In Defence Of: Allen Iverson

Choosing article subjects is tough. Topical lacks staying power. Historical ignores the present. Wait too long and the window closes. This article has sat in draft for over a year and I realized that every day it’s less relevant. Lets discuss Allen Iverson and the hose job his legacy received. Now.

The clichés are common. AI was a selfish scorer. He was The (C)answer. His comments about practice are engrained in the sports vernacular forever.

People rarely examine his career logically though. Few consider what he did and the context he played in. They just say selfish and use AI for an easy punching bag to further their career as a sports writer. Lets not do this. Lets examine AI’s worst perceptions and try to shed light on reality of one of basketballs biggest stars of all time.

They all boil down to one bone of contention:

AI is a selfish player who’s only concern on the court was scoring his own points.

Over his career he has more dimes per then Billups, Mike Bibby, Jason Williams, Tony Parker, Damon Stoudamire, Jason Williams, Larry Bird, Avery Johnson, Dwayne Wade and is just behind Tim Hardaway. AI was a scorer who often played 2 guard instead of traditional point. He still got more assists then all time point guards. AI is ahead of all 2 guards, all time, as in every one, in dimes. Setting up his team was obviously a major part of AI’s game.

So you say this. People claim it’s just because he always had the ball in his hands. While this is true for Jordan and the plethora of other guards who also dominated the ball but never dished for as many dimes.

AI didn’t change his game to score more points. In a previous article I crunched AI’s Scoring Assist Differential. When AI scored more he got pretty much the same number of assists. He got more points by raising his FG% by almost 10%. Selfish players alter their game to score by taking tougher shots instead of passing for better ones. AI, much to the contrary of popular belief, did just the opposite.

Why was Iverson scoring so much? The answer has quite a bit to do with setting.

You can break Iverson’s career down to two distinct eras. Philly and Denver.

Philadelphia 76ers

2 words describe the supporting cast. Offensively. Absent.

This Is How LA Lost It’s Only Game. All AI.

The season he averaged 31.4 PPG he also played almost 44 minutes a game trying to get W’s. They were the 23′rd ranked offensive team in the league and had almost no other viable scoring options. Was he going to pass to washed up 34 year old Derrick Coleman? Or his first option, 7.4 ppg career scorer Aaron McKie? Or 35 year old offensively finished Mutombo? Or Matt Harpring? Or 6.8 ppg career scoring sensation Eric Snow? Hmm… no.

No one had ability to create their own shot. Except AI. He played his heart out to make things easy so they could get W’s. People blamed AI and his famous selfishness despite many wins and a trip to the finals for the role players on his team. You still hear too selfish. Can’t make others better. Is this true?

Lets reflect on how those players did with AI:

Matt Harpring: 11.1 ppg was his career high in 02, more then double what he’d done before.

Eric Snow: 11.9 PPG, .3 PPG off of his career high that happened the next year with AI as well. He shot 44%, 2′nd highest ever which followed next year’s AI fueled 45%.

Career: Bench Player.
Career With AI:
2′nd Leading Scorer
On A Finals Team

Aaron Mckie: 12.2 ppg. 45%. His career high ppg. Twice his career average. His career high FG % occured the previous year with AI in 01. He also shot his second best from 3 at almost 40%, exceeded only once in Portland.

Mutombo: 11.5 ppg. The most he had scored in 6 seasons when he was still in his prime as Atlanta’s franchise guy. His 6′th highest PPG mark of his whole career. After his 11.5 the next year in Philly with AI, he would never score over 5.8 PPG again.

Coleman: His career was done, but 15.1 PPG was the highest he would post in his last 5 seasons in the league.

The entire starting line up put up career highs or totally revitalized seasons in points and shooting percentage. AI drew that out of them. They stank, but stank a little less when Iverson led them to the highest play in their careers.

But stats are not everything!!!

Indeed. Lets ignore the stats in Philly and focus on careers.

When has Aaron McKie been the 2′nd option on a championship contender and finalist team?

When was the last time Mutombo was the starting center on a finals team?

Or Eric Snow (Cleveland does not count because he was a zombie then)?

They were key contributors on one of the very best teams in basketball and batting WAY above their station. Like the lead dork banging the hot cheerleader at the end of Revenge Of The Nerds. Every one of those guys are bench players who see a few to zero minutes on a contending team of the day like the Kings or Lakers.

With AI they made the finals and were the only team to beat the juggernaut Lakers behind AI’s incredible 48 point, 5 steal, 6 dime, 5 board performance. AI averaged 47.4 MPG and 35.6 PPG vs LA losing the next two games by only 9 and 5 points. Which sounds not so great.

Then you consider that the stacked Blazers (Pippen/Sheed/Stoudamire/Steve Smith/Bonzi Wells/Sabonis/Dale Davis/Rod Strickland/Detlef Schremph/Will Purdue) were blown out by 13, 18 and 13 points.

The stacked Kings (Webber/Peja Stojakovic/Vlade Divac/Hedo Turkoglu/Jason Williams/Nick Anderson/Doug Christie/Lawrence Funderburke/Bobby Jackson/Jon Barry/Scot Pollard) lost by 3, 6, and then were blown out by  22 and 13.

The stacked Spurs (Tim Duncan/David Robinson/Sean Elliot/Avery Johnson/Antonio Daniels/Derek Anderson/Danny Ferry/Steve Kerr/even Malik Rose) lost by 8, and were blown out by 14, 29 and 39 points.

AI, leading his motley crew of role players, played a hair under 48 minutes a game. Their worst loss was by 14 points when second leading scorer Aaron McKie shot 1/9. Every other game was competitive.

People credit MJ for making his team mates better. I just find it interesting that he was obviously surrounded with far superior HOF caliber all stars who could ‘almost’ win a title without him. AI somehow hurt his team of role players by making them more effective statistically AND in general carrying a lottery team within 3 wins of the title vs one of the most dominant teams in hoops history.

The degree that AI made his team over-achieve pretty much blows MJ out of the water but AI will never get credit for being the awesome leader that he was. With the exception of Mutombo (who only played 20 games or so that season) none of those guys gets off the Bulls bench. Ever. But they’re starting in the finals.

If you put AI in Jordan’s position, in his prime, with Pippen/Rodman/Kukoc and Harper, I think he wins many titles. With just Pippen and the cast offs of the Bulls first title that took the Knicks to 7 games (who went to 7 games vs the champion Rockets) he merely wins a couple to a few. Does Jordan win rings in Iverson’s shoes? Pretty much: no. He ends up just like Iverson.

Okay, that makes too much sense the nay sayers say. So the fall back slam is:

AI couldn’t play with good players

That’s what I’ve heard. Time to consider the second era of AI’s career.

Denver Nuggets

The closest foil we have is his two post-prime Denver seasons. His last 2 seasons before NBA retirement. He posted two career high FG%’s. Note there were 0 complaints when his shots went from 25/game to under 19 and he scored the lowest PPG since his sophomore year.

When he had better teammates in Denver his FG% climbed up to 45% while his TO’s dropped from 4 to yet another career career mark, 3 TO/game. He happily let his attempts drop to an 11 year low to make someone else the team’s clear leading scorer.

Funny all that, since some Philly trends did carry over. That same Allen Iverson trend of everyone around him playing the best offensive basketball of their careers.

Melo Has Not Produced More Or Shot
A Higher %’age Before Or After AI

Melo posted a career high 28.7 PPG.

JR Smith posted a career high 13 PPG.

Marcus Camby posted the highest PPG in the last 6 years of his career, 11.5, and the second highest he’d posted since he was in his prime in NYC 6 years before (and a special note, oh my, what a player he was there. Drool!)

Nene posted a career high despite being hurt.

Najera was .1 ppg off from his career high and has never scored more since.

Earl Boykins posted his career high.

Iverson was exactly the opposite of a selfish scorer. Team-mates playing better followed his entire career. That is because so few scorers of AI’s ability were such willing passers.

Only 5 players in history have averaged over 25 PPG for their careers and over 6 dimes. Iverson. Wade. Lebron. Jerry West. Oscar Robertson. Making Iverson one of the least selfish prolific scorers in history. In the modern era only Jordan and AI have put up 30/8 for a whole season. No one else. Not one.

People refuse to accept it. Team Canswer!

Before AI Denver had the 17′th best offense in the NBA. After trading a very good prime Andre Miller for post-prime AI that went up to the 8′th best offence despite the team’s injury riddled season. How does trading a selfish offensive player past his prime for an awesome passing PG in his prime improve your offensive rank by more then double? It can’t is the short answer. Otherwise a very good Andre Miller has to suck (he does not, at all). Or the opinion of AI has to change.

“Why he didn’t average 8 or 9 a game for his career?” some ask. Answer… AI was a scorer? Maybe? It’s like criticizing Nash or Kidd for not scoring 30 ppg. Especially spending his prime surrounded by terrible offensive and injury ravaged teams.

So Why Are His Efficiency Stats So Low? How Did He Improve His Teams Posting Those Numbers?

Left: The True Answer. Right: The True Canswer

Defences zoned in trying to slow him and pulled down AI’s percentages. With distracted defences his teammates killed while his stats like FG% and assists/game went down. If they miss frequently, defences will cheat to shut you down. Iverson’s team was filled with terrible offensive players. Perhaps the most terrible of any successful team in history.

Iverson moved the ball around plenty but always got it back because no one on his team was capable of creating a shot for themselves or a teammate. Often left with no choice but to force offense. It all comes into focus when you compare AI’s prime efficiency to his improved efficiency in Denver past his prime.

So Why Did AI Make People Better?

Defences collapsed routinely to stop his penetration leading to fouls and open shots for all. That’s the short answer.

AI would break a defence in half, score if he had a good look or run options to find the open man. If “hockey assists” were recorded Iverson would be an all time leader. Not being the second last guy to touch the ball doesn’t mean you are not the one responsible for creating the play.

Think of how teams approach guarding truly great scorers. There are two options you hear ad nauseam:

1. Let him get his points but shut down everyone else. This works if he’s only a little great and can’t routinely win games all by himself.

2. Gear the entire D to reduce his effectiveness (no way we can stop him) and force his teammates to beat us. This only happens when ‘him’ is so good that option 1 leads to a big fat loss.

Team’s playing Iverson ‘always’ picked option #2. Shutting down his Philly teammates was simple. They stank and were already plodding. Better to focus on Iverson which explains his lower FG%. It’s also why his career high efficiency from the field, arc and handle at the point happened counter-intuitively past his prime in two straight Denver seasons. Career efficiency at age 32? For a guy who’s game relied so much on speed and athleticism? On a brand new team adjusting to a new role? Only one conclusion makes sense.

AI was not forcing bad shots in Philly. He was being asked to take them.
People say he needs the ball too much to be effective but it’s not shown to be the case in any statistical way. Melo’s scoring didn’t drop in 07, it actually went up while his shooting stayed virtually the same. AI’s dimes stayed consistent. What did change was his TO’s which dropped to career lows.

AI  Is A System Player

This argument goes this way:

He’s good with bad teammates like in Philly. But he’d have been a terrible with someone like Pippen or really anyone not a spot-up shooter. He needs to dominate the ball. With out a system around him AI is less then productive, he’s a hindrance.

AI Still Brings It, It’s Love Of The Game

Denver’s lack of dominance with Iverson has one true cause. Health. If only Melo/AI played full seasons (they missed 55 gams between them) Denver wins 55 games.

It didn’t end there though. Yakhouba Diawara started 19 games. Camby played hurt/was injured half the season. Nene was out or in recovery. Kenyon Martin’s micro-fracture recovery took 2 seasons. Chris Andersen was suspended. None of those things are on AI.

Factor them in and you’re easily talking a 60 win team and 1 seed for the whole playoffs. A lock for the West finals and a legit title contender. All they needed to do was win 6 more games (with one win over the Lakers) and instead of being the 8′th seed they are a 1 seed with home court.

AI did not hinder Philly. AI did not hold back Denver. Asked to carry the offensive load or not Iverson delivered. He didn’t need a system catering to his game and Melo is not close to a spot up shooter. His game didn’t rely on a hobbled Marcus Camby for all their inside presence, his team did. AI’s game did not have problems. AI’s teams had problems. One had a front office problem. The other had a medical problem.
You say things like this, still they’ll continue to argue:

Chauncy Billups Did More With The Same Team, AKA The Bizzaro Third Era Of Allen Iverson

Yes, the bizzaro third era Chauncy Billups. AI didn’t play, but people act like he was kept in a cage plotting to ruin Denver’s season and only Billups prevented him from getting out. All that Denver accomplished with Billups reflects a failure of Iverson… right? The Nuggets came within two games of the finals and Iverson didn’t make it out of the first round. So AI sucks cuz Billups ‘fixed’ everything. Right?

Lets examine this particular myth in the most astute sophisticated terms we can find.

FUCK NO!

This did NOT happen. How drastic was this soaring improvement? Is 4 more wins drastic? Hmm… it’s not.

Did Billups have the same team? No.

1. Kenyon Martin was playing aggressively again and had finally recovered from double micro-fracture knee surgery.

2. Nene didn’t even play in a game with Iverson in 2008. In 2009 he started 76 games with a fully healthy season. He’s an amazing defensive center who also led the league in FG%.

3. Chris Andersen came back from suspension. He brought so much to that team as their sixth man and energy guy. He was not even on the Roster when AI was there. He was a candidate for sixth man of the year in both 2009 and 2010 when he was 2 votes shy of second place. (more on his performance from the bench shortly)

They were better though. Why? Because the only players who showed marked improvement after AI left were players I just mentioned who were NOT there the season before (and yes, K-Mart replacing 08′s washed up Kenyon Martin does count).

Chris Anderson could only play 20 MPG and averaged 6.2 boards and 2.5 blocks in a measly 20 MPG with crazy clutch play in the post season. Per 36 minutes that’s 11 points, 12 boards and a freakish 4.5 blocks a game. Without his clutch play they probably get swept by the Lakers in 09 just like in 08, except it probably happens in the first round, not the West finals.

South Park’s Equivalent Of
The Answer, Confidence? No Problem.

3 huge contributors are not why they won 4 more games. It’s not because Chauncy Billups was ‘better’ dishing fewer assists, scoring less points, shooting at a lower percentage while putting up the same assist percentage.

Was Billups more effective because?:

Melo scored significantly less points at a lower percentage.

Or cuz Linus Klezia scores significantly less points at lower percentage.

Or cuz JR Smith’s FG% fell.

Or cuz Anthony Carter’s FG% fell.

Billups manned the point while the Nuggets had their first healthy team since AI was still in Philly. He played 35 minutes, scored 17 points, dished 6.4 dimes and shot 42%. He was unable to raise the level of play of the rest of the team. With far superior talent they only won 4 more games then with AI. A pithy gain. With far superior talent they had nearly identical offensive and defensive ratings only that AI had to help carry the team through injuries and Billups was able to rest on his laurels knowing how deep his team was.

Ironically Billups is the system player who could never seem to get anything going for so many years of his career till he landed on a do what you’re told Larry Brown team. They made a system that could win with poor offensive performance from the point. A system that depended on it’s shooting guard for as many dimes as it’s point guard.

I like Chauncy. It’s not fair to compare him to AI who’s an all time great but this perception has got to go. He was not better. Even AI’s post-prime production eats Denver Billups for breakfast. There is no traditional or advanced metric that gives Billups any edge. Except ‘hype’ based metrics I suppose.

But Billups’ Denver Teams Functioned So Much Better

Iverson == Heart. Easily One Of The Most Honest,
Forthright Confessions By Any Star In The History Of Sports

True, but no team functions better with vastly inferior front lines and talent.If Billups was better in Denver than it would show up somewhere no? They pushed LA in the West finals after getting swept by them the year before and that’s all it’s really based on.

Lets look at that series then. They won 2 games.

Game 1: Billups had a pretty mediocre game. 8 dimes, but he shot 5/13 and 2/7 from 3 for 18 points. They lost by 3 points and were only in it because Melo carried them shooting 70% for 39 points. In case anyone forgot, this is AI dominating the undefeated juggernaut by himself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v961dNM6PcE

Game 2: Gritty 2 point team effort for a squeaked out a 3 point win. Billups had 4 dimes and 27 points shooting 40%.

Game 3: 6 point loss. Totally mediocre game. 18 point on 5/15, 2/7 from 3, 7 dimes 4 TO’s.

Game 4: 19 point win. Was it because Billups led them there with 24 points on 7/16, 1/6 from 3 and 3 dimes? Or because in 24 minutes Andersen yanked down 14 boards and two blocks. Not to mention, Kenyon Martin had 15 boards and 2 blocks. And Nene had 13 boards. Billups had 3 assists and scored 24 points on 43% shooting and going 1 of 6 from 3. Think about who contributed to the winning, who choked, and who gets credit.

Game 5: 9 point loss. 12 points on 4/7, 3/6 from 3, 5 dimes. Is this bad? It’s more effective shooting but that’s because it’s such lower volume yet not replaced with more dimes. It’s certainly not good.

Game 6: 25 point loss. 10 points, 9 dimes, 2/7 shooting, 1/3 from 3, 5 to’s. Nice on the dimes… finally. It’s not making up for playing terribly, getting shut down and not being able to produce after your confidence is broken. I watched this series. That’s exactly what happened. No one ever talks about it. Could AI have played mediocre basketball while being carried to wins? I think so? Would AI have his confidence broken? Never. AI beat a much stronger Laker team with Shaq all by himself, in their building, on a much grander stage.

Billups gets cred for ‘leading’ Denver so close to the finals. The reality is that Billups is not the reason they won games in that series. He didn’t even have a single complete game and he choked when it really mattered. Billups got carried vs the Lakers and ultimately it’s his mediocre play that cost them a trip to the NBA finals.

I’ve got to repeat myself. I don’t mean bash on Billups. He’s a solid pro who took his own difficult path to top. Kudos. The same uninformed style arguments were used to slam him while he was on that path. People never seem to learn that judging players on things beyond their control only produces unfounded opinions.

It’s never going to stop from casual fans. This is precisely why they are casual. But that’s not a reason true fans shouldn’t look deeper. After the 13 years of blood, sweat and tears he gave to this league (and continues to give to the sport in Turkey of all places) I think Allen Iverson deserves it.

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7 Responses to In Defence Of: Allen Iverson

  1. Anonymous says:

    I've followed Iverson's entire career, and in those 15 or so years I've read countless articles.
    This piece is up there with the best. Well done!

    "It's never going to stop from casual fans. This is precisely why they are casual. But that's not a reason true fans shouldn't look deeper. After the 13 years of blood, sweat and tears he gave to this league (and continues to give to the sport in Turkey of all places) I think Allen Iverson deserves it."

    Couldn't have said it any better.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    It's really kind of upsetting in a way. He was an amazing player who had this underdog thing to him due to his height. He distributed the ball well and led a crappy team to the Finals. He then went to Denver and actually improved a good team there. He could've done wonders when he went to Detroit, but Curry was not exactly an intelligent coach.

    Great article.

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  3. The Pest says:

    Thanks for the props guys. If you come back to read this you should follow the blog or come join the forum where we have discussions like this one all the time. Actually, this article came from a discussion I had with a member there.

    http://forum.fullcourtpest.com

    It's a very ass kicking place… heh, for hoops talk. Thanks again!

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Great article Pest. Iverson is one my favorite basketball players of all time, with the other one being MJ.

    Iverson is one of the greatest athletes, college basketball players, and pro basketball players I have ever seen.

    There is no doubt in my mind that he can still ball, and I am praying that he gets the chance to prove it in the nba.

    With the cheap, unskilled labor that the nba has been employing over the past few seasons, it comes to no surprise to me that great, gritty, knowleadgable players like AI have been left out.

    I have never been this disinterested in the game, and I hope everything works out in the offseason for AI so I can restore my love for the game.

    Allen not only deserves to be playing in the nba because of how he has carried that market throughout the years, but he is good enough to play in the league because he is too talented not to be on the court.

    I never thought that I would see the day when a major sport would turnaway skills and greatness, and there is no excuse that can justify it.

    But once again Pest, it was a great read, and I can`t wait for more.

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  5. The Pest says:

    Hey Anon, thanks for all the props! But who are you? U should send me a mail and let me know since it appears you've subscribed and have read before. Lates!

    Pest.

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