Game Misconduct, with Eric J. Herboth: Who Will Hire Allen Iverson, the Best Basketball Player Ever?
So Allen Iverson retired. Sort of. Maybe. Though he's been on an indefinite personal leave from the Memphis Grizzlies since earlier this month, after having played just three games for them, Iverson announced with a surprise statement that he was, as of this week, officially hanging it up. In typical Iverson fashion, even this retirement is controversial.
"I always thought that when I left the game, it would be because I couldn't help my team the way that I was accustomed to. However, that is not the case," Iverson's statement said, in a dig at the Grizzlies, who recently waived his one-year contract and made him a free agent. Beyond that backhand, Iverson (un)clarified his position on retirement by saying, "I feel strongly that I can still compete at the highest level" and that he has "a whole lot left in my tank."
There is no one credible who would consider Iverson as anything other than ready, willing and able to lead an NBA team. When Iverson arrived in Denver to play for the Nuggets, he gave the team the boost it needed to finish the 2007-2008 season with more than 50 wins, the first time the team had accomplished that feat in a decade, though he failed to take the Nuggets beyond the playoffs. Doc Rivers, head coach of the Celtics, agrees: he responded to Iverson's retirement statement with skepticism, saying, "I still think he has something to give to the game." Of course he's got something to give the game. He's Allen Iverson.
Iverson is rarely given the respect he deserves from the sports press. His career is often cast as mediocre or somehow a failure-far from the truth. Iverson was the NBA's number one draft pick in the summer of 1996, which he followed up by being named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1997. Since then he's been a ten-time NBA All-Star and two-time All-Star MVP. Iverson was alo the league MVP for the 2000-2001 season, which culminated with the Sixers reaching the NBA Finals.
Iverson is, pound for pound and inch for inch, the best player to ever step foot on a basketball court.
Taken simply at the value of his numbers, Allen Iverson is a prolific scorer, deft ball handler and tenacious defender. What these statistics do not take into consideration, however, is that Iverson is just six feet tall. Seventy-two inches. The shortest MVP in NBA history. The second ever MVP was Bob Cousy in the 1956-57 season, who stood at 6'1". The only other MVP caliber player to even come close to Iverson's compact stature is two-time winner Steve Nash, and he's got three inches on Iverson. (For what it's worth, Iverson is also one of the shortest All-Star Game MVPs in history. Yes, even John Stockton, Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas, Bob Cousy and Hal Greer are taller than Iverson. You'd have to go all the way back to the 1974-75 season game, when the ABA's Freddie Lewis, also a six-footer, was named MVP. The only All-Star MVP shorter than Iverson was his future coach, Larry Brown, at 5'9" in 1967-68 season game, also for the ABA.)
Six feet tall, in a league where the average height is six feet, seven inches.
Just think about that for a second. Allen Iverson measures just seventy-two inches, closer in height to Anthony "Spud" Webb than to Michael Jordan. All of the other traditional contenders for Greatest Player status have at least half a foot of height on Iverson, not to mention the benefit of stellar supporting casts and devout backing from their franchises. Iverson may have brought a lot of organizational strife upon himself, but a "franchise player" is known as such for a reason: he carries not only the team on the court, but the owners and investors off the court. He puts bodies in seats, jerseys on fans-but was rarely shown the respect and dedication that a player of his caliber is usually shown. Granted, the way the game is managed has been changing rapidly, but do you think Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson would have ever been traded? Part of what gave them the ability to perform at the level they did was the stability of a dedicated franchise. The Sixers may have unofficially retired Iverson's #3 jersey, but they nonetheless traded him to the Denver Nuggets.
During his stellar run in the 1990s, Jordan was supported by Scottie Pippen (who was himself made unquestionably better by Jordan's presence but who nonetheless made Jordan's greatness within a team sport possible) and a fairly solid cast of teammates. He also had Phil Jackson as a coach. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy at his side, amongst others. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Even Steve Nash had the high-scoring Shawn Marion as a teammate. When Iverson had any real help in Philadelphia it was in the form of Dikembe Mutombo, a strong but by no means great player. Still, Mutombo was enough of a collaborator for Iverson to take the Sixers to the NBA Finals, which is as far as anyone has taken them since Doctor J. I know most fans of the game are afflicted with Michael Jordan Blindness, and Jordan was certainly a remarkably brilliant player. As were Magic, Larry Bird, and Wilt Chamberlain, as are Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. All great players, no question. But if Michael Jordan were only six feet tall, throwback types would be rocking Air Pippens.
Iverson is 34 years old, certainly past his prime, but far from over the hill, and certainly not qualified for retirement. Even if he were even half as productive, his stats would still place him in the starting backcourt for more than a third of the NBA's teams. So what's the problem with Iverson finding a starting gig?
On the office side of the court, the biggest turn-off for coaches and owners to Iverson seems to be his attitude, which many find abrasive and arrogant, especially in a system where most teams already have what they consider to be a franchise player. (There are also his off-court issues, which include altercations with his wife where the police were involved and his bodyguard's assault on a club patron in 2005.) But Iverson's matter-of-fact demeanor is far less arrogant than Michael Jordan's attitude, both in the latter's playing days and at his recent Hall of Fame induction.
Those who have beef with Iverson rarely cite any aspect of his game, and instead inevitably point to media moments, like the infamous "practice" press conference, in which Iverson used the word more than twenty times in the span of a couple of minutes.
His comments were directed in response to speculation about his supposed disregard for training, after having come under public post-season criticism from Sixers coach Larry Brown, who blamed a disappointing Sixers season on Iverson's penchant for missing team practices. The press conference–in which Iverson repeatedly defied anyone to question his dedication to the team or his performance on game nights–spawned a commentary firestorm and even its own website. Until this week the "practice" press conference was still what most people remembered him for.
But his team's fans have always loved Iverson for his on-court performance. Philadelphia has essentially been jinxed for the past few decades, having failed to win a championship since 1983. But the Sixers and their fans have never been the laughing stock that abominable franchises like the Clippers or the Warriors or the Bullets (which is how I still refer to the Wizards) have traditionally been. Even though he never took them all the way to a Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy, when he came back to Philadelphia for the first time after being traded to the Nuggets, he received a standing ovation from Sixers fans. Though some love to cast him as the bad guy, at the 2003 All-Star Game, Iverson offered his starting spot to Jordan, who was on his way to permanent retirement and hadn't been voted into the starting lineup. If he were only concerned with his own glory and ego, Iverson wouldn't have bothered making such a gracious offer.
On the court he is beyond reproach. He's taken the NBA's scoring title four times in his career, a number bested only by Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, and with a career scoring average of more than 27 points per game is one of the most consistently prolific in league history. And although he has alternately been chastised and praised for his non-offensive work, Iverson is no slouch on defense either. Oddly, one of Iverson's most vocal supporters for his work on the defensive end has been former Piston's coach Michael Curry. Curry had a first-hand look at Iverson's defensive contributions in Detroit, which helped propel the Pistons from near the bottom to the top of the league's team defense stat charts. At one point, after taking on Iverson, the Pistons ranked third in points allowed and fifth in field-goal percentage allowed, finishing out last season at fifth (77.8 ppg) and seventh (45.1%), respectively. A fact often lost in the endless tirades against Iverson's propensity for scoring is the fact that in his brief, two-year career at Georgetown was also won two Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards, and ranks fourth on the Hoyas' all-time steals list (first by average, at 3.18 per game).
Iverson's defensive strengths come from the same place as his offensive prowess, originating in his drive and work ethic. As Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it yesterday in a series of truncated sentences, "Everybody talked about competing pound for pound. He was just one hell of a competitor. I don't care what he weighed or how tall he was. He sacrificed his body a lot and took a pounding and played hurt a lot."
If it ends now, when sports historians look back on the career of Allen Iverson, they're going to see fired Piston's coach Michael Curry's name inextricably linked to it. As former Nuggets teammate Carmelo Anthony put it yesterday, Iverson "is almost being forced to retire… he got dealt a bad hand from when he went to Detroit up to right now." Iverson's fall-out with Detroit was almost exclusively at the hands of first year coach Curry. By the time Curry was dumped, it was too late for AI. For reasons that are still inexplicable, after experimenting with 18 different starting lineups, Curry had decided that Iverson should back up Rodney Stuckey rather than start at point guard. Putting their per-game stats side by side, Stuckey averaged fewer minutes, fewer points, fewer assists and nearly half as many steals as Iverson-and twice as many fouls. When Stuckey did lead in a statistical category, it was by a negligible margin-with only 2% better field goal percentage and 0.4 rebounds per game more-that can easily be accounted for (Stuckey shot the ball far less and is five inches taller).
Iverson's highest statistical output may be in the past-but in his three games with the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this month, where he did his part for the team by coming off the bench, Iverson was still scoring at a 12.3 point per game clip, tallied with just over 20 minutes of playing time per outing.
It was that restriction to 20 minutes, coming off the bench, which surely broke down the relationship between the Grizzlies and Iverson. But what could the decision makers in Memphis have been thinking when they signed Iverson at the end of the summer? As has been made crystal clear this year, the issue in Detroit was with Curry's coaching decisions, not Iverson's skills or even his intra-team rapport. The crux of the matter had been Iverson's disdain for sixth man status, and it seems unlikely that Memphis could have been operating under any delusions that Iverson would be coming to town for anything other than a starting spot. It's unlikely that Beale Street would have been enough of a perk to offset watching the tipoff from the pine.
Still, Iverson came off the bench-for three games, all in California, none on the Grizzlies' home court, and that was it for Iverson in gold and blue. Who knows, maybe that was part of AI's plan, just suiting up the few times in order to nail another record. In his second game for the Grizzlies, against the Golden State Warriors, he became the 16th player in NBA history to pass the 24,000 point mark.
When he took off his uniform after just three games, it seemed again that Iverson's beef was with the bench. Can anyone really blame him? To start with, considering their overall lack of talent, one would think the Grizzlies would move Iverson into the starting rotation if for no other reason than to keep him happy, let him get his looks at the basket, and work from there. With the team in second to last place in the Western Conference, wouldn't it have been worth it to put some points on the board and win some games? A month into the season and their sixth man is Sam Young, who contributes six points in a dozen minutes per game. Memphis is so weak in the backcourt that they had to go out and sign point guard Jamaal Tinsley upon Iverson's departure. Tinsley averages as many turnovers as assists and coughs up the rock twice as much as he steals it.
For some reason, in the Memphis strategy Iverson wasn't enough of a franchise player to make it into the starting five, yet when the Grizzlies made plans to give away jerseys to fans attending their December 4th game, they had two numbers printed up, Iverson's and Marc Gasol's. Suffice it to say fans wouldn't be lining up outside for a Mike Conley jersey. Because Conley is not the caliber of player Iverson is, on the court or in the fans' eyes. While he is tracking a respectable 5.2 assists per game, Conley is only contributing 8.1 points on average. Iverson's assist numbers weren't far behind Conley's, and that was coming off the bench with a dozen fewer minutes.
Iverson's getting up there in years, but aside from his ability to find his way into the headlines, win or lose, there doesn't seem to be any downside to his game. Maybe it was just a PR issue for a conservative city like Memphis. After all, when there are fools out there in other professional sports killing pedestrians while driving drunk, running dog fighting rings, juicing until their testicles shrivel up or shooting themselves in the leg in the middle of night clubs, at time when an economic crunch is on and entertainment revenue is suffering across the board, any kind of publicity that might be considered negative is seen as a liability.
But is it really a drawback to have one of your guys making the news? Can anyone even name more than two players on the Clippers? The hapless Los Angeles team is having to come up with multi-game ticket packages and promotional giveaways just to put people in the seats.
It isn't like he's strangling the coach. Iverson isn't that much more vocal than most of the players in the NBA. The "problem," as it were, is that people care what Iverson has to say because he is a formidable player and a potent asset to a franchise. Because he puts bodies in the seats and is electrifying to watch. So why won't anyone sign him and give him a starting spot?
In what may have been the most illustrative point on the incongruence of the matter, New York coach Mike D'Antoni, when explaining why the Knicks did not go through with what many thought would be a sure fit for the struggling team by signing Iverson, said "we just didn't think right now [that] we wanted to have that dominant force on the team." Perhaps my understanding of the game of basketball has somehow lagged behind the evolution of the sport, but I could have sworn that a team with a 3-12 record could benefit from a dominant force. In their 111-97 manhandling by the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night, starting guards Chris Duhon and Larry Hughes were a combined 3-for-13 from the floor for the Knicks.
Apparently D'Antoni and team president Donnie Walsh have become so focused on an abstract Knicks future that they've failed to consider a rebuilding process where the team might win a quarter of its games. Or, heaven forbid, entertain some fans. In an interview with the New York Times last week, Walsh admitted that he is, per his job, "always concerned about" disappointing the fans, but was otherwise seemingly uninformed on the nature of professional sports which operate as for-profit businesses. "I don't think you can build a basketball team based on polls," Walsh said. Someone might inform him of how the starting lineups in the All Star Game are determined, or how sales numbers compare between Kobe Bryant and Rick Fox jerseys. There is a basketball league that is about the purity of the game rather than the lucrative nature of marketing and entertainment, where you can play a zone but can't take 5 steps en route to a dunk, and its called the NCAA. The Knicks are in the NBA, and they need a player like Iverson.
And across the way in New Jersey, what can there possibly be to lose in signing Iverson? The team has a giant goose egg in the wins column, and is closing in on a record number of season opening losses. Without a single win, New Jersey shows up in the news far more for their planned relocation to New York than for their performance on the court. The Nets' 0-15 record doesn't include their seven-game preseason, where they managed to win one game. Though he has a long way to go in his career, even at his peak Nets point guard Devin Harris will likely not reach the level that Iverson is at now. Granted, he has been injured, so his productivity has been limited, but lets not forget that Harris was dogged heavily last year after video surfaced of him being hustled by a streetballer in the UK-a white guy in jeans and a v-neck sweater who gave up a couple of inches-while on an exhibition tour.
Whatever you think about Iverson, he'd never let that happen. The Nets would do well to move Harris to the other guard spot and dump Courtney Lee, who as a shooting guard can't even average double digits. Then again this is the Nets, who for some reason are keeping a jersey on Bobby Simmons, who is the highest paid player on the team by far (he'll bring in more than $11 million this season) and is, as ESPN's Sebastian Pruiti put it, "Officially useless. Teams are giving him open threes and he can't make them."
There are literally dozens of teams for which Iverson could step in and make an immediate contribution. Even the Los Angeles Lakers, who return a strong squad from last year's championship team, are operating with Derek Fisher at the point position. Fisher rocks single digits across the board, chipping in 6.5 points and 3.1 assists per game. Fisher isn't even in the top 50 in the league in terms of assists, and in fact ranks behind teammates Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. Hell, he's fourth on his own team. Sure, if Iverson joined the Lakers there would inevitably be conflicts with Bryant, but what else is new? If Los Angeles picked up Iverson, you could pretty much cancel the rest of the season because the Lakers would have a lock on it.
Look, we could go through the NBA team by team, but the bottom line is that even at 34, Iverson is still one of the league's elite players. At his position he is still, night in and night out, bested by perhaps only Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Gilbert Arenas in all-around performance. Most teams could use Iverson specifically; some teams could use anybody at all.
What is the NBA without Allen Iverson? Iverson is professional basketball. The Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade knows it. "I'm No. 3. He made No. 3 cool," Wade said yesterday. "He made crossovers cool. He did so much for the game as a pioneer. It's sad to see him think about retirement."
Hopefully Iverson was just thinking about, and got a little carried away with the shock value of retirement. Will he go through with it? Doc Rivers put it best, when he reacted by saying, "I don't believe it yet." I don't think he's done either. And he may not be. Yesterday, Stephen A. Smith even walked back the statement that he'd published himself: "Immediately after word came out that Iverson had announced he was retiring, sources close to him said he was having a change of heart." Iverson may already be having a change of heart, and the word is that both Larry Brown and former Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thompson are planning to sit down with him, possibly as early as today, in hopes of talking some sense into him. Hopefully they can get through to him, and Bubba Chuck will be back on the court in short order. I miss him already.
Eric J. Herboth is a freelance writer, journalist and artist living in rural central Germany. Over the past ten years he has contributed essays, criticism and analysis to a number of publications, including LAS Magazine, where he is the managing editor. He received degrees in aeronautics and aviation from Saint Louis University as a minor, and is an FAA licensed commercial pilot. He is also a professional bicycle mechanic and retired beekeeper, and once urinated on then-St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bruce Sutter.