Raja Bell had no idea Steve Nash was even thinking about it. "When he told me," I was as shocked as anyone," Bell said. "I didn't see it."
It, in this case, is Nash being the new coach of the Brooklyn Nets. They hired him on Thursday and will officially introduce him in a Zoom press conference next week. When Kevin Durant plays his first game for Brooklyn, Nash will be on the sideline.
Bell, now an NBA analyst for CBS Sports, played with Nash for one season with the Dallas Mavericks and more than three with the Phoenix Suns. With some teammates, he said, you just know: Eric Snow, the caretaker point guard who started next to Allen Iverson in Philadelphia, clearly had the personality to be a coach. Avery Johnson, nicknamed "The Little General," carried himself like one. In their respective final seasons on a roster, both were unofficially part of the coaching staff.
That was not Nash's vibe. He thought the game like a coach and embodied the cliché that the point guard is an extension of the coach as much as anyone in NBA history, but it wasn't obvious that he'd choose a life of holing himself up in his office until the early hours, devouring game film.
Before Nash even retired, he started a production company and became the general manager of Canada's national team. More recently he got a gig as a soccer analyst for Turner Sports and dipped his toes back in basketball with some NBA on TNT interviews.
"He had a lot of interests," Bell said. "So he didn't strike me as a guy that you'd say, Hey man, yeah, definitely going to be a coach one day.' Now, if you ask me do I think he could be a good coach, did he display characteristics that you would want in a coach? Absolutely."
Nash is a Hall of Famer and as close to universally beloved figure as you'll find around the NBA. Reaction to his hiring, however, was mixed. The New York Times and Yahoo Sports were among many outlets to point out that there are only five Black head coaches in the league.
Jacque Vaughn, who is Black, coached an undermanned but spirited Nets squad in the bubble. He is now Nash's lead assistant. Nash has no coaching experience, save for a part-time role as a player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors. Brooklyn is expected to compete for a championship right away, with Durant and Kyrie Irving coming off injuries.
Bell believes Nash will connect with Irving and get the most out of Durant. In an interview, he explained why.
1. Nash has a superpower: seeing the game through others' eyes
Whenever a player as talented as Nash makes this transition, there is a familiar refrain: How can he reach players who will never be on his level? Some superstars-turned-coaches don't have patience for mistakes and struggle to connect with non-stars.
"I think he's got a different perspective than a lot of NBA greats," Bell said.
Nash's high school coach, Ian Hyde-Lay, famously contacted all sorts of American colleges about him. Letters and phone calls were roundly rejected, more than 30 of them, and Nash's decision to go to Santa Clara was easy. No other school in the United States recruited him.
Phoenix selected Nash with the 15th pick in the legendary 1996 NBA Draft, and promptly plopped him on the bench behind Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson and Sam Cassell. The Suns traded him after his second season to Dallas, where he was initially booed every time he touched the ball, playing through a back injury. He averaged double-digit points for the first time in his fifth season, became an All-Star in his sixth and won back-to-back MVPs at 31 and 32.
"Because he came in and had to fight and scrap and claw to live up to the expectations and then probably exceed most people's wildest imagination for what he would be as a player, I think he has respect for the process," Bell said. "And for the guy who doesn't necessarily see the game the way he should yet."
Bell repeatedly said that he'd never heard of a single person around the league who dislikes Nash. As a teammate, he understood, "like any good teacher would," that he needed to communicate with different players in different ways, Bell said. He cared about getting to know each guy, and he knew how to motivate and lift people up.
"Steve wouldn't count himself as a bigger part of the team than anyone else," Bell said. "Even though he clearly was, that's not the approach that he took with it."
With the Warriors, Durant got to know how Nash thinks, and how he can help already-great players through conversation and pointing out details.
"You're looking for every edge when you're Kevin Durant," Bell said. "You're looking at any little edge you can get to be the best in the world. And I know Steve gave him some edges, maybe a couple little tools that could help him. And so you appreciate that. Guy's smart, guy knows his shit with basketball. You're having philosophical conversations about what you do in a situation like this, how you can make that work, and you start to have a healthy respect for a way a guy can help you individually."
Bell and Nash have had their share of discussions about basketball philosophy, both in their playing days and in retirement. Bell is sure that, once Durant and Nash started going deeper, talking about sets they could run, the 2017 and 2018 Finals MVP would have been impressed with the way his mind works.
"You're working with Kevin Durant," Bell said. "And when you're doing that, you have to be looking at the game through Kevin Durant's eyes. And that's ultimately what a coach has to do, right? The ones that can't work as head coaches can't see the game through anyone else's eyes. They're brilliant at seeing it through theirs, but they don't understand it through anyone else's."
Nash always has.
2. Nash doesn't just want to be a leader, players actively want to follow him
Nash is one of the most renowned leaders the sport has ever seen. Some of this, Bell said, is simple: Just watch him play.
"You want a selfless leader," Bell said. "You want a guy that's looking out for you as much as he's looking out for him, and Steve would give up a shot to get you a shot. Like, it's not rocket science on a basketball court, man. If you're a big and you're running your tail off and you're asked to defend and do all that, well, give me the damn ball. Steve did that."
But there was more to it. Nash was a "genuine kind of guy," and his relationships with teammates "transcended basketball," Bell said. Nash read the room, understood what players were going through, worked harder than anyone else and never asked anyone to do something he wouldn't.
If Nash created an open shot for you and you fumbled the pass or missed, he would always say, "My bad." The accuracy of the pass was irrelevant. "And I played with a lot of other guys," Bell said, "that no matter how bad the pass was, you were supposed to make something happen. And if you didn't, they were pissed at you." This was not a small thing.
"When I was young in Dallas, I couldn't afford for it to be my fault," Bell said. "That could've taken a toll on me emotionally that, who knows whether I could help that team moving forward or not? Because I'm just down. Right? Like, the best player on the team is salty with me because I couldn't execute."
Nash understood that when you're that guy, you can afford to take responsibility for things that aren't your fault.
"And I try to teach my kids this shit, man," Bell said. "Sorry for cursing."
It's not a coincidence that Nets general manager Sean Marks spent two seasons with Nash in Phoenix. Marks called Nash "the ultimate communicator" in an interview with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and said that this attribute is exactly what Durant and Irving wanted.
"He's the best team-builder I've ever been around," Marks told ESPN. "He had an incredible empathy for a guy like myself, the 15th man on the roster, or Raja Bell, who was right next door to him in the lineup."
"From Marksy's perspective, like, Marks was there with us in Phoenix, he's one of the guys I'm talking to you about," Bell said. "He's one of the guys that developed a relationship with Steve and played golf with us and had a beer with us and our families had time together. And so he got to see Steve work as a leader and as a part of those teams first-hand. So he already knows."
3. It is the perfect time for Nash to partner with Irving
At 28, Irving is a six-time All-Star, an NBA champion with gold medals at the Olympics and the FIBA World Cup. He clearly does not need to get any better at ballhandling, and the whole league knows he's a deadly shooter even under playoff pressure, with elite defenders contesting his shots. But imagine if Irving were 20 percent more Nashlike, if he were to focus on efficiency of movement, shot selection and making his teammates better.
Bell knows Irving from his time working in the Cleveland Cavaliers front office as the director of player administration. He thinks Irving will appreciate Nash's temperament.
"I think it's going to be really good for Kyrie," Bell said. "And I don't mean to make it sound one-sided, 'cause obviously Kyrie's going to play really well and that's going to help Steve, but I think Kyrie is at a point in his career where it's time for him to take that next step into real leadership and getting real results on the team that he's leading. Even though he'll be co-leading with Kevin Durant."
Irving will like Nash, Bell said, because everybody does. And Nash will "work at the relationship to where Kyrie trusts him." Trust is a big deal to Irving, and Nash should earn it the same way he earned trust as a player: By being himself and putting the team first.
"Steve's just got a wealth of information and knowledge that can't be anything but helpful to Kyrie," Bell said. "Kyrie is super gifted, probably more gifted with just pure talent than Steve was. But Steve was able to do some really, really cool things with what he had. And I think he can share that with Kyrie, and if Kyrie's open and receptive, which I imagine he will be, I think it really helps Kyrie."
Irving has publicly acknowledged his past failures as a leader. Bell thinks Nash will help him understand that everyone has a different style of leadership, and that it takes some trial and error and maturation to figure out what works.
"Steve is going to help Kyrie find Kyrie," Bell said.
4. Learning is a skill, and Nash has it
Nash will not walk into this thinking that he knows everything about being a head coach. In an interview with ESPN's Marc Spears, Nash said he loves to teach, loves to learn and will surround himself with experienced coaches that can mentor and support him. He acknowledged that, as a rookie coach, he has to catch up.
After describing Nash as borderline obsessive when he decides he wants to get better at something, Bell stressed that he meant it in a flattering way. The qualifier likely wasn't necessary. "Steve is really deranged," Nash's college coach, Dick Davey, told Sports Illustrated's Tim Crothers 25 years ago. "He's addicted to basketball, and fortunately he's helped derange the whole team."
Bell, however, was not even talking about basketball.
"Look, Steve is very, very good at putting his mind to something, learning it and then quickly getting really, really good at it," he said. "Steve didn't play a lot of tennis when we played. We didn't have a lot of time. I know he was interested in tennis, he played a lot of sports growing up. But if you see him play tennis now, that's something that he dove into post-career. And became really good at it, really quickly."
Then there was the skateboarding.
"When we played in Phoenix, we all got into skateboarding again," Bell said. "We hadn't been into it since we were little guys. But, you know, I did it for a while, and then it was over., I put the board away and it was fun while it lasted and that was it. Steve got really good at it and was skateboarding around SoHo and Manhattan on a longboard. It's just, when he gets in, he's in. And he studies and he learns 'cause he's really bright and the end result is usually him mastering something."
In lieu of a track record in coaching, the Nets are betting on that approach, plus a healthy amount of competitive fire.
"You don't get to be as good as Steve Nash was as a player without being a killer," Bell said. "Some guys carry their 'killer' on their sleeve, some guys just have an inner killer, but it's the same guy. They have an assassin's mentality. They're trying to win everything they do, basketball or otherwise."
5. Nash will favor a 'progressive style'
When Bell first saw Nash with trainer Rick Celebrini, the core workouts they were doing were not in vogue in the NBA. The same was true with Nash's healthy eating habits -- he almost always ignored the locker-room spread and snacks on team flights.
"I had been on multiple teams and hadn't been around a guy who was really putting time into those kind of things," Bell said.
Nash is not one of those retired players who resent how the game has changed. In numerous interviews over the past few years, he has said he regrets not shooting more when he was a player -- and specifically not taking more pull-up 3-pointers. He believes that would have been best for his team, and he has said the same to Bell in private conversations.
"Steve has seen the game a lot differently since retirement than he did when he played," Bell said. "The game has evolved a lot since then."
Bell expects Nash's offensive system to have a range of influences: He'll take stuff directly from Golden State's playbook for Durant, borrow actions that he ran under Mike D'Antoni and Alvin Gentry and look at analytics to see where Irving should be working from the most. Nash has told Bell that conversations and experiences he had while working with the Warriors have shaped the way he looks at the modern game.
"That's been interesting," Bell said. "I think he would tell you if you were speaking to him, too, that his philosophy has morphed a lot as the game has morphed. So I think he is definitely one of those guys that, when he comes out of the chute in Brooklyn, even though I can't tell you what he's gonna be running and shit like that, I think you're going to see a very progressive style of basketball."
Naturally, with Durant and Irving as cornerstones, the Nets figure to be more isolation-heavy than Golden State or Phoenix was. Nash is not a "my-way-or-the-highway" person, Bell said, and his career is a testament to the power of giving the ball to an artist and letting him create. "He's going to put guys in positions to do their thing," and give them the freedom to improvise.
"He's not a stiff guy," Bell said. "He's flexible. And I think guys will appreciate him for that."