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December 2, 2009
Game Reax
Iverson's last stand

by Bradford Doolittle


"To love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody knows ... his own." | Charles Foster Kane

Yeah, I'm one of those people that go around saying that "Citizen Kane" is one of my favorite movies, if not right at the top of my list, and I really mean it. But don't worry ... I'm not going to attempt a prolonged comparison of Charlie Kane and Allen Iverson.

Nevertheless, just as with Kane, "one's own terms" is obviously a very important concept to Iverson. And, like, Orson Welles' protagonist, the deadly sin of pride serves to underscore all that is the best and worst about the most prolific small scorer in NBA history.

We've been waiting for an outcome to the latest Iverson saga for a couple of weeks. Now we finally have it, though even this apparent closure is accompanied by a measure of uncertainty. For the time being at least, Iverson is once again a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. His contract isnít guaranteed, so itíll be imperative that A.I. be on his best behavior.

The road from there to here has been a winding one. After 14 years at the eye of the NBA storm, Iverson feigned his intention to walk away from the game through a curiously-submitted statement that appeared on the personal Web site of Stephen A. Smith last week. Though media outlets of all varieties fell over themselves eulogizing the career of the one they call A.I., it quickly became apparent that Iverson was retired like Frank Sinatra is retired. (Well, that was a nod to "Almost Famous" which doesn't quite work since Sinatra is now dead, so plug in another celebrity that just won't go away.)

The "retirement" was preceded by a long year for Iverson. After being dealt to Detroit for Chauncey Billups early last November, Iverson struggled to fit into a reduced role with the Pistons. Eventually, he turned up injured, though one had the feeling that what was most bruised was Iverson's ego. The Pistons limped into the playoffs and they and Iverson seemed intent to stay as far away from each other as possible.

Iverson then dangled all summer on the free agent market. While Iverson's ability to help a team was still apparent, his willingness to accept the role for which he is now best suited was very much in question. During his time on the floor last season, it wasn't just Iverson's scoring average that was down. He had clearly lost a step, as his ability to get clean looks was diminished and his foul-drawing rate declined. Some of his problems stemmed from plain old shooting woes, but that didn't explain everything. Like everyone else who has ever walked the face of the Earth, Iverson was getting older.

Iverson was nearly 34 years old by last season's end and it is only natural that his quickness would start to ebb. He's still quick -- his drop-off was from a plateau that few have reached -- but any erosion of that trait would impact Iverson's productivity because so much of his success has been a result of an other-worldly set of fast-twitch fibers. It wasn't just the age, though. Over 13 seasons of NBA basketball, heavy minutes and countless fouls drawn, the 6'0", 180-pound Iverson has absorbed as much punishment as any player of his generation, perhaps any generation. That takes a toll. It just has to. It's not a slight on what Iverson has accomplished to date.

Still, Iverson couldn't see it. Just before training camp, Iverson found a taker: the Memphis Grizzlies. The cynical saw it as strictly a ticket-selling move by Memphis owner Michael Heisley. Others saw it as Iversonís attempt to find a team that would let him continue to play 40 minutes a night and average 25 points, no matter the cost to the team's win total. A precious few saw it as a good fit -- Iverson could provide a much-needed scoring boost to the Grizzlies' second unit, provide mentorship to young guards O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Sam Young and still get in 25-30 minutes per game.

At his introductory press conference in Memphis, Iverson offered a glimpse into his mindset at the time: "(Theyíre) talking about how Iíve lost a step. They trying to put me in a rocking chair already," he said. He was only partially right. People were talking about how he'd lost a step. But no one was really trying to put him in a rocking chair. For Iverson, it was a case of one or the other. Love on his own terms.

The shame of it all from the standpoint of Memphis fans was that Iverson could have thrived in a reserve role with the Grizzlies. He could possibly even have contended for Sixth Man of the Year, an award that may end up going to Jason Terry for the second straight season since San Antonio's Manu Ginobili continues to battle physical problems. Terry, Ginobili and Denver's J.R. Smith are all prime examples of what Iverson could have been for the Grizzlies. However, Iverson just could not accept the idea of not being a starter.

Iverson played well in his three games in Memphis, posting a .596 eFG% in just over 22 minutes per game. He took a leave at that point to clear up some personal problems back at home and never returned to the Grizzlies. Heisley graciously granted his release. Iverson was once again a free agent, available to all and sundry with no strings attached in terms of money, talent or draft picks. Once again, no one wanted him. Then came the faux retirement.

Here's the part of this tale that I think is overlooked. Let's assume for a minute that Iverson is right about the current state of his on-court abilities and he's just as good as he ever was. What has that ever gotten the teams that Iverson has played for?

During those premature obits on A.I.'s career, everyone talked about his competitiveness. To be sure, a player of Iverson's stature could not have reached Hall-of-Fame status without a hot fire burning in his belly. However, his presence has caused a conundrum on every team on which he has played. He has a point guard's body and dominates the ball like a point guard, but his best skill is creating offense for himself. He's had decent assist rates during his career, but has he really lifted the play of his teammates?

It's not easy to answer that in a quantitative sense. The Sixers had a good run under Larry Brown, who crafted the Philly roster around Iverson's presence. He paired him with Eric Snow in the backcourt. Snow, who was big enough to check the two-guards that Iverson could not defend, did not need the ball to be an effective player. He was the ideal backcourt complement to Iverson and the Sixers played well over .500 for five seasons and even reached the 2001 Finals, emerging from a weak Eastern Conference bracket.

That was as good as it ever got for Iverson's teams. When he left Philly in December of 2006, the 76ers got better. He went to Denver, where the Nuggets underachieved. But the Nuggets took a huge step forward last season, primarily because of the swap of Iverson for Billups. No matter how you slice it, it sure looks like teams could only go so far with Iverson as a core player, even when A.I. had the full range of his skills. That, as much as anything, explains why he's had a tough time finding work over the last few months.

Yes, he's competitive. When he says that the most important thing is to win a championship, I believe him ... to a degree. I think he really wants to get a ring, but it's also important to him for a team to get that hardware because of him. He's not one to just go along for the ride. His terms.

Here's what I wrote in Iverson's comment for Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10:

"Iverson can fit in with the Grizzlies, or any team, as an off-the-bench scorer with the green light to shoot as much as his heart desires when running with the second unit. And on nights heís hitting, he can play even more than that. Itís not a bad role, especially for a 34-year-old, 13-year veteran who has absorbed as much punishment as any player of his generation. Just accept it, A.I., and your marriage to Memphis can be a happy one. The potential for ugliness is certainly there as well."

Iverson left Memphis before it could really get ugly but his unwillingness to come off the bench proved to more of a brick wall than a hurdle. Now that he's in Philadelphia, it's a problem Eddie Jordan and Ed Stefanski don't have to worry about during the eight weeks or so that Lou Williams will be sitting out with a broken jaw. Sometime in late January, however, we're going to be revisiting this issue all over again.

The Nuggets were in Chicago right after Iverson went on leave from Memphis and I asked George Karl about Iverson's inadaptability.

"My experience with A.I. was always good. We had two years and we figured out how to make it work, and it was mostly a happy (relationship). I don't know what happened in Detroit or what happened in Memphis, but what I always worry about ... I knew when my career was over. That was when I tore my knee up for the third time. I still thought I could play and it took me at least six months to accept that I wasn't good enough.

"(Accepting), whatever level, from starter to bench, from 13th man to you can't play, it takes some time. The thing that makes us go is our competitive ego and our competitive energy. You can't have that energy thinking you're not good enough."

Of course, Karl has dealt successfully with another dominant offensive force in J.R. Smith, who if left unimpeded by playing time or ball-sharing issues would probably average 25 points or more per game, though his teams might suffer in the doing. Under Karl, Smith has thrived as the offensive core of the Nuggets' second unit, a player that brings a unique energy to the game every time he strips off the warm-ups. On those nights when Smith is hitting, he also becomes the co-primary option with Carmelo Anthony down the stretch of close games. When he's not hitting, Smith will typically take a subversive role. That, in itself, is a triumph of Karl's will.

"I could start J.R., but I don't think he's going to get as many shots," Karl said. "The way I convinced him was to say, 'Hey, when you're coming off the bench, you're number one. If you start, you're three or four. Where do you want to be?'"

Is it remotely possible that a similar tack would be successful in convincing Iverson to be a sixth man? Probably not and his coaches the last couple of years have surely tried telling Iverson precisely what Karl told Smith. But those aren't Iverson's terms. That's not the way he sees himself and the "competitive ego" that Karl spoke of is larger in Iverson than in just about any other player that's every played. Now that he's back in Philadelphia, you have to hope that Jordan and Stefanski realize all this.

The Sixers could be a good fit for Iverson. With Williams out, there is a starting spot available. There will be an eight-week open audition during which Iverson can prove that he not only has plenty left in his game, but also can help a team win games. The Sixers ranks 19th in offensive rating, so there is plenty of room for improvement, although the Sixers need even more help on the defensive end, something Iverson won't help.

I had originally included some Iverson-related musings in the Sixers chapter of the book because in the offseason, I thought Iverson was potentially a good fit in Philly, if the history of off-court problems there could be set aside. A wise man (K. Pelton) convinced me to excise that passage because it detoured off the train of thought in the chapter, but now I can happy revive my words written sometime in the haze of September:

"For a brief moment, there were whisperings that Allen Iverson might be a candidate to return to the city where he made his fortune. These suggestions werenít because of anything the Sixers said or did and, indeed, Philadelphia never expressed any public interest in re-acquiring the face of the franchise. As Iverson dangled on the open market, people started putting two and two together. The Sixers needed a point guard; here was one available with an encyclopedia of history behind him. It would have been interesting to see Iverson in the Princeton offense. For most of his career, heís provided a quandary for his coaches. Heís not a ball distributor, to say the least, and dominates in the usage category. Heís not big enough to guard shooting guards and itís always been difficult pairing him with an appropriate backcourt partner. A Princeton-style design might be just what the doctor (not as in Dr. J) ordered."

Now that this has come to pass, I will be very interested to see how Iverson functions in the Princeton attack, which has meant so much agita for most of the Sixers, with the possible exception of Andre Iguodala. Because the offense doesn't require a pure point guard, Iverson won't be asked to initiate the offense in a traditional manner. However, he will have to function off the ball more than he has in the past. His quickness will need to be deployed in curling off screens and accepting inside-out passes from Philly's big men. Often this season, Iguodala has had to take over the offense by shunning the base offense and going off the dribble. There is a danger that Philly's offense will degenerate into a series of one-on-one isolations alternating between A.I the first and A.I. the second.

It'll be up to Eddie Jordan to make this all work. If it does, it'll be because it works for Iverson, not because of him. I'm excited to see it. I really don't see the downside of this gamble from Philly's standpoint. Jrue Holiday, the only NBA player born in the 1990s, is not ready to contribute to a winning team in a full-time role. Royal Ivey and Willie Green just aren't that good. The Sixers' financial exposure is almost nil. Reports are that Iverson's deal is non-guaranteed and our numbers have Philly well under the luxury tax threshold.

The Sixers have started slow once again at 5-12 and have lost six straight. Really what do they have to lose? Not as much as Iverson. If he wants to eventually leave the game on his own terms, heís ultimately going to have to learn to play under somebody elseís.

You can follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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First-Half Tsunami (Ag... (12/02)
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Game Reax (03/24)
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Game Reax (01/04)
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