Posts Tagged ‘steve nash’

Kobe Bryant is Fading Away and Other Aging NBA Stars

October 13, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.

There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.

I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.

Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.

For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.

I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.

The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.

The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.

Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.

Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.

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NBA Top 50 – MVP Shares

December 27, 2013

Rank Player MVP Shares
1 Michael Jordan* 8.138
2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 6.203
3 Larry Bird* 5.693
4 LeBron James 5.387
5 Magic Johnson* 5.129
6 Bill Russell* 4.827
7 Shaquille O’Neal 4.38
8 Karl Malone* 4.296
9 Wilt Chamberlain* 4.269
10 Tim Duncan 4.261
11 Kobe Bryant 4.206
12 David Robinson* 3.123
13 Moses Malone* 2.873
14 Kevin Garnett 2.753
15 Bob Pettit* 2.628
16 Hakeem Olajuwon* 2.611
17 Oscar Robertson* 2.479
18 Charles Barkley* 2.438
19 Steve Nash 2.429
20 Jerry West* 2.09
21 Kevin Durant 2.019
22 Dirk Nowitzki 1.804
23 Elgin Baylor* 1.659
24 Allen Iverson 1.567
25 Bob McAdoo* 1.494
26 Patrick Ewing* 1.424
27 Chris Paul 1.423
28 Julius Erving* 1.407
29 Dave Cowens* 1.338
30 Dwight Howard 1.249
31 Willis Reed* 1.073
32 Derrick Rose 0.981
33 Alonzo Mourning 0.968
34 Jason Kidd 0.933
35 George Gervin* 0.911
36 Bob Cousy* 0.882
37 Tracy McGrady 0.855
38 Dominique Wilkins* 0.849
39 Gary Payton* 0.823
40 Dwyane Wade 0.793
41 Clyde Drexler* 0.778
42 Scottie Pippen* 0.716
43 Sidney Moncrief 0.695
44 Dolph Schayes* 0.69
45 Wes Unseld* 0.639
46 Bernard King* 0.625
47 Rick Barry* 0.592
48 Chris Webber 0.588
49 Elvin Hayes* 0.571
50 Grant Hill 0.52

A couple days ago, we put together a top 15 list using playoff success as our criteria for consideration and then boiling down using stats, titles, and awards. It was a stilted approach in that I set out to be as inclusive as possible in determining playoff success but then was totalitarian in crediting the awards.

The above list is the top 50 cumulative career percentage of MVP votes received. Essentially the voters have a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place vote every year. If one player were to receive 100% of the 1st place votes, he still would not get all the MVP shares for that year, because the 2nd and 3rd place votes comprise part of the whole. Since the voting is rarely ever that one-sided, generally the actual award winner’s total share leaves a lot for the runners up to add to their total.

What’s nice about measuring with the shares rather than just giving an arbitrary credit for winning the award is that it credits guys who were consistently high in the running but may have lost out to others due to missed games or when two great players starred for the same team and split the vote. Shaq and Kobe are good examples of players who may have got in each other’s way when it came to actually winning the MVP but both consistently received large portions of the vote – they are 7th and 11th respectively even though they each only won a single MVP award.

The other good thing about using voting results as a measure of player greatness is that voters can approach the game from a more nuanced perspective than numbers. If we picked MVP by statistics each year, Wilt would have 10, and Russell would have very few. Something was happening to make voters break the 60s up into some votes for Wilt, some votes for Russell, and enough votes for Oscar to win one year. As I wasn’t around at that time, and heck even the people who were avid fans didn’t have great exposure to all the teams and players, the views of the voters are all the context that we really have to go on to help supplement the raw numbers.

A quick note on the limitations of stats: take a look at Michael Jordan’s season in 1992. His team won 67 games and absolutely dominated the league with a margin of victory of 10.44. Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had their most efficient seasons. Obsessive basketball nerds like Bill Simmons (and me) consider 1992 to be the season where Jordan was at the peak of his basketball ability. It is also his worst statistical season in half a decade. His PER fell 4 points. His TS% dropped by 2.5. His free throw rate dropped by 4%. His ORtg fell by 4 points.

Basically all of his personal efficiency numbers tanked, and his team was better for it. Why? Well I was 13 at the time, and I don’t remember seeing him do anything all that different, but I’d guess it’s because he was giving up some of the isolation plays that led to his drives to the rim for easy scores and free throws in order to run the triangle and keep his teammates involved. Whatever happened, I don’t think MJ fell of a cliff at the age of 28, and his new play style worked to the tune of the best season any team had between the 1987 Lakers and the Bulls again in 1996.

So while Jordan’s box score stats indicated that this was the worst he’d played in half a decade and show a massive drop from 1991, his MVP shares actually went up by 1% from his previous MVP and by over 10% from his first MVP in 1988 (when he had the best season ever by PER standards). Granted, the metrics that I’m referring to didn’t exist back then, and the points, assists, and rebounds were still strong, so maybe that increase in MVP shares isn’t voters capturing nuances of Jordan’s game so much as voters responding to a dip in Barkley’s production and the absence of Magic Johnson. Still this is one subjective record of a player’s impact on his team and on the league that we have access to, and it dates all the way back to the late 1950s.

The weakness of using this measure is that MVP voting is not an exact science by any means. The criteria is ill-defined to the point of being almost useless. How is “value” defined for NBA players? Is it the player who personally accounts for the most wins on his team? If so then the best producer is probably that guy. Is it the player who takes a step back statistically to allow others to flourish? If so it’s probably the best player on the winningest team. It’s a very nebulous concept, and some players seem to get the lion’s share of credit that could be more evenly distributed. Take a look at Karl Malone sitting between Shaq and Wilt on the list. The asterisk next to his name is to indicate that he’s in the hall of fame, but it should be to indicate that 40% of his MVP shares belong to John Stockton, who incredibly does not make this list at all.

I stumbled across this list on Bastketball-Reference.com, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s not a definitive ranking by any means, but it is a good snapshot of how great players have been perceived by award voters over the years and certainly has some merit as a tool to help add some context to the box score numbers.

2014 NBA Preview with John Stockton

October 28, 2013

The following is an excerpt from my annual pre-season interview with NBA Hall of Famer and professional point guard engineer / mechanic, John Stockton.

A rainy night in Tacoma, WA, in a brightly lit machine shop, John Stockton is bent over a sleek, polished hinge joint.  He’s wearing a Jazz purple and gray mechanic coverall, streaked with motor oil and singed on one sleeve.  He peers through watch-maker’s magnifying lenses and operates a tiny motorized screwdriver.  Next to him lies an inert human form, approximately 6′ 3″, wearing capri pants and a tiny backpack.  I can tell John’s not ready to talk yet, and there’s no point rushing him.  I set up my recorder and watch as he tightens a piece in what must be the broken knee joint.  Russell Westbrook‘s empty, lifeless eyes stare up at the fluorescent lights.  It’s creepy when John turns off the point guards to work on them.  I remember 2008 when Chris Paul was like this.  John does good work.  After eight minutes of intense concentration, he sighs and pushes back from his work.

Jason Palumbo – How’s it coming, John?

John Stockton – Hmm?  Oh.  Hi.  Good.  Shouldn’t take but 5 or 6 weeks to get him running again.

JP – It took longer with Rose.

JS – The DR-1Model taught us so much about the limits of these new designs.  We took a full year to really understand the unit.  Maximum torque, minimal drag, minimal weight.  There’s no steel left in the design.  Carbon fiber, titanium, just a few aluminum struts for support, naturally grown human tissues.  We’re close to perfecting these new hotrod models.  Remember the SF-3?

JP – Yeah, that was the one who almost won the dunk contest, except he ran into Vinsanity.

JS – Exactly.  The Steve Francis prototype was just  a test to see what the limits of the turbo-PG could be.  But he was heavy.  Steel-allow chassis, the old meat and potato power cells, limited three point range.  These new point guards are the future.

JP – You think they’ll be better than Chris Paul or Steve Nash?

JS – Well… The operator matters, J.  I can’t lie to you.  We can make the best robot point guard in the world, but there is a ghost in the shell, and it makes a difference.  SN-13 lasted this long for two reasons: operator brilliance and that Canadian engine.  Nash runs on completely macrobiotic fuel now, burns totally clean.  Those older parts are starting to wear out, but the processor and the motor will run forever.

JP – You never cease to amaze me with this stuff, John, but I’ve got to ask you about the season.  For the kids, John.

JS – Shoot.

JP – You’ve got six point guards on teams that people expect to contend.

JS – Six?  Let me guess.  The Formula One Racer, DR-1, CP-3… Not old Nashy.  Who else?  2nd Gen Curry, I guess.  I’m really proud of that one actually, J.  We got his targeting system so finely calibrated, he’ll be the best shooter the game has ever seen if the gyros in the ankles don’t go.  Had to keep them tight so his balance wouldn’t disrupt his shot, but now the whole ankle joint array is sensitive.  Who else?

JP – You got Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and no, nobody expects Nash to contend except maybe Kobe Bryant.  You never worked on the Mamba did you?

JS – No.  I don’t do shooting guards.  He’s organics anyway.  You know he’s an Italian make?  Of course he’s got German parts now.

JP – Okay, well you’ve still got two more to guess.

JS – RW-0 here? (He holds up Westbrook’s mechanical knee)

JP- Yeah.  That’s five.

JS – The last one must be Lin.  Jeremy is based on an older model, and there’s a hitch in his shooting wrist from a malformed strut.  Operator thinks too much on defense too, gets beat by guys who are slower than him.  Still, he’s a solid build that’s worked in the past.

JP – Not who I meant.

JS – People don’t think the Rockets will contend?

JP – Not that.  They just don’t think Lin is the reason.  James Harden and Dwight Howard are getting the pre-season credit.

JS – Don’t disregard the importance of the point guard, J.  The point guard runs the offense.

JP – Noted.  Can you guess who the actual number 6 point guard on the list is?

JS – Not old DW-8?

JP – Deron Williams!  You got it!

JS – I thought people had forgotten about him.  We made a mistake in that model, J.  Coach Sloan asked me to make him better than CP-3, so I beefed up the power output and added more mass to increase the leverage.  The whole unit is just a touch too heavy now.  Suffered a series of breakdowns, and now the operator isn’t sure how to pilot the point guard.  It was bound to happen after Jerry left.  I put Gary Payton‘s old model, JKidd, in charge of Deron, and I hope that helps.  JKidd lasted a long time.  Payton built him really well, and I’m hoping Kidd can get the DW-8 operator back in the saddle as Karl would say.

JP – Karl Malone would say that?

JS – Yes.  He would say that.  Let’s go over the breakdown again before you go and I get back to work on RW-0.  So Formula One is still a Spur, and the operator is pick and rolling at a Nashian success rate.

JP – He’s Stocktonian.

JS – J.  Don’t sass me.  Anyway.  I can see San Antonio winning.  If Bernard King had built that small forward of theirs to a higher free throw standard, they would have won last year.  DR-1 is on the best defensive team in the league with the best depth that the team has had around him since he was activated.  Chicago is going to be tough, J.  We were not screwing around during that year-long rebuild of his knee.  He’s fully upgraded.  All of his operations should be functioning at peak performance.  Rose is as finally-tuned a robot point guard as I’ve ever built.

JP – Good enough to beat LeBron James and the Heat?

JS – Don’t say his name, J.  He can hear it when you say his name.

JP – Ooookay.  Let’s move on. How about Curry and the Warriors?  Can they win the West?

JS – If that darned ankle holds together.  Tell Mark Jackson to get him in for regular tune-ups, and I’ll do what I can.

JP – What about the Thunder?  Is Russell Westbrook really going to be ready to go inside of 6 weeks?

JS – J, I told you: We have mastered the turbo model.  The torque was too high before, but these new shock absorbers we’ve designed are going to revolutionize the explosive point guard as we know him.  Westbrook will be back, and he will kill John Connor.

JP – What?

JS – Nothing.  Can we wrap this up?

JP – Sure.  Do you think the Clippers can come out of the West?

JS – Listen, J, I know former point guard Doc Rivers was getting really frustrated with my 9Green model.

JP – Rajon Rondo?

JS – Yes.  We constructed the Rondo model with the widest possible field of vision to maximize assist potential, but it compromised the targeting at distance.  Even at a range of 15 feet with no defense his shot is suspect.  Doc will enjoy working with CP-3.  He’s not the new turbo design, but he has no flaws, and the operator knows his business.  That’s a point guard.

JP – And can any of your point guards defeat LeBr… I mean Him.  Can anyone beat the Heat?

JS – How can a simple machine, no matter how perfect in form and function, contend with the divine?  Karl and I faced the last basketball demi-god in two Finals.  I looked into his eyes, J, and I saw my ghost aflame, my gears and chassis smitten upon the hardwood.  Man’s works cannot stand against the NBA devil.  This one is the same as mine was.  Oh, he discarded the 23 to try to blind us to the truth, but he’s the same. Those eyes, J.  Pitiless.  What hope has a point guard against something like that, J?  What hope have any of us?

Gary Payton – Best PG of his Era

September 30, 2013

The Glove Gary Payton entered the Hall of Fame weeks ago, and I, your trusted source for all the best HoF player profiles, gave you, my loyal reader(s), nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s disgraceful. I’m a disgrace. Heartfelt apologies to you (all). I shall endeavor to do better than nothing. I think I can do that.

In a way I’m glad I waited, because I’ve seen in twitter feeds and ESPN NBA writer chats quite a bit of anti-GP sentiment coming from loudly typing fans. The words “overrated”, “average”, and “hand-check” appeared frequently. The knocks against GP are that he wasn’t a great outside shooter for a guard, and his Sonics teams underachieved in the playoffs in 1994 and 1995.

And I’m here to tell you that the people bashing away at the real Seattle’s Finest are dead wrong. Gary Payton was maybe the best guard of the hardest era to be a guard in the last 30 years or so, and if he’s not number one over that span, he’s second to Kobe Bean.

GP was drafted in 1991, and he did not impress out of the gate. Most four year players who approach All-NBA status do so quickly. Not Payton. He was a slow starter, and it didn’t help that he shared the PG duties with Nate McMillan and the scoring duties with a plethora of talented guys including Ricky Pierce. BUT Payton is one of the all-time great veteran guards. Age 28-33, only a few guards in the last 30 years are his equal. By PER Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and John Stockton are the only guards to surpass him. Not too shabby.

Another factor that plays against GP is that he peaked at just about the hardest time to be a guard offensively and just about the best time to be a guard defensively. Not surprisingly, most people who watched him play in his prime remember him as one of if not the best defensive point guard of all time, while the younger set who look back at statistics are not impressed by his efficiency numbers.

The problem is that Payton’s best offensive years were 1997-2002. That’s after the Riley / Van Gundy Knicks demonstrated that by choking out the shot clock and using the NBA equivalent of ground and pound tactics, teams of lesser talent could give themselves a chance to beat their more gifted competitors. And it’s also before the no hand-check rule was consistently enforced. It was the worst of both worlds for players trying to score off the dribble.

For the time span of 1997-2002 Payton has the highest Win Share of any guard and is tied with Vince Carter for the 2nd highest PER behind Michael Jordan (who only played two and half out of a possible 6 seasons). It was a brutally physical era where big men were dominant except when Michael Jordan’s Bulls were still staving off the competition. Even Jordan wasn’t the best player in the league statistically in ’97 and ’98. It was Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal at the top in terms of numbers (a clear indication that box score numbers alone are limited tools in basketball).

I think it’s an important point to stress that using metrics to try to create an unbiased measure for cross-generational comparisons is very, very (very) difficult. In fact it deserves its own post, and I’ll get to that soon. But a quick example might be helpful…

The numbers of the game are heavily determined by the pace, rules, strategies, team structure, and competition of the day. Are players today better shooters than they were in the ‘80s? That sounds like a statistically measurable question, but it isn’t so simple. What unit do we use to measure? FG%? Well in bygone times the three point shot either didn’t exist or was seen as a gimmick rather than a weapon, so FG% in general equated to 2P% which is inherently better than a solid mix of 2s and 3s and is an unfair way to gauge the shooters of today. eFG%? This measure factors in the three point shot, but it does so to the detriment of shooters of yesteryear whose numbers would be better if they took more 3s even if they weren’t very good at shooting them. Single out 2P% to eliminate the division caused by the 3? Sounds good, but again strategically teams today take far fewer long range 2s than they used to (those are 3s now), AND the prevalence of deep shooting big men has led to more space in the paint for slashers (and resulted in fewer offensive rebounds). So you’d actually expect this generation to shoot better from 2 and 3 simply because strategies have evolved, and players are taking better shots. It’s not impossible to compare and contrast players from different decades, but it does require perspective.

Okay, I’ll expand on that later. Back to the man of the hour (many hours after his hour has passed):

Payton does have some very impressive stats in his favor. Of all guards with at least 33,000 career minutes played (11 very high minute seasons, or 12-15 moderately high minute seasons), Payton ranks 11th All-Time in PER and is top 5 out of the point guards on the list.

33,000+ Career Minute Guards Sorted by PER:

Michael Jordan

Magic Johnson

Kobe Bryant

Oscar Robertson

Jerry West

John Stockton

Clyde Drexler

Allen Iverson

Vince Carter

Steve Nash

Gary Payton

Ray Allan

Reggie Miller

Isiah Thomas

Rod Strickland

Considering that PER does not factor defense at all, and Payton is at worst the 3rd best defender on that list, that’s very impressive. In fact, defensive acumen probably jumps him up above Nash and Carter and maybe AI too. Quick aside – If I include ABA games, George Gervin comes in 7th and pushes GP down to 12th. Also Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul both project very high on this list if they make it to the 33,000 game mark in their careers.

Only 3 players have ever had per game averages of 20+ points, 5+ assists, and 5+ rebounds for a season while maintaining the elite, Pat Riley-required assist to turnover ratio of 3:1. Gary Payton, Chris Paul, and Magic Johnson.

Only 6 players have ever averaged 20+ points and 7+ assists per game, and maintained a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio for a season:

Gary Payton – 4 Times

Magic Johnson – 3 Times

Kevin Johnson – 3 Times

Tim Hardaway – 3 Times

Chris Paul – 2 Times

Isiah Thomas – Once

In terms of accomplishments, Payton became the only point guard to win DPoY when he took the trophy in 1996. GP is the only guard to win defensive player of the year since Jordan did it in 1988. No guard has won it since. The Glove is a 9 time all star, 9 time all-defensive first team player, and he made the All-NBA team 9 times as well (2 first teams, 5 second teams, 2 third teams). Payton was arguably the best player on an NBA Finals team, a starter on another NBA Finals team, and key bench contributor on a champion (24 minutes per game in the playoffs and several clutch shots hit) – which means he could fit with other skilled players on elite teams. He also helped the USA bring home gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic games, demonstrating that he could mesh his skills with great players at a high level.

For my money, Payton bridges the gap between John Stockton and Chris Paul as the best point guard of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. He was a fearlessly competitive lead guard capable of posting up point guards, blowing by shooting guards, running the break, killing it on the pick and roll, and even working off the ball. Defensively he was probably the best ever against quick guards and had the strength and tenacity to cover 2s and even some 3s (he defended Scottie Pippen in a lot of situations in the 1996 Finals in order to force Chicago to run their offense through someone other than their 6’ 7” point forward, and Scottie had a terrible offensive series).

And like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Kevin Garnett, GP was one of the great trash-talkers and agitators of all time. He could beat you with his skills. He could beat you with his brain. He knew it, and he made sure that you knew it too.

Allen Iverson – The Underrated MVP?

August 27, 2013

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.