Allen Iverson's LegacyLike many NBA observers, I suspect that Allen Iverson's retirement will be short-lived but if it is really true that Iverson has played his final NBA game then today it is certainly most fitting to remember--and be thankful for--his outstanding career. Iverson has more than his share of "haters"--from the "stat gurus" who deem him to be overrated to older fans who don't like his tattoos and hip hop persona--but no sensible person can deny that he is not only one of the greatest "little men" (six feet and under) in pro basketball history but one of the greatest players of all-time, period.
Iverson not only won the 2001 regular season MVP--though I think that Shaquille O'Neal deserved the honor that year--but he received at least one MVP vote in eight of his 13 full seasons. Iverson won the 1997 Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star MVPs while making the All-Star team 10 years in a row (2000-09). Iverson earned seven All-NBA selections, including three First Team nods.
ESPN noted that Iverson is one of only three players in NBA history who averaged at least 25 ppg, five apg and two spg--the others are Michael Jordan and Jerry West; of course, steals have only been officially recorded since 1973-74 in the NBA, so West's "career" average only includes 81 steals in 31 games in his final season, which means that in the past 35 years the only two players to average 25-5-2 during full length careers are Jordan and Iverson.
Numbers rarely tell the whole story but check out Iverson's NBA/ABA ranks in some key categories: fourth in career mpg (41.4), sixth in career scoring average (27.0 ppg), sixth in career spg (2.2), 11th in career free throws made (6277) and 22nd in career points (24,020)--and Iverson stepped up his game in the postseason, ranking second in career ppg (29.7, trailing only Michael Jordan), third in mpg (45.1, trailing only legendary iron man centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell) and seventh in spg (2.07, just behind Jordan).
Now, let's put those statistics in historical perspective. Iverson lapped the field in career regular season points among the six foot and under set (Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy is second with 17,949)--but he also scored more career points than Charles Barkley, Robert Parish, Adrian Dantley, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton or Larry Bird! The regular season career mpg leader list is dominated by Hall of Fame big men like Chamberlain, Russell, Jerry Lucas and Bob Pettit, plus powerfully built swingmen Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and LeBron James. Jerry West is the only other relatively small player in the top ten and he is a legit 6-3; Latrell Sprewell, a 6-5 shooting guard, rounds out the top 10.
The free throw numbers are a testament to Iverson's mental and physical toughness: he repeatedly drove to the hoop, crashed into players who were literally 100 pounds heavier than he is, accepted the punishment and made the free throws. You can legitimately question Iverson's shot selection at times but you can never question his heart, his toughness or his will to win.
Iverson's defense is often berated but he was a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year at Georgetown and his steals numbers in the NBA attest to the fact that he certainly put forth some effort at that end of the court despite the huge offensive load that he carried. Iverson was not a lock down defender but he proved under Coach Larry Brown in Philadelphia that he could be a cog on a very good defensive team and lead that team to the NBA Finals.
Iverson won four NBA scoring titles, matching 6-7 Hall of Famer George Gervin and exceeding every other player in pro basketball history except for Jordan (10) and Chamberlain (seven). Iverson won as many scoring titles as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined! It is certainly true that Iverson did not shoot a great percentage from the field but TNT commentator Doug Collins consistently made the excellent observation that because Iverson drew so much attention with his bold forays to the hoop his misses often turned into excellent offensive rebounding opportunities for his teammates.
Many players who attempt 18-20 or more field goals per game get labeled as "selfish gunners" (though no one says that about LeBron James or Dwyane Wade). I have often expressed justifiable skepticism about how assists are officially recorded but the assist still remains the only statistic we have to quantify passing and it is worth noting that Iverson ranked in the top ten in the NBA in that category four different times, amassing a career average of 6.2 apg--better than Walt Frazier, Dave Bing and Chauncey Billups, among others.
Iverson and Billups will always be linked, of course, because Detroit's trade of Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Iverson in November 2008 seems--in retrospect--to be the beginning of the end of Iverson's career. Much has been written about that trade and its aftermath--and most of what has been written is garbage. Let's dispel a few myths:
1) Contrary to revisionist history, Iverson did not "fail" in Denver: he ranked seventh in scoring and eighth in assists in 2006-07 and third in scoring and ninth in assists in 2007-08. The Nuggets made the playoffs both years, including a 50 win season in 2007-08 that was the best regular season performance by that franchise since 1987-88. In 2007, the Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Spurs, winning one more playoff game against San Antonio than LeBron James' Eastern Conference champions did in the NBA Finals. In 2008, the Nuggets were swept in the first round by the eventual Western Conference champion Lakers; Iverson led the Nuggets in scoring and assists during that series, while Carmelo Anthony shot just .364 from the field and led the Nuggets in turnovers.
2) Although Billups certainly played very well for Denver last season, the "change in culture" in Denver largely consisted of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin getting healthy, Chris Andersen playing better than anyone expected and several Western Conference teams battling injuries to key players (Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Jazz), thus enabling the Nuggets to move up in the standings. The Nuggets exceeded their 2008 win total by four, blew by undermanned Dallas and New Orleans teams in the playoffs and then lost to the Lakers.
3) When the Pistons acquired Iverson, Joe Dumars said that the team would use Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and others to become a more explosive offensive team, particularly in the fourth quarter, a time when the Pistons too often became stagnant during the past few years in the playoffs. Early in the season, Iverson played brilliantly in a Detroit win over the Lakers but the Pistons inexplicably decided that Rodney Stuckey must be in the starting lineup no matter what. That meant that either Iverson or Richard Hamilton would have to come off of the bench, a role that neither All-Star player is accustomed to filling. It made no sense for the Pistons to bring in Iverson and not let him play the way that he is used to playing, especially when Dumars specifically said that he acquired Iverson to make the Pistons more explosive offensively.
There is merit to the argument that regardless of what was said to Iverson that he should do whatever his coach asks him to do--including coming off of the bench--but clearly Iverson is too honest and too prideful to do that; Iverson does not want to sit behind inferior players. I think that Iverson is still capable of averaging 20-plus ppg for a playoff team but the poor way that the Pistons treated him--and the defiant way that Iverson responded--has clearly lowered Iverson's perceived value. The Memphis experiment was obviously doomed from the start and the less that is said about that brief moment in his career the better.
It is bitterly ironic that in the immediate wake of Iverson's retirement announcement, Iverson's name was one of just six--the others being Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal--mentioned during ESPN's NBA Shootaround as a candidate for "Player of the Decade." Love him or hate him, there is no denying Iverson's colossal impact on NBA history.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:46 AM