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Is Steve Nash the greatest shooter in NBA history?

If you’re laughing at the headline, then you really should read on.

Everyone acknowledges that Steve Nash is one of the greatest passers in the history of the NBA. He is currently fifth in career assists, and by the end of the 2012-13 season he will likely have passed Magic Johnson and Mark Jackson to be third.

But it’s only in the last couple of years that writers and fans have begun to acknowledge what an exceptional shooter Nash is.

How exceptional?

Well, exceptionally exceptional. In fact, he is in a league by himself.

Here is a fact that is just starting to become generally known in basketball circles: Since the advent of the 3-point line in the NBA in 1979-80, there have only been nine instances where a player has shot at least 50% on field goals, 40% on three-pointers, and 90% on free throws over the course of a season.

That player has been Steve Nash four of those nine times.

(The others are Larry Bird – twice, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, and Dirk Nowitzki. Jose Calderon also achieved the mark but did not attempt the league-minimum number of free throws to officially qualify.)

That in itself is enough to place Nash firmly in the discussion of who is the greatest shooter of all time.

But what’s truly amazing – and what has largely gone unnoticed – are Nash’s career numbers. Over his 16 years in the league, he is shooting 49.1% on field goals, 42.8% on three-pointers, and 90.4% on free throws.

Steve Nash is almost shooting 50/40/90 for his career!  That’s absolutely insane.

No one else is even close to having achieved that. By this measure, Steve Nash really is in a league of his own.

The argument against Steve Nash as the greatest shooter in NBA history

Here, though, is the counter-argument: 

How can you call someone the greatest shooter of all time if they’re not even a shooter?  

It’s not as lame of a counter-argument as it sounds.

Nash is a pass-first point guard who is heavily committed to ball distribution and getting his teammates easy looks. When does he shoot? He shoots when the defense cheats toward his teammates, or when a pick-and-roll results in a mismatch for him, or when he’s created enough panic in the paint that the defense is utterly disoriented. In other words, generally speaking, he limits himself to high percentage shots, which is the reason he shoots for such astounding and unprecedented percentages.

Can you be the greatest shooter in league history if you only take high percentage shots? Bird, Bryant, Durant, James, Jordan, Nowitzki, etc. – they all fight through double-teams, they all create their own shots in isolation against the league’s best defenders, and they all are handed the ball with 3-seconds left on the shot-clock at the end of a broken play. They take these low percentage shots because, to some extent, their teams are dependent on them to do so. This is not the case for Nash – at least not to the same extent.

What it boils down to is this: Can the greatest shooter of all time be someone who is averaging 14.5 points per game for his career? One could reasonably argue that the greatest shooter in league history should average at least 25 points per game.

Saying that Nash is the greatest shooter of all-time, the argument goes, is like saying LeBron James may one day be considered the greatest passer of all-time – he’s one hell of a passer, but he doesn’t quite do it often enough to qualify.

The verdict

I would never be so foolish as to argue that Nash is the greatest scorer of all time, but he is the greatest shooter of all-time. His percentages from all distances are staggering, and I’m not going to punish him because he has the good sense not to shoot with a hand in his face!

Besides, compared to the great scorers of all time, Nash has one very distinct disadvantage – no hops! I don’t think he can jump high enough to touch the rim, let alone dunk. 

Really, though, I`m happy just to hear commentators and fans start to take notice that Nash is more than an amazing passer, but also one of the all-time great shooters (even if they don’t think he’s the greatest).

Follow me on Twitter to be alerted to future posts, including one on what it will take for Nash to reach the magic 50% on field goals for his career.

*This post really only considers players since the 1979-80 season, when the NBA introduced the 3-point line, and so it unfairly excludes great shooters from earlier decades.

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Written by Craig Lawson

Craig Lawson is a Canadian who works during the day and enjoys writing about basketball at night (from the comfort of his wifi-equipped igloo). You can read all his posts at www.steve-nash-chronicles.com, and follow him on twitter @stevenashchroni.

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