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Before Steve Nash changed the NBA, he changed the Mavericks

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Steve Nash became an emerging star in Dallas. His departure was a defining moment for his career and the Mavericks franchise.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's fitting that the Mavericks are preparing for a road game in Phoenix as Steve Nash announced his retirement.

Nash's decision to leave the Mavs and sign with the Suns as a free agent in 2004 is still maybe the defining moment in his relationship with Dallas -- even more than all the playoff victories and clutch last minute shots.

Nash, along with Dirk NowitzkiMichael FinleyDon Nelson and novice owner Mark Cuban, returned a franchise that had been a laughingstock for more than a decade to relevance in the early 2000s. That achievement was a result of both playoff successes and the Mavericks' exciting style of play.

But after six years with the team and with his primary running buddy Dirk just entering his prime, Nash was gone. Dallas fans and media debated Cuban's decision not to match the Suns' lucrative contract back in 2004 for years. Not even a successful Mavericks title run in 2011 -- something Nash never achieved -- really killed the debate over that move for good.

★★★

As a sports fan, Nash's decision to leave Dallas and take more money -- and a bigger role -- in Phoenix was the first experience I really had with sports pain. Playoff losses to the Kings and Spurs hurt when they happened. But there was nothing like seeing a guy who I treasured watching for more than 82 nights a year decide to put on another jersey and play for another town.

I still remember the teaser for WFAA broadcast about a member of the Mavericks leaving the team. As the station cut to commercial, I figured it had to be Finley -- his production had been declining for the past two seasons and the team added Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels on the wing in the previous season. When Nash's name was announced on the broadcast, it felt like a punch to the gut.

No player, not even Nowitzki, made the Mavericks one of the league's most exciting teams more than Nash. When the offense wasn't creating wide open looks, he seemed to always magically find a way to create a shot in the half court when the shot clock was draining down.

On their way to 60 wins in the 2002-03 season, the Mavericks led the league with an offensive efficiency of 100.7. When other basketball fans talk about how boring the game used to be in the early 2000s, it's honestly hard for me to remember because I watched so many fast-paced games involving the Mavericks and their rivals, the Kings.

With Nash and Dirk leading the way, Dallas vanquished teams led by hall of fame big men Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett in the playoffs in back-to-back years. With the added toughness of Nick Van Exel in 2003, they overcame their rivals from Sacramento in what was one the most incredible seven game series I can remember.

Nash, Nowitzki and Don Nelson were primarily responsible for creating that perception of the NBA with those Mavericks squads and one of those guys was suddenly gone. When the team lost Tyson Chandler to free agency after its 2011 title run, I was unhappy but it didn't really hurt that bad. I'd already been down that road before with Nash.

★★★

After the Mavericks passed on re-signing Nash, they traded Antoine Walker in the same offseason to Atlanta for Jason Terry. JET, a smallish, loudmouth combo guard, would go on to become one of the most beloved figures in franchise history, if not Dallas sports in general.

The team also added rookie point guard Devin Harris and veteran Jerry Stackhouse in a draft day trade prior to free agency that likely helped paved the way for Nash's departure. And finally, they signed Warriors center Erick Dampier to a $65 million contract.

The Mavericks had essentially given Nash the DeMarco Murray treatment 11 years before the Cowboys refused to pay big money to its record-breaking running back. Instead, they opted to find cheaper replacements at this position through the draft and free agency and invested their cap room in a position of need.

Putting aside Nash's extraordinary production in Phoenix, it was hard to argue with the results. The team won 58, 60 and 67 games in the three succeeding seasons and went all the way to the finals in 2006, while Nowitzki established himself as one of the league's top players and the face of the franchise. Although the team only won one playoff series from 2007 to 2010, the formula was established -- pair Dirk with a defensive-minded center and add athletes and shooters on the wing and Dallas would have a shot at the title.

The Mavericks confirmed that in 2011 when they replaced Dampier with the more talented and athletic Chandler and finally hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy.

★★★

Back in 2005, however, it was difficult to ignore Nash's production on the Suns. While Harris and Terry struggled to meet Nelson's expectations, he was putting up numbers in Mike D'Antoni's wide open offense that most fans could never have imagined.

The second-guessing of the Mavericks' decision to pass on re-signing Nash in the media was inevitable, especially when he would go on to win the first of two MVP awards. And the Suns' victory over the Dallas in 2005, where Nash would deliver the dagger over Terry in Game 6, didn't help.

For fans like me, that kind of loss pushed you to find more justification in your team's front office decisions. Letting him walk was still the right move, I would argue with friends as the Suns became the darlings of the league. I was honestly mad at Nash for having left, even though Terry, Harris and Stackhouse became some of my favorite players ever. I never quite forgave Nash for having left though.

And like a Knicks or Cavs fan who really hated Michael Jordan, that can hurt your ability to appreciate the brilliant things a player is doing on the floor.

No amount of caping for your team's offseason move could take away from the fear Nash inspired on the court though. When the Mavs matched up with Phoenix in the playoffs the next year, I never felt sure of a win until the buzzer sounded. You were always ready for a clutch Nash three pointer to make the game close in the final minute. After Dallas won that series to advance to the Finals, it felt like a validation of the personnel moves the team had pursued over the last two seasons.

Dallas and Phoenix appeared to be headed toward one of the most memorable conference finals ever in 2007 before both teams' plans were derailed. The fact that Dirk and his former Mavs sidekick would never meet up in the playoffs again is one of the league's great tragedies.

★★★

When the Dallas entered free agency in 2012 and Nash's deal with Phoenix had run out, talk of a Mavs reunion briefly heated up. For as much as I'd moved on from the pain of the 2004 offseason, I let myself get briefly excited about a possible reunion -- despite the potential downsides for the franchise. What could be more poetic than Dirk and Steve riding into the sunset together?

Nash would go on to sign with the Lakers that offseason and his health would fall apart over the following season and a half, ending with Saturday's retirement announcement.

Perhaps no NBA star was as unlucky as Nash in his efforts to reach the Finals. While Mavericks fans rightfully complain about the officiating of the 2006 Finals, Nash got screwed on even more occasions, starting with the 2003 Western Conference Finals when Nowitzki sprained his knee after stepping on Manu Ginobili's foot.

Before the 2005-06 season, teammate Amar'e Stoudemire required microfracture surgery on his knee and missed the entire year but Phoenix still pushed the Mavs to six games in the playoffs.

In 2007, his Suns squad had a legitimate chance of advancing to the NBA finals when in Game 4 of the Conference Finals Nash was hip checked into the scorers' table by the Spurs' Robert Horry. No fight occurred, but teammates Stoudemire and Boris Diaw took several steps onto the court and the NBA ended up punishing the Suns more than San Antonio, suspending both for a critical Game 5 won by the Spurs.

I'm just glad he finally got a chance to knockoff San Antonio in 2010 before a Metta World Peace game-winning putback in the Conference Finals denied him his last real shot at the Finals

Nash never won a ring but he helped transform the Mavericks franchise and, over several years spent between Dallas and Phoenix, the NBA as a whole.