We talkin’ ‘bout retirement? Retirement? Not the game. Not playing the game. We talkin’ ‘bout retirement.
Well no thanks. I don’t want to talk about Iverson officially retiring three years after the league decided to boycott him. I don’t want to talk about the Slam Magazine cover shoot or the racially charged incident in a bowling alley that made (unfairly) a good kid into an infamous young man. I don’t want to talk about A.I.’s impact on sports culture, cornrows, compression sleeves, baggy shorts, jewelry, or the NBA’s ridiculous dress code. I don’t even want to talk about practice.
Let’s talk about Allen Iverson, the shortest player ever to lead the league in scoring and / or win league MVP. I’m pretty sure. How short was Tiny? Or Cousy? Do I care? Do you? Nah. You don’t.
First thing’s first. Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan were better than Iverson the year he won his MVP award. No doubt. No debate. It is what it is. And guess what? That happens all the time. In the 1970s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best player every year without question. He won the MVP “only” half the time. From 1988-1998 Michael Jordan was the best player every year he actually played. He won half the time. Since about 2008, LeBron James has been the best player every year. He has won 2/3rds of the time.
The best player does not always win the MVP. Sometimes the award goes to the player on a championship level team who has paid his dues over the years on non-contenders and deserves the recognition in the eyes of the voters (see Karl Malone). Sometimes it goes to the best player on the winningest team (see Charles Barkley). Sometimes it goes to the player on a contending team that the voters think is least replaceable, like Steve Nash in 2005 & 2006 or Derrick Rose in 2011.
Allen Iverson falls into this last category and is a pretty good match for Rose. They both played on defensively dominant, offensively challenged squads that led the East in wins. They both played an inefficient but highly productive brand of slashing, shoot-first lead guard basketball, exploiting quickness, explosiveness, and the offensive rebounding talent of their teammates to draw multiple defenders at the rim and turn bad shots into good possessions. Were either of them “worthy” MVP winners? Enough voters thought so to award them the title. In MVP voting, that’s all that counts.
The advanced statistics movement has made Iverson something of a whipping boy. Most of the ire for shooting lots of tough shots at a low True Shooting percentage has ironically been aimed at Kobe Bryant, who is a significantly better shooter, but Allen has taken his share of lumps too. Frankly, it’s a hard point to debate. Iverson is not a good shooter by NBA standards. He is a “volume scorer,” which has become a denigrating term over the years.
However, I think three crucial points fall in A.I.’s favor:
- Iverson’s super high usage kept the ball out of the hands of such scoring albatrosses as Eric Snow, George Lynch, and Theo Ratliff. Iverson was the only player on that 2001 76ers Finals team to play more than 1000 minutes and produce an offensive rating over 105. Some metrics like PER take usage into account and rate Iverson pretty highly. Others such as win share do not and rate him very low for his reputation. In any case it’s tough to deny that usage has its benefits even when the shooter is not the most efficient scorer.
- The 2005 change to the hand-check rule had a huge impact on players like Iverson. He had his best statistical season at age 30 in 2006. That is very odd for an undersized, ball-dominant guard (by contrast Isiah Thomas’s best statistical season came at age 23, and Kevin Johnson’s came at age 24). In the 2005-06 season, Iverson had his highest career PER (25.9) averaged 33 points (while taking a career-best 11.5 free throws) and 7.4 assists and shot his second highest TS% 54.3, not great but significantly better than his career average of 51.8 (the only season he shot better was 2008, age 32, while playing with Carmelo Anthony in Denver – but his usage dropped 9 points). Similarly Kobe, Wade, and LeBron made leaps in the 2006 season, as did other ball-dominant scoring wings whose efficiency improved with the enforcement of the perimeter touch foul. I have to believe that if he had been playing under this rule system his entire career, then Iverson’s peak would have come earlier and been more impressive.
- There is value in aggressiveness for the sake of aggressiveness in the NBA, and Allen Iverson was one of the most relentlessly aggressive players in the history of the game. He put pressure on the defense ALL the time. Think of Russell Westbrook. Now imagine there’s no Kevin Durant around to take the ball out of his hands. Now imagine he plays 43 minutes per game. Now consider the effect on a defense over time. He wears you out with simple aggression. That’s Iverson. In fact Iverson is the model for Westbrook and players like him. In the same way that you could say that Kobe, Wade, and LeBron would all be different players without the example of Michael Jordan to model their game on, I have every confidence that Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and every other hyper-aggressive, ball-dominant scoring point guard would be different players without the example set by A.I.
On the plus side of the statistical equation, Iverson led the league in scoring 4 times (and came in second one year with a 33 ppg average because Bryant went bonkers and averaged 35), minutes 7 times, steals 3 times, and usage 5 times. Only 2 players have ever averaged 33+ points and 7+ assists in the same seasons, Iverson and Tiny Archibald. Only 7 players have ever averaged 30+ points and 7+ assists for a season: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Tiny Archibald, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Allen Iverson.
Iverson is also one of only four players ever to average 30+% usage, 30+% assist rate, and under 11% turnover rate in the same season. The other players on the list are Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James. Not bad. A combined 60% usage and assist rate indicates, if nothing else, that a player has the ball A LOT, and to control so many possessions with only 11% turnover rate is outstanding possession maintenance.
And, and, and there’s something to be said for any player who can ALWAYS get a shot off. I know we’ve been led to despise conscienceless chuckers, but some days they do get hot. It’s unpredictable. You wouldn’t necessarily want to try to build a champion around it. But when a guy like A.I. starts hitting those contorted, herky-jerk pull-ups and floaters, it’s like the crane kick in Karate Kid. No can defend. Watch game 1 of the 2001 Finals. Allen Iverson single-handedly takes an undefeated post-season away from the most dominant playoff team of all time (with Shaq and Kobe both playing out of their minds). Why? Because you can’t keep him from taking shots, bad shots maybe, but shots. When he’s hitting him, there’s no scheme or individual who ever had any real success slowing him down. Or watch the All-Star game when he and Marbury led a titanic 4th quarter comeback to defeat a much more dominant West squad. Nobody but nobody could stay in front of him. And the West had Kobe and Jason Kidd and the Glove Gary Payton to throw at him (1 Defensive Player of the Year and about 318 All-Defensive teams between those three).
More than anything what I’ll remember about A.I. is what happened on those nights when he had it going, and no one and nothing could slow him down. He’d get this sort of pained, locked-in expression on his face, like he couldn’t get the ball back fast enough to break down the next defender and get up the next ridiculous shot. He’d get up on his man and start pressuring the ball and break out ahead of the defense in transition every time an opposing guard took a jump shot. In the half court he’d set up on the left wing and get a flow with the ball. Nobody before or since has used the dribble as a weapon the way A.I. did. He would be at the left elbow extended, feinting a drive, dipping the shoulders, rocking this way and that, lulling the defender, and then BANG he’s streaking into the lane driving to his right at breakneck speed, and his defender lunges backward, and the help defense shifts to paint, and then PSYCHE it’s a crossover, he’s really going left for a that floating pull up j at the elbow. He had the ball on a string and the defense on roller skates, and it was a joy and a privilege to watch him do his thing.