The Allen Iverson paradox: Right moment, wrong time

Some strange force is taking hold of my fingers and typing words about Allen Iverson. Please send help.

I wrote about him last week, and your comments were insightful as per usual. There were a few arguments in Iverson’s favor, but one in particular haunts my initial post. I want to start by citing a tweet from the inimitable Myles Brown, though:

Allen Iverson was a man so before his time that he became his time. Like Marlon Brando, Iverson was charismatically rebellious to the point of defining a larger cultural shift. You could say that Allen, the celebrity, came about at the exact right moment.

Keep that in mind for later. For now, here’s that (excerpted) haunting comment from the ever spooky GhostofGeorgeLynch:

“As someone who watched over 95% of the Sixers’ games from 1997 through 2003, let me add that, as mentioned in the article, the league was very different then, so comparing TS% from then to now is misleading.  Iverson was paired with other offensively “talented” players on occasion, but due to the nature of the game at that time these players were also extremely inefficient.  Jerry Stackhouse then Larry Hughes were probably the best of the bunch.  Matt Geiger was also brought to provide an interior presence, but injuries and the fact that he just never was that good hampered him.

At the time, there were no zone defenses, only man, so there were no great three point shooters to kick the ball out to, because their man didn’t leave them to double team.  There was also no point in moving the ball around, because defensive players couldn’t shift responsibilities.  It made for some really ugly basketball, unless you particularly liked tough man-to-man defense.  I do, but I know that’s a rare opinion. Unless you had Shaq, Duncan, or Garnett, your team was likely to be very inefficient.”

Great points. If your early aughts team lacked a center, options were limited. It was either the rules or lack of offensive innovation, but perimeter-based squads of this time were practicing guerilla warfare against highly advantaged post players. The Sixers worked around Allen Iverson, crafting an elite defense and dogged offensive rebounding approach to compensate for A.I.’s flaws. In many ways, Philadelphia was compensating for their own deficiencies, deficiencies that had nothing to do with their primary scorer. Defense was a necessity for a team with only one offensive threat, and offensive rebounding was crucial for such a miss-prone squad.

Such was Allen Iverson’s workload in this system that the Sixers were offensively adequate in good A.I. years. In bad A.I. years, they made masochism out of a spectator sport. So, the answer to, “How good was Allen Iverson?” is far from simple. He was good enough to make a terrible offense effective. He was bad enough to occasionally be a neutral contributor in that same terrible offense.

In 2000-2001, Iverson played well and Philadelphia had a slightly above average offensive attack. The next season, he suffered a dip in shooting percentage and a rise in turnovers while his team sank to 23rd on O. When Allen Iverson played below peak level, it was as though he’d never existed in the bad offense he was tasked with saving–even though A.I. was incredibly involved in said offense.

On to another comment, from Jonathan Brill:

“I really like this piece but it left an obvious question unanswered: given Iverson’s unique gifts, if he had the benefit of a better situation and better coaching and maybe a different era, what could he have achieved? Would he look like a modern day Westbrook? Maybe an early career Dwayne Wade, only faster?”

When people support Iverson’s basketball legacy, such support often comes with an excoriation of his surrounding talent. If only he’d played on a good team, if only Billy King had been wiser, etc. Few lament the very time in which he played.

This may be the Iverson paradox: A man of his time was doomed by his time. Perhaps, if prime Iverson played in our current non-handchecking, floor-spread era, he would be devastatingly efficient. But then again, he wouldn’t be quite the same iconoclastic cultural force. Also, he might cause the time space continuum to tear its ACL.

The Allen Iverson paradox may go deeper. A release of A.I.’s NBA 2K ranking prompted many fans to tout how good Iverson was at his size. This struck me strangely because, well, when do we give extra credit to players based on height? This doesn’t seem to be a common practice in today’s NBA. Chris Paul is less than six feet in socks, yet you’ll never hear him described as the best “pound-for-pound” anything.

This “pound-for-pound” qualifier could be a function of how Allen Iverson’s time was taller than our current one. In 1999-2000–the season before Iverson burst onto the scene as an MVP winner–the top five PER leaders were Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Contrast this with 2012, when even tall players like LeBron and Durant score from the perimeter. Nobody cites Chris Paul’s height because Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, and Kyrie Irving all exist. It doesn’t feel so paradigm warping to see an offense powered by a little guy.

The old game may have been an inverse Gulliver’s Travels, with tiny Allen Iverson constrained as giants romped freely. But because of handchecking and man-to-man defense, the star of even a constrained small guard shone brighter. Allen was an alien, a little man in a big man’s game, defying the odds with every basket. If Iverson played today, he just might be a standard superstar guard among quite a few.

Allen Iverson stood out. Though dwarfed by his surroundings, he was always the foreground (back when he was who he was). As the man fades further into an oblivion of Chinese exhibition games and D-League rumors, the legend remains uniquely confounding.

Related posts:

  1. The Tyranny of Allen Iverson
  2. On Chemistry: It’s Time For Some Role Playing In Miami
  3. How Ray Allen Torched Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat
  4. What’s gone wrong with Boston’s pick and roll defense?
  5. Heat Feet Paradox


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