Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni didn’t know Steve Nash wanted to coach, but says his former player has ‘great basketball mind’

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Immediately after hearing on Thursday that the Brooklyn Nets had named Steve Nash their head coach, Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni was texting Nash a congratulatory note.

And why not? Nash cemented a Hall of Fame NBA career partly because with the Phoenix Suns, he helped D’Antoni popularize an offense that countless NBA teams currently mimic, emphasizing floor spacing and three-point shooting. But D’Antoni could not resist a playful jab, joking that Nash is “jumping into the frying pan of the fire.”

“I’m happy for him. I hope things work out, to a certain degree. I don’t want them to work out too much,” D’Antoni quipped. “But he’ll do a good job.”

The move surprised those in NBA circles, even D’Antoni. The reasons had nothing to do with lacking NBA or college basketball head-coaching experience; those close to Nash did not sense he had any interest in coaching. After formally retiring from a 19-year NBA career in 2015, Nash mostly enjoyed living with his family in Manhattan Beach, California. He also took on various projects, like overseeing the Canadian men’s basketball team and working as player-development consultant with the Golden State Warriors.

Mike D'Antoni, now the Rockets' head coach, coached Steve Nash in Phoenix. (Photo: MARK HUMPHREY, AP)

“I didn’t know he wanted to coach,” D’Antoni said. "He’s got a great basketball mind. I know he loves basketball. So it doesn’t surprise me. But it’s interesting.”

Still, D’Antoni expects Nash to thrive for a few obvious and subtle reasons. The obvious? Nash has an established resume. He entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after winning two regular-season MVPs and appearing on eight All-Star teams. After logging 19 seasons with the Suns (1996-1998, 2004-12), Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004) and Los Angeles Lakers (2012-2015), Nash finished third on the NBA’s all-time assists list (10,335), behind Jason Kidd and John Stockton.

“The game plan was give it to Steve, and Steve, you can figure it out,” D’Antoni quipped. “He was pretty well involved with how he prepares his team.”

The subtle? Nash earned respect from both star and role players with his expertise and work ethic. He had worked the past five years as a player-development consultant with the Warriors, visiting their facilities once or twice a month to fulfill different responsibilities. He completed individual workouts with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. He offered tactical feedback to coach Steve Kerr. And he gave tips to the younger players. That presence gave Durant enough of an impression to want Nash to be his head coach with the Nets. 

“If things are thrown at him, one loss, two losses, three losses in a row, players not playing well, he has a lot of people to deal with, so how different personalities react to that,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll see. But it’s a good bet that he will react well. As a point guard, he had to understand that this guy needs the ball, or he needs to help this guy and figure it out. He always did that.”

Nash did not just impress with acrobatic passes or flashy style. He also had a grit to his game that resonated with star and role players alike.

He dealt with a troublesome back for most of his career, requiring him to receive constant treatment and stay disciplined with his movement patterns and postural stability. Despite playing in only 65 out of a possible 164 regular-season games with the Lakers because of overlapping injuries to his back and hamstrings (2012-15), Nash impressed D’Antoni and teammates with his relentlessly positive attitude and work ethic.

“He worked as hard as anybody I’ve seen in basketball to get ready in basketball. Even when he broke his leg in LA, no one outworked him," said D'Antoni, who also coached him with the Lakers. "He’ll do the same as a coach. He knows basketball. It’s a pretty good formula for success."

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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