So far, I’ve only covered teams in my “Looking Forward” series. Today, I’m going to make an exception and talk about a player: Allen Iverson. Why? Well, he’s an important guy. Or, at least, he was an important guy. And I’m not sure he’ll end up playing in the NBA next season.
Let’s be clear: I don’t want to see Iverson out of the league. I’ve loved watching him play for over a decade. When the Sixers traded him, I was mad at them. When the Nuggets traded him last season, I immediately bought tickets to what I thought would be his Pistons debut in Toronto (he debuted two nights later in a loss to the Nets). However, when the Pistons shut him down in April due to a shady “back injury”, I completely understood. The Pistons needed him to be a complementary player rather than the focal point of their offense, and he couldn’t do it.
When Allen Iverson was in his prime, in Philadelphia, he was surrounded by guys like Theo Ratliff, Dikembe Mutombo, Raja Bell, Matt Harpring, Keith Van Horn, Tyrone Hill, Todd MacCulloch, Eric Snow, and Aaron McKie. These guys range from shot-blockers to defensive stoppers to distributors to rebounders to spot-up shooters. Guys like Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes, who wanted the ball in their hands to score, did not fit in well with Iverson, so they were shipped out. Those Philly teams were built this way because of Iverson’s style – with the ball in his hands, he was a threat from anywhere on the court. He attracted so much attention from opposing defenses that some of his bad shots functioned as assists. We all loved the way he hit seemingly impossible shots over guys far bigger and stronger than him, with a swagger that said he would make the next shot no matter how many of them rimmed out. Sixer fans appreciated the way those teams played tough defense, making life a pain for opposing teams every night. Sure, those teams never won a title, but they were a fixture in the playoffs and even got to the finals one year. Iverson was a legitimate megastar.
The problem, now, is that Iverson isn’t really a star anymore. At 34 years of age, he’s past his prime. Sure, he can still score. In fact, his shooting percentages haven’t slipped as much as you might think (they were never that good to begin with). However, anyone who’s watched him recently can tell that he’s lost a step. He can’t out-quick every opposing defender in the league anymore. He can’t stay with guys on the defensive end anymore. He doesn’t make the same seemingly impossible plays in the paint that he used to. His strengths now are being able to create his shot, his still-above-average speed, his ability to occasionally make a nice pass, and his ability to play the passing lanes. That’s about it.
Still, these are good things for an NBA player to have, at any age. The problem lies in the fact that his flaws might outweigh his strengths at this point. The swagger that I talked about, the attitude that makes him always think he can always get a shot off and the next one is going in? He needed that on teams that lacked other creators. He needed that when he was counted on to score. At this point, though, all the swagger does is ensure that he still takes a whole lot of jumpers. These are two-point jumpers, low percentage ones, often contested. In Detroit, when Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince were perfectly capable of scoring efficiently, this hurt the team. Despite his steal totals, Iverson was never a very good defender, so, once they realized that he was no help offensively, it made perfect sense to shut him down and admit the experiment was a failure.
Iverson is cursed, now, by the habits he’s developed over the years. He’s still got NBA-level skills but his possession-killing ways mean that he doesn’t fit into most systems. Guys his age generally sign with good teams, with the hope that they can put them over the hump. Take Antonio McDyess, for example. He signed with San Antonio this summer and will presumably start at the 4. He’s not going to put up great numbers or take a ton of shots, but he will fit into their system and help them win. If I was playing a pickup game, I’d still take Iverson over McDyess, but it’s perfectly understandable why McDyess got the full mid-level exception from San Antonio for 2 guaranteed years and Iverson is still waiting to find a team. Sadly, I’m really not sure if there are ANY teams in the league that can use him. The Rockets, without Yao and McGrady, remind me a lot of his Sixer teams, but they have not been linked to Iverson at all. The Heat are kind of similar, but they already have a much more efficient version in Dwyane Wade and I’m not sure they need AI there to take possessions away from him. Still, the rumours persist.
What does this all mean? Well, it means I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he ended up playing somewhere in Europe next season. The thought of it actually kind of depresses me, as I hate seeing players I loved sinking lower than I thought they ever would. This is where we are, though, and, to steal an overused NBA cliché, it is what it is.