By Sean McAlevey
THE ROLLER COASTER, MORON MOUNTAIN, Toon Land — With Allen Iverson officially retired from the NBA as of the Philadelphia 76ers’ home opener against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night, Heat forward and reigning MVP LeBron James made it clear he views the former Sixer as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
In a recent piece on ESPN.com, Tom Haberstroh reported that James considers Iverson “pound-for-pound, probably the greatest player who ever played.”
“He was one of the greatest finishers we’ve ever seen,” James continues. “You could never question his heart. Ever. He gave it his all. A.I. was my second favorite player [to Michael Jordan] growing up.”
Who can blame him for speaking so highly of the former MVP? The NBA world was utterly consumed with The Answer at his peak in the early 2000s. Iverson’s passion, athleticism, and signature crossover made him arguably the most popular player of the post-Jordan era. His cornrows and arm sleeve were iconic. It’d be more surprising if James, who was at the impressionable age of 12 when Iverson entered the NBA, weren’t particularly impressed with the retiring star.
But for James to heap quasi-GOAT praise on Iverson was entirely unexpected – but understandable when you consider his career in context.
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Officially listed at 6′ but really closer to 5’10”, Iverson was drafted first overall by the Sixers in the 1996 NBA draft. The Sixers were taking somewhat of a gamble in using their coveted first pick on an undersized guard with character issues and a legal record, but many were convinced Iverson’s coach at Georgetown, John Thompson, had successfully steered the troubled athlete away from his poisonous adolescent past and turned his primary focus to basketball. No one doubted Iverson’s raw talent, but it was questionable if he’d ever reach his full potential.
Those worries were quelled almost immediately. Iverson took home Rookie of the Year honors in the ’96-’97 season after averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 assists per game and showed flashes of greatness. His impressive speed, agility, and ball-handling skill overwhelmed even veteran defenders. Just take 16-seconds to watch, or more likely re-watch, the oft-replayed crossover that broke MJ’s ankles in Iverson’s rookie season:
Whether he had troubling personal issues or not, it wasn’t affecting his on-court play, the true bottom line in professional sports. As long as he continued to avoid run-ins with the law and killed it on the court, why worry? The 21-year-old was a perennial All-Star in the making.
Iverson became the talk of the league in his third season, ’98-’99. In addition to leading the Sixers to their first playoff appearance since 1991, he captured his first scoring title (26.8 ppg) and received All-NBA First Team honors. Iverson and head coach Larry Brown were occasionally at odds, but the two found a way to manage their differences as the team – and particularly Iverson – improved each season.
Iverson was playing near an MVP level by his third season and captured the award in 2001.
Following another early playoff exit in 2000, Iverson elevated his game to win the MVP award in the 2000-01 season. He led the league in scoring (31.1 ppg) and single-handedly secured the hapless Sixers the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Despite ultimately losing the Finals in five games, the 2001 playoffs were the peak of Iverson’s greatness; it was there that he became the legend to which retro Philadelphia “3” jerseys and arm sleeves pay homage.
After barely defeating Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors in an unforgettable seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals that ended on Carter’s missed last-second jumper, Iverson and the Sixers squeaked past the good, but not great, Milwaukee Bucks to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983. Meanwhile, their to-be Finals opponent, the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led LA Lakers, were ripping through the Western Conference playoffs, running the table with a perfect 11-0 record prior to the Finals. (I attended one of those 2001 Lakers games in the Western Conference playoffs. My memory’s hazy as to whom the opponent was – I think it was the Sacramento Kings in the conference semis, but I could be wrong – but the one thing I do remember about the game was the multiple household brooms present to commemorate the playoff sweeps. There must have been at least three visible to the naked eye from my seat, with sign and witty statement included of course.)
The public perception of the Finals was that a Laker sweep was imminent: oddsmakers had the Sixers as 11.5-point underdogs in Game 1 of the series, which took place in LA, and 18-1 ‘dogs to win the series outright. But Iverson drastically changed that perception in Game 1. After exploding for 41 points in regulation, Iverson stole Game 1 for the Sixers in overtime with seven points, two of which came off an ankle-breaking crossover and jumper in the face of a falling Tyronn Lue, whom he memorably stepped over in disgust after the shot fell. That overtime jumper from the baseline epitomized Iverson: his signature crossover and unparalleled quickness created space for the shot; his smooth, confident release extended the lead; and his passion, heart, and competitiveness – his absolute love for the game – manifested itself in a step of competitive dissatisfaction over a defeated Lue:
From that deadly baseline jumper to the end of the game, the Staples Center crowd stood in stunned silence, utterly confounded at Iverson’s preternatural performance and the Sixers’ incomprehensible upset. Baffled TV hosts and columnists struggled to explain the outcome over the ensuing hours and days. David had turned the tables on Goliath: the 18-1 underdogs of 53 game-time minutes prior looked like the 18-1 favorites. There would be no Laker sweep, no perfect playoff record. Iverson had flipped the sports world on its head for a moment.
The Lakers, of course, went on to win the next four straight and clinch their second championship in as many years. (They won their third title in a row the following season.) But Iverson’s legend had already been cemented. He was the face of basketball of the post-Jordan era. And for the next five years in Philly, Iverson continued to light up the NBA.
After the 2001 Finals – which would turn out to be his lone Finals appearance – he secured two scoring titles, five All-Star nods, and reached the playoffs three times; he averaged an impressive 29.8 points, 6.6 assists, and 2.4 steals per game over those five subsequent seasons in Philadelphia. But the character questions that plagued his early career began to resurface: whether it was feuding with Brown and his successors (Jim O’Brien and Maurice Cheeks), showing up late to games and team events, or failing to practice, Iverson became a lightning rod for controversy:
Iverson was then dealt to Denver at the quarter-mark of the 2006-07 season for a slew of veterans and draft picks after he demanded a trade due to issues with Sixers management. For the first time in his career, he was paired up with another dangerous scoring threat in Carmelo Anthony. The two played fairly harmoniously together in Iverson’s two seasons in Denver, reaching the playoffs in both years. But two first-round playoff exits irked Nugget management the wrong way, forcing them to deal Iverson and his mammoth $19 million salary to Detroit.
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Iverson’s career continued for two more years, but he was only a shell of the player he once was in Philadelphia. He bounced waywardly around the league – from Detroit to Memphis and then back to Philly – never coming close to resembling the old Iverson. His legs had slowed just enough to render him ineffective. His style of play was solely predicated on his speed, so when he lost a step with age, his effectiveness tailed off rapidly. In hindsight, his career was really over by 2008. But in those prior twelve years, beginning with his rookie campaign in 1996, Iverson was indisputably one of the best players in the league, if not the best.
One could point to O’Neal, Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Steve Nash and make a fair case for each during the same time period: O’Neal took home four titles (three with LA and one with Miami) and one MVP award; Bryant, three titles and one MVP; Duncan, four titles and two MVPs; Nash, no titles but back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006. But all of said players, except Nash, needed the help of complementary superstars to win their titles.
O’Neal needed Bryant to win his three titles in LA just as much as Bryant needed O’Neal. Make no mistake, there would have been no Laker threepeat – and likely no titles at all – without Shaq and Kobe complementing each other. O’Neal then needed Dwyane Wade to win his fourth title in 2005 as a member of the Heat. In the same vein, Duncan needed David Robinson to win his first title in San Antonio and the combination of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to win his next three. Neither O’Neal, Bryant, nor Duncan would have won as many championships as they did without the assistance of complementary superstars.
Nash, however, was mired in mediocrity for his career, like Iverson. (To be clear, I’m only using “mediocrity” here to refer to team success.) When he was young and raw he was teamed with a similarly young and raw Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, but the two hadn’t yet developed into the stars they would eventually become and achieved little meaningful success together. Then, in 2004, when he was reaching his prime, Nash was shipped to the Phoenix Suns, the team that originally drafted him. In Phoenix, Nash found some success in the mid-2000s as he teamed up with a budding Amar’e Stoudemire, at times making deep playoff runs. But Nash and the Suns never got further than the conference finals; Stoudemire, for as good as he was, wasn’t a complementary star in the same sense that players in the above paragraph were. By the time Nash landed in LA in the summer of 2012 and paired with Bryant and Dwight Howard, he was on his last legs and injuries kept him off the floor for nearly half the season as the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
With regard to the lack of quality supporting talent, Iverson’s career was similar on the whole. To paint a picture, here’s a list of the notable players he teamed with in the first twelve years of his career: Aaron McKie, Dikembe Mutombo, Andre Iguodala, and Carmelo Anthony. McKie – a fantastic, defensive-minded sixth man – was never a star. Mutombo was indeed a great player, but he was a liability on the offensive end and only spent one full season in Philadelphia. Although Iguodala has recently grown into an All-Star caliber player, in his early years with Iverson he was no more than an above-average small forward. The point? That Iverson was perpetually surrounded by mediocre talent in Philadelphia. He was never matched up with a complementary interior force in the same way that great inside-out duos have found success: Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and John Stockton, Shaq and Kobe, Duncan and Parker/Ginobili, the list goes on.
Carmelo Anthony was an offensive force in his years with Denver, but was a liability defensively.
Anthony, however, was and is a superstar. Not on the level of James or Kevin Durant, but at the very least he’s your boilerplate offensive-minded ‘superstar’ – great on offense, so-so on defense, consistently takes the last shot, big ego, big contract, etc. But the problem was that both Anthony and Iverson were high-volume offensive scorers, which didn’t give the Nuggets any substantial advantage other than outside scoring prowess – and that was only when the two were willing to share the ball. There was no inside game, and Anthony was (and is) lackluster on the defensive end, which left an aging Iverson to pick up the slack on perimeter defense.
The Nuggets were good with Melo and A.I. together, but it would be unfair to say that Iverson benefitted greatly from his time with Anthony. If Anthony were six inches taller, fifty-plus pounds heavier, played primarily on the low block, and was an in-the-paint defensive presence, it would have made perfect sense to combine him with Iverson. But since that wasn’t the case, what was Denver thinking in taking on another high-profile outside scorer? They doubled down on their best feature and failed to diversify their one-sided offensive attack. Instead of Iverson’s unique small-man game flourishing in a suitable environment, the Nuggets unnecessarily sucked him up and put his playing style in competition with Anthony’s.
Moreover, Iverson was already in the latter half of his prime before he was traded to Denver. At 31, when he arrived in Mile-High City, his aggressive, attacking game had already worn his legs substantially. He’d lost a just a fraction of a step, but he still managed to play solidly for the next two years with only a slight decline. But that lost fraction of a step would grow rapidly with time – especially after he led the league in minutes played in the 2007-08 season – so that by age 33 his legs were so thoroughly spent that he was left to grind out his massive contract as a has-been journeyman.
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At first glance, he doesn’t seem to compare to players like Duncan, O’Neal, and Bryant, and their armfuls of championships. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine that Iverson would have won his fair share of titles (pick a number, 1-4) if he’d been paired with, say, an O’Neal- or Robinson-type of dominating inside presence.
In Philadelphia, Iverson proved he could carry a piecemeal team of role players deep into the playoffs all on his own. He was essentially in the same situation as LeBron in Cleveland, except he never got the invite to head to South Beach; he stuck it out in Philadelphia for ten years and singlehandedly kept the Sixers competitive despite waves of bland supporting casts. When you consider Iverson’s career in context, it’s clear that it’d be unfair to dock him for a lack of titles. Instead, what’s fair would be to look at how he played given his circumstances, and it’s a pretty indisputable fact that he was a master at extracting maximal productivity from mediocre teammates. He was forced to make the best of bad situation after bad situation.
LeBron James was stuck with mediocre teammates year after year in Cleveland.
Ask yourself the following. Would you perceive LeBron to be worse if he’d instead stayed in Cleveland, and as a result of a lackluster supporting cast, had yet to win a title? Of course, if he’d stayed a Cavalier he still would have been the same player, accomplishing the same personal feats with the same individual talent and physical attributes; there’d be nothing fundamentally different about him – only his teammates would be different. For all intents and purposes, we would have to admit that both versions of LeBron are equally as good – because we’re talking about the same person. But instead most people would intuitively believe that a hypothetical version of LeBron that stayed in Cleveland and had yet to capture a title would be worse – “he can’t win the big game,” “he doesn’t have leadership qualities,” etc. – than the actual version of LeBron, who already has two championships since leaving Cleveland for greener pastures in Miami. Which is absurd. A team achievement like winning a championship is obviously not a measure of individual accomplishment.
Just as LeBron left the mediocrity of Cleveland to win championships in Miami and cement his career among the pantheon of NBA greats, Iverson could have done the same. But because he stayed in Philly for his youth and most of his prime shouldn’t reflect poorly on him; if anything it shows that, for all the hoopla about Iverson’s poor character and clashes with Sixers coaches and the front office, he was able to successfully manage his dissatisfaction with the team for nearly a decade and grind out All-Star performances year after year.
So what can be definitively said about Iverson and where he stands among the best of his contemporaries?
His career averages speak for themselves: 26.7 points, 6.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game. He ranks 6th all-time in points per game, 46th in assists, and 9th in steals. He’s third in usage percentage – the percentage of total plays in which a player ‘used’ a play, i.e. took a shot or turned the ball over – ranking just behind Jordan and Wade, and just above Bryant (4th), Anthony (5th), and James (6th). He ranks fourth all-time in total minutes played per game (41.4).
As for the hardware, he made the All-NBA First Team three times, the Second Team three times, and the Third Team once. He was Rookie of the Year in 1997, played in 11 straight All-Star games, and was the All-Star game MVP in 2001 and 2005. Most indicatively, he took home the 2001 MVP award and supported it with an unforgettable run at the seemingly unbeatable Lakers in the Finals.
Just on stats alone, Iverson is one of the greatest players of the post-Jordan era. The fact that he lacks a championship is as much his fault as it was James’ that he never won a championship in his eight years in Cleveland. (Maybe that’s part of reason James has such an affection for Iverson: you appreciate another’s circumstances a whole lot more when you’re forced to experience them yourself.) Iverson played his heart out every single time he was on the court. Never did he receive criticism for a lack of on-court effort. He was, as James aptly described him, “a true warrior.”
“You could never question his heart or his will to win,” James told Haberstroh for the ESPN piece. “I hate the fact that his career ended the way it did. But he had an unbelievable career.”
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Although it’s hard to definitively call anyone the greatest over any time period, if there was one during Iverson’s NBA tenure it was likely The Answer himself. That’ll be taken as a controversial, but it shouldn’t be. The claim that Iverson was the best player during his time in the league is not that surprising. One could still consistently believe that, say, Bryant or Duncan are better because they’ve achieved more in their longer careers, or that James is better since his career only began in 2003.
Now retired, Iverson once broke changed the way the game was played and inspired generations of youth.
It shouldn’t be that hard to accept that for those early years in the post-Jordan era, Iverson was the face of basketball, the best player in the game. He was an icon, an inspiration. He changed the game; he broke down the age-old paradigm that height is necessary to be successful at basketball.
At more than an inch under 6′ and with the weight of a high school senior, he had the audacity to be the best in a big man’s game – and was, for a time. Just as stories like Jordan being cut from his high school team encourage generations of kids to never quit, Iverson and his small stature inspired a generation of kids too small by traditional standards to pick up a basketball anyway – because hey, who knows? They might just be the one with the next deadly A.I. crossover. He inspired those who played to be even better by showing them that obstacles are only obstructive if you let them be. He was the inspiration for the next generation, the next Jordan.
James, more than anyone else, understands that.
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