Before we start things off here, shout out to Scott Levine for suggesting this fascinating topic. He has covered the Sixers and Raptors for SB Nation, and his NBA Draft pieces are always insightful reads. Scott is a criminally underrated writer who is well worth following on Twitter, especially if you’re a hoops junkie (I assume you are if you’re reading this).
What will I utilize to quantify a player’s impact exactly? Well, offensive win shares (estimated number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense) are an indicator, along with offensive box plus/minus, which calculates the number of points someone generates compared to a league-average player. Also, the era in which certain hoopers played in will be factored into my argument. For example, I will not compare the fluctuation in impact during the careers of Stephen Curry and Mitch Richmond, even though the former creates for others while the latter did not. The rules and style of play during Richmond’s time as a pro differ massively from the modern game that Curry is thriving in. I will instead analyze two stars who played during the same era: Steve Nash and Paul Pierce.
Nash served as the head of the snake in Phoenix’s seven seconds or less offense and came away with two MVPs during his time in the desert. Pierce, a ten-time all-star, spent 15 seasons with the Boston Celtics that culminated in a 2008 title for The Truth and company. From merely taking a peek at their career stats, one may be inclined to crown Pierce as the superior player. He averaged significantly more points, rebounds, and steals (surprisingly) per game than Nash did. But Pierce’s scoring prowess gradually faded with age, and the same cannot be said for Nash’s generational playmaking instincts, which is why his impact did not fluctuate as he got older.
At age 37 during the 2011-12 campaign, the point god averaged a double-double of 12.5 points and 10.7 assists with the Suns. Comparatively, Paul’s NBA career was on its last leg by the time he turned 37, as he scored only 11.9 points per game with the Washington Wizards in 2014-15. Nash also shot the ball considerably better than Pierce at this age. He connected on 53.2 percent of his field-goal attempts and 39.2 percent of his triples. This one-season sample size points to the notion that facilitating skills are less prone to disintegrate over time than scoring, but for further evidence, feast your eyes on more charts courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
Nash’s post-prime years (age 33-39)
The commonalities between Nash’s prime numbers and the end of his career stats are astounding and serve as definitive proof that he aged like fine wine. Notice how he averaged more assists as a seasoned vet. Also, Nash’s points per game barely took a dip over his six-year stretch from 2008-13 and his efficiency improved as well, though on a lower usage rate.
Pierce’s prime years (age 26-32)
Pierce’s post-prime years (age 33-39)
Unfortunately for Pierce (and for me because he’s my favorite player ever), the former Finals MVP was unable to age gracefully. While Nash was continuing to put up all-star caliber numbers deep into his 30s, Paul spent the twilight of his career as a journeyman role player with the Nets, Wizards, and Clippers.
Why is this the case? Why did Pierce conclude his time in the NBA as a shell of his former self while Nash remained productive until retirement? Well, if Nash was not the talented facilitator that he was, his sustained greatness wouldn’t have been feasible. Steve’s playmaking wizardry allowed him to star in the league well past his golden years.
Here Nash flawlessly executes the pick-and-roll with his longtime partner in crime, Amare Stoudemire. It’s a rudimentary set, but it illustrates how he was able to remain an elite floor general for nearly two decades. See, the pick-and-roll made Nash practically unguardable.
Try to contain his penetration by going under picks? If so, it was going to be a long night for you. Not only could Nash hurt you with his historically accurate jumper, but give him a line of sight and he’ll find the angle for a pin point assist to the roll man. How about trying to fight through the screen instead? Turns out you were just as susceptible to Nash’s offensive dominance. This often resulted in the opposition adjusting by switching a big onto the point guard. The defense was at Nash’s mercy at this point. He could craftily manuever himself to the cup against any slower defender, where he then had the option to either take a high percentage shot or locate an open shooter. Nash’s excellent efficency throughout his career directly correlates with the countless amount of open looks he generated for himself off the pick-and-roll.
I’ll conclude with a side by side comparison of Nash and Pierce’s career offensive box plus/minus along with their offensive win shares, two stats that I priorly alluded to. This is the final chart of the article by the way, I promise. Nash convincingly bested Pierce in both metrics, accumulating 26.8 more offensive win shares and boasting a superior offensive box plus/minus by 1.3 points.
The impact of scorers who do not primarily create for other fluctuates more than those who do because being a great passer opens up a plethora of scoring opportunities unavailable to non-facilitators. The manner in which teams guarded Nash and Pierce were totally different, and the same can be said for scoring playmakers and players who were scorers first and foremost.