The Tyranny of Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson’s 50 point rookie game was on Hardwood Classics Monday night, prompting livetweets by LeBron James and Kendall Marshall. There is some irony in two players, renowned for their unselfish ways, praising the efforts of an unapologetic gunner.

You can’t fault their taste much, though. Young Iverson was a transfixing presence, all the more so when catapulted 15 years into the NBA TV present. He has close-cut hair, a face so clean-shaven that it beams a sheen through the pixelated pre-HD fog. Iverson does have some facial hair, if you could even call it that. A few follicles are playing a game of red rover above his lip, connecting to form a tenuous mustache. His old minimalist look is jarring because we associate Iverson with a specific, stylized iconography. To see Rookie Allen is to see George Carlin with a brylcreem sidepart on the The Ed Sullivan Show.

Though so young, though so relatively short, he’s an unsolvable problem for these Cavs defenders. Iverson’s elastic limb swings the dribble far outside his body, priming it like a wrecking ball.

From here, Iverson can step towards a defender and violently whip the rock back across himself in the crossover move he made famous. He’s gone, off in the other direction, tossing two points in with one of those crab claw scoop layups.

But from here, Iverson can also begin the crossover, only to abruptly interrupt it in favor of pushing the ball forward, past his man. That moment of hesitation–when A.I. pulls the ball back to start what is either a crossover or power dribble–is a defender’s choice, masquerading as a pause. I would liken Iverson’s crossover/power dribble combo to Trevor Hoffman’s old fastball/changeup mix. Two completely different scenarios appear wholly similar, and the opposition has an eye blink instant to decide on how to navigate the road fork. Professionals are reduced to flustered guess work, which can be beautiful to behold.

So yes, I get it. I understand why LeBron, Kendall, and most Gen X NBA bloggers loved Allen Iverson. There is an appeal to one-on-one sword play, to seeing the smallest man on the court lance foes again and again.

That era was worse for Allen Iverson’s prominence, though. I’m just happy the game finally evolved past those one-on-one choices. I associate Iverson’s ascent with the NBA’s boring nadir, with a plague of iso-play that the league was smart to end. Shaq and Timmy may have been the best players of the post-Jordan hangover, but Iverson was its representative. O’Neal couldn’t sell a sneaker; A.I.’s beehive-bottomed Reeboks were ubiquitous. I bought a pair. Then the DMX cushioning quickly wore out and I begged for another. And another.

He had the cornrows, tattoos, and good looks that comprised an image simultaneously appealing and foreboding to white suburbia. Iverson also publicly validated so many people outside white suburbia, as Bomani Jones describes here:

“For people like me, Iverson’s complaints were also ours. His defenses of his own rap music were the same we offered our parents when they heard the words coming from our bedroom windows. We wanted to wear t-shirts and sneakers everywhere, and we couldn’t see what the big deal was, either. We were tired of being treated like criminals because of how we dressed. After being told for so long all the nonsensical compromises we would have to make to be successful, it warmed teenage hearts to see Iverson make it without doing any of those things.”

When it comes to Iverson’s place in our culture, I take no issue. I have no nagging need for young, black athletes to conform to my dad’s fashion sensibilities. If A.I. symbolized a repudiation of stuffy sanctimony, all the better.

I only take issue with how his controversial image overshadows any discussion of Iverson, the player. A.I is such a beloved warrior poet, so ardently defended by those who adored his cultural imprint, that it’s difficult to dryly question whether or not he was even good for teams.

Fans of The Answer fought a reflexive Iverson scorn, one that was more rooted in how he looked than how he played. The touchy topic is further fraught because pundits sometimes wish to draw a connection between A.I.’s selfish basketball style and whatever failings he may have had as a person. It is difficult to have a logical discussion about a player when his field goal percentage can be waved about as an object lesson in how not to live one’s life.

So I draw no connection between braids and shooting too much. If tattoos are indicative of selfish play, then LeBron must be some kind of outlier. I only want to make the case against Allen Iverson, the player. I only want to express some retroactive frustration regarding the Allen Iverson era of misguided, aesthetically abhorrent basketball.

Back then…

Teams with post-players were fine. Brutally efficient, not entirely enthralling, but fine. Sure, Kobe’s baroque style was trapped under Shaq’s wheezing belly, but at least O’Neal was historically effective. At least Tim Duncan had mastered an art.

The perimeter-oriented squads out East were another, sadder matter. They employed the same iso-heavy style that worked for elite big men, but did so with Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter dominating the rock far from the basket. Heroball abounded, and the results made for better curated highlights than year-round viewing experiences. Points per game was a primary measure of success, so few questioned the practice back in these dark ages. There was even a year (2002-2003) when Ricky Davis had the greenlight to attempt a ridiculous 18.6 field goals per game at a .485 true shooting percentage. For context, Russell Westbrook–a player oft criticized for volume shooting and inefficiency–tallied a .538 TS% last season. Russ is much closer to Shaq’s MVP campaign (.578 true shooting) than Davis is to Westbrook’s efficiency. Related: This was an excellent strategy for getting LeBron James the following summer, credit to the hoops-defiling 2002-2003 Cavs.

The 2003-2004 season made the limits of Eastern hero ball all the more salient. In the season before Phoenix Suns salvation, McGrady, Carter, and Iverson all shot worse than Kobe’s least efficient (and most recent) season.

At this point, I did not know whether I loved the NBA anymore. My emotional, subjective take may not be widely applicable, but I feel the need to describe something apart from the numbers. I can tell you that the median 2003-2004 team had a 102.2 offensive rating and 90.1 pace factor, but I would rather just express that the games looked like slow motion eye surgery–from the perspective of the unanesthetized patient.

It may not have been his fault, but Iverson was at the foreground of this ugly epoch. And some of us knew that his approach, that the league’s approach, was off. All the while you had to stomach endless odes to his gritty heart as the shots clanked left and right. Oh, he might miss a few more field goals, turn the ball over a few more times, but he plays so hard! Can you believe what he’s doing at that height!

Yes, it was very believable, because he wasn’t good enough to be shooting so often. The more I look back on A.I., the more I wonder if he even could have been great. The more I look back on A.I. the more I wonder if he was an average player with a superstar’s shotchart. What else are you supposed to conclude when a guy shoots 27.8 times per game at a .398 field goal percentage? That he’s fantastic?

The man had a devastating one-two combo, and it was amplified by a slick kind of quickness. His court vision was also above average. I’m not sure that the sum of these parts amounts to “greatness” when a refined skillset is required of shorter players.

Allen Iverson did have that one year, the MVP season that begat a Finals trip. Though I find his MVP victory to be absurd (Over Shaq? Really?), it is now common to cite Iverson’s Finals as some grand proof of his quality, a rebuttal to those who notice nagging stats like shooting percentage and turnovers.

Yes, Iverson had a good year in 2000-2001, that much is true. It is also true that this 24.0 PER, .190 Win Share season was his career’s absolute apogee. It is also true that beating the 52 win Milwaukee Bucks was the hardest part of advancing from the anemic East.

Iverson led an NBA Finals team, but such an accomplishment should be understood in the Eastern context, just as how his best year should be understood in the larger context of a career. Recall that I mentioned how Allen Iverson was among those who shot worse than Kobe Bryant’s least efficient season? Iverson did this in twelve separate seasons. In fact, Kobe’s .527 TS% bottom is better than A.I.’s career TS% average of .518.

In the season before that Finals trip, the Sixers were 25th-ranked on offense. In the season of their Finals, they improved to an offensive ranking of 13th. The next year, they ranked 23rd as A.I. shot a shade less than 40%. Over the span of Iverson’s Philadelphia career, his team averaged an offensive ranking of 22nd. The surrounding talent was wretched at times, but A.I. still shot no better than his team TS% in five consecutive seasons (1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003). The shanky hero ball has been explained away with, “his teams were bad.” While there is truth to that, it is then fair to ask why Allen Iverson so often shot worse than such bad players.

During Larry Brown’s time with them, the Sixers averaged a No. 6 ranking in defense. It was the team’s (ignored) calling card during that stretch of competence. We didn’t really focus on such things, back before the proliferation of Internet stats savvy. “Yay points!” was the ruling ethos.

Today, we know better about a better sport. The game is more offensively fluid while counterintuitively more defensively complex. It’s deserving of intensive analysis, and that it most certainly gets. Though our collective basketball knowledge will always be imperfect, we’re a much further towards praising–or at the very least noticing–what works. Basketball was saved from the Iverson era, which is why I’m still in obsessive love with basketball.

Related posts:

  1. How Ray Allen Torched Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat
  2. Why Ray Allen might not care about Boston fans
  3. Ray Allen: a master in twilight


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