NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

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Steve Nash
Steve Nash (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

player. 66. . PG. Phoenix Suns. Steve Nash. 12

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 12. Steve Nash

Another all-time floor general, Steve Nash split the bulk of his career between Phoenix and Dallas. He spearheaded the revolutionary Seven Seconds or Less offense in Phoenix. He was in many ways a precursor to the modern NBA point guard — a dynamic 3-point shooter and assist generator who thrived in up-tempo situations.

Nash won two MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. Phoenix’s offense at the time was one of the most exhilarating in NBA history. While many have since debated whether Nash deserved his MVP awards, he elevated the Suns to real contention in the ever-crowded Western Conference. To even be in the conversation with the likes of Shaq and Kobe — much less to beat them out for the award — is nothing if not a high point on his résumé.

Never much of an athlete, Nash got by almost entirely on skill. He simply outthought and outmaneuvered the opposition. He could see the floor better than most and was comfortable making every pass in the book. His rapid reads and quick-trigger passes, combined with a deadly 3-point shot and a beautiful collection of floaters, made Nash a pain to defend.

In the end, Nash made eight All-Star teams, was nominated to seven All-NBA squads and led the NBA in assists five times. He was as prolific a passer as any, and a more skilled scorer than he often gets credit for.

Nash-helmed offenses were generally the cream of the crop.

81. . SF. Toronto Raptors. Kawhi Leonard. 11. player

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 11. Kawhi Leonard

Board man gets paid. Kawhi Leonard’s stoic demeanor belies one of the greatest competitors of his generation. Many players struggle to maintain superstar production and play elite defense. Leonard has won two Defensive Player of the Year awards (a rare accomplishment for a wing), while also emerging as a top-shelf offensive weapon.

Leonard’s NBA journey has been interesting to track. He began in San Antonio, a perfect breeding ground for young talent. He worked in the shadows behind Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, shocking the masses to win Finals MVP in 2014 due to his staunch defense on LeBron James. That was his third NBA season, at just 22 years old — before he even made his first All-Star appearance.

Since then, Leonard’s trajectory has been pointed up at a dangerously steep angle. He made two All-Star appearances in 2016 and 2017 before missing the bulk of the 2017-18 season due to injury. Before his return, the notoriously quiet Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio and was traded to Toronto, where he stayed one season and promptly delivered Toronto its first NBA championship. He won his second Finals MVP award and has since moved to his hometown LA to play for the Clippers.

Leonard is a five-time All-Star, a number that will surely grow in time. He has developed an astonishing amount since he first entered the league. Barely an offensive threat in college, Leonard is now among the most potent isolation scorers in basketball. He has become an A-list offensive talent while still playing elite man-to-man defense on a nightly basis.