Allen Iverson still casts a massive shadow over the NBA. One that certainly far out stretches his 183cm stature. He was the authentic rebel, a man who embraced his roots and refused to conform to the corporate NBA under David Stern. For those of you old enough (warning 90s movie reference coming, you may need to google it), he was our basketball “Nino Brown” – the kingpin of New Jack City! Street smart, aggressive and ruthless in pursuit of his goals! He was the epitome of the Association’s “hip-hop” generation, from on and off court fashion to regular brushes with the law, late night partying and varied reports of financial ruin. But now we wonder, was he the player we think he was, or does his cultural significance artificially elevate his ranking among the best talents that have graced the NBA?
His basketball resume is strong and includes, an MVP award (2001), 11 All-Star appearances, 6 time all NBA First or Second Team and 1997 Rookie of the Year. He was scoring champion 4 times and led the league in steals on three occasions as well. For his career he averaged 26.7 points, 6.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. Currently he occupies the 24th position in points and 12th for steals in NBA history. Iverson was a like a flare that burned intensely for 14 years and then flamed out, but not before he scorched his name into the collective unconscious of the basketball fraternity.
The 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers were a defensive beast. They were 5th in defensive rating, 5th in opponent’s points against and 5th in steals. They had two elite rim protectors in Theo Ratliff (3.7 blocks per game) and Dikembe “Mt.” Mutombo (2.5 blocks per game) and big aggressive defensive wings in Aaron McKie, George Lynch and Eric Snow. When combined with Iverson, they averaged 6.6 steals per contest. Overall they were also the 4th best rebounding team in the NBA that season. Basically, if they didn’t take the ball away and you got a clean look at the rim, you had better drain it because there wouldn’t be another shot on that possession. They were the personification of “one and done” defensive execution! The 76ers were a meat grinder defensively and on the glass, they let Allen be Allen and then hit the “O” board with ferocity and a scavenger’s mentality. They were the 5th best offensive rebounding team which also resulted in extremely efficient shot attempts on the back of the Iverson misses (or as I’ve seen misses described in the past… Kobe assists).
In his MVP season, AI led the 76ers to a 56 win season and everything offensively was run through the Answer. Under Larry Brown the formula was simple enough, Snow advanced the ball and Iverson just ran defenders ragged off multiple picks till they just were burned off. He was dynamic with the ball in hand and created shots like few others. When you consider his size, there is no doubt that pound for pound he is a greats of the modern game. But that’s not how the world works!
One thing worth pondering is, how much did his height (or lack thereof) affect the quality of the shots he took (because it didn’t affect his confidence or shot selection)? Iverson’s bravado and attitude made him feel as big as anyone in that hardwood, he was pugnacious and led his team in that way. And they stood behind him like a rapper’s entourage. Ready to fight for their guy so he could take them to the “Promised Land” – even if they did end up falling slightly short of getting their hands on the Larry O’Brien!
However, like most big personalities, it’s fair to ask did it cut both ways? At what point did drinking the Iverson “Kool-Aid” come at the price of teammate empowerment, better team play and possibility overall results? If we look at AI through the prism of modern stats will be bare out as the great we remember him as? Who is he in the modern NBA, what kind of player would he be under the more recent interpretation of the rules and the more progressive coaching schools of thought? At a glance he appears to be an inefficient (low 40% range) mid-range shooter with relatively low 3 point accuracy as well. But in his day he was painted as a gladiator, a combative, aggressive scorer that carried one end of the floor one on best teams in the East in the early 2000s. Would these attributes apply in today’s numbers driven league?
Having looked for a modern equivalent I have discovered something… There isn’t one! AI was a combination of bravado, heart, skill, aggression and the face of the incoming “hip-hop” culture within the league at the time. He wasn’t so much a basketballer as he was a reluctant basketball and cultural icon, fiercely committed to being himself and as result became a sort of anti-hero. So I’m going to try to build him out of the guys today that capture parts of the Answer. My very own hoops Frankenstein’s monster if you will!
Looking for Bubba Chuck’s DNA in the modern NBA was an interesting journey that took me to guy that was surprising at first. DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is often derided as a “mid-range chucker”, about as nasty as the numbers nerds can be when talking smack! Both players generate the majority of their offensive output inside the 3 point line. Either by attacking the basket for lay-ups, shooting fouls or via mid-range jumpers! Where they differ is the unwillingness of DeRozan to take certain shots where Iverson had no such issue. In fairness I can’t remember Iverson wetting his pants and slipping in the puddle in as many big spots as DeRozan. The Answer never shrank in the moment. He craved the moment, he wanted to hump the moment into submission and ask it; “Who’s your daddy?”
The other guy that came to mind wile thinking about Iverson is Boston’s own (and previously Phoenix’s, Sacramento’s and very possibly someone else’s next season) Isaiah Thomas. AI had the rock about as much as Isaiah Thomas does now for the Celts in terms of usage. Iverson’s rate of 31.8% is comparable to that of IT4’s at 34%, and this season Thomas averaged 5.9 assists per game compared to the career average of 6.2 assists per game for AI. To me though the fearless attack on the rim and crafty finishing is what makes me think of the Answer when I see IT4 rip and go to the bucket.
Iverson originally was known for having a “killer cross-over” that really may have just been a carry, not unlike the complaints of Fred Hoiberg had about Thomas recently. Both are smaller guys (by NBA standards), both are remorselessly aggressive and both have big personalities on the floor that belay their stature. The difference here is the mess that Isaiah is defensively, and on the offensive end IT4 is like a piranha savagely chomping on everything in front of him. On the other end he’s like your kid brother that you can keep at arm’s length while he tries to punch you! Iverson you had to worry about defensively because when you couldn’t see him – he was about to strip the rock out of your hands!
In terms of defence the one characteristic I’ll focus on is steals. It was sign of aggression for AI and in today’s game it is mirrored by Chris Paul. CP3 averaged 1.9 steals per game this season but his career average of 2.3 steals per game is reminiscent of AI’s steals average of 2.2 for his career. I’m a big CP3 guy, to me he deserves the nickname “Point God” and I just adore the idea of the floor general and facilitator running the show. Both AI and CP defend in a combative manner, both are emotional leaders that turn defence to offence and both can be described as ruthless competitors. Paul is small and so was Iverson, and they both impact the game on the defensive end by creating turnovers. Something that is not always easy to do systemically and speaks to defensive situational comprehension (basketball IQ) and an opportunist’s mentality. Taking what another man has (in this case the ball) is after all an act of dominance!
Oh and Kawhi Leonard has straight up stolen his hair style!
In fact shooting sleeves, corn rows and headbands became really popular back in the late 1990s when AI starting sporting them all. He brought his sense of street style to what was becoming an increasingly corporate league resulting in then NBA Commish David Stern establishing an NBA dress code in 2005 largely because of all the extra-large white t-shirts and baggy jeans. And the players hated it! Some believing it to be a direct attack on their culture and an assault on what was already considered a predominantly ‘black league’. Some asking for some sort of additional remuneration form the teams and league for the extra costs of meeting Stern’s new and somewhat culturally biased fashion limiting edicts.
Being a Knicks fan, I used to enjoy the slog-fest games of the 1990’s. At least I thought so anyway because my team was relevant. Defence and rebounding were the keys to winning games that often ended with neither team scoring much more than 90 points. In fact in 2000-01 the league average points per game was 94.7 and that has swelled to 105.6 last season. When you consider the expansion that occurred in the mid-90’s (Toronto and Vancouver then later Memphis) then that low scoring considering the thinly spread talent, it is indicative of the rough and tumble rules, and play style that was the conventional thinking at the time.
The scoring explosion is directly linked to the league mandating tougher hand-checking and defensive lane violation rulings. As a result the emergence of space and shooting systems that spread defences so thinly some people think no defence is played anymore. The truth is basketball is played and coached in a smarter and more creative way than ever before on both sides of the ball. It has become a skill game jammed with offensive and defensive specialists and if you drop prime Iverson onto the court right now, he would have better shooting splits and maybe played more like a Harden or Westbrook in terms of being a primary ball carrier and decision maker. I actually think the Answer would slice up teams like Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill movies) under the current rules and shoot about a million free throws in the process!
In a league defined by efficiencies and data driven calculations more than ever before you won’t find a guy exactly like the Allen Iverson! He came from the era of force and domination, not analytics. Iverson wanted to take your soul, not have a greater net rating than you! He was about intimidation and force, about getting in your face, about being the biggest personality on the floor and was backed by his own personal goon squad who cleaned glass backed his bravado. Numbers can’t encapsulate him, or should they. He didn’t give a shit what anyone thought, he didn’t care what you wanted to know about him. He just knew who he was and that when it counted he was The Answer to whatever the question was!
In fairness, he definitely wouldn’t be a desirable player in the modern era. In fact he would be junk in terms of efficiency, but he didn’t play in the modern game and I like to think the greats of most eras would mutate to match the circumstances they find themselves in. I’ll finish up my rant by paraphrasing the words of the great American poet Rob van Winkle. “If there was a problem. Yo, he’ll solve, Check out the hook while the Answer resolves it!”