guys play on the same floor–at opposite ends of their careers, Nash old enough to be Rubio’s teen dad–their simple passing skill seems almost as superficial a similarity as their melanin content. Both players bring an exploratory sensibility to the game, a willingness to keep their dribble alive and probe the defense for angles and seems. But Nash’s experience has given his play a certain rational simplicity. You sense in watching him that every possibility on the court is something he had either fully preconceived or simply seen many times before. His physical calm, his meticulous, unhurried demeanor seems a reflection of this calculation.
When Nash explores–when he turns the corner on the pick-and-roll or loops through the lane–the floor seems to arrange itself geometrically. Passing lanes systematically open; the defense’s complex of rotations appear predictable, a problem being solved before our eyes; the chaos becomes legible. But for Rubio, the game is still wild; the chaos is still chaotic. Despite his unusual poise, like so many rookies, Rubio often seems to be playing right at the edge of his capabilities, sometimes forcing passes through a thicket of arms, sometimes over-dribbling until he runs out of options. While Nash’s game is calculated, Rubio’s is improvisatory–which is exciting and beautiful except that when he ventures too far into abstraction, all semblance of offensive coherence can disintegrate.
Part of this, of course, is a simple matter of experience and part of it is the design of Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry’s offense. The Suns are not the offensive juggernaut that they once were, but they still space the floor beautifully. This spacing forces the defense to make difficult decisions as Nash begins his dance and gives the Suns’ sets that orderly, rational appearance. Incredibly, the Suns were able to maintain that spacing against the Wolves despite only attempting eight threes in the game, a number that the ’04 Suns would have scoffed at. Nash was able to carve up the Wolves’ D just as surgically and precisely with his teammates spotting up in the midrange as at the three-point line.
But a very large part of this comes down to one uncomfortable fact: Steve Nash is one of the great shooters in the game’s history; Ricky Rubio…is not. A sequence of two plays in the fourth quarter of last night’s game is instructive. On the first, Nash initiates the pick-and-roll on the right elbow extended. Rubio goes under the screen, Pek is late to contest the shot and Nash splashes a leaning three. On the ensuing Wolves possession, Rubio initiates the pick and roll. This time Nash goes under the screen and makes almost no effort to close the gap with Rubio. Rubio, half-heartedly, gingerly offers up a flat-footed three that barely grazes the front iron.
The central paradox of defending Nash is this: a defense must simultaneously prevent Nash from driving to the basket, impede the roll man and still challenge Nash’s jumper, all while somehow retaining the ability to rotate out to shooters. When you change even one of these elements of the equation–when you, as a defense, beg the point guard to shoot the ball, for instance–it makes that equation many times easier to solve. The fact that a defense must honor Nash’s jumper is essential to creating that spacing and opening up those lanes that make the Suns so hard to defend. Against Rubio, defenders are able to sag into the paint, swarming the role man, cutting off passing angles, creating an unholy tangle of arms in the lane. (It must be said, also, that the Wolves’ inability to consistently hit outside shots is a huge problem as well. Defenses are not exactly preoccupied with staying home on the Wolves’ shooters.)
David Thorpe has said that it often takes NBA teams up to a full year to catch on to the best methods for defending an emergent player. But Rubio’s weaknesses are so readily apparent–it doesn’t take many scouting chops to notice that he’s constantly bricking tentative jumpers–that teams are onto him. Right now, Ricky is feeling the pain of those adjustments.