Earlier this week, former NBA All-Star Allen Iverson made the Basketball Hall of Fame, along with Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming and others. While not a surprise, Iverson’s induction into the Hall of Fame has brought his fair share of fanboys and haters - with many either stating that he was the best pound-for-pound player of his era, or that he was an overrated ballhog.
Here’s a look at if there’s any gray area in the middle for Iverson, no doubt one of the league’s most polarizing and memorable players in its history. When remembering Iverson, there are three questions to consider.
What was Iverson’s offensive value to a team?
On the surface, Iverson’s high points per game for his career looks like he is on an elite pantheon of all-time scorers. Along with being in the Top Ten (above Kobe Bryant) for his career PPG, Iverson also has four seasons in which his PPG was above 30. Keep in mind that Iverson’s MVP season (2000-2001) also came in the middle of an era where basketball was played at a slower pace than what fans had ever seen before.
This was when hand-checking rules weren’t the same as they are today and when zone defenses were becoming even more common. For reference, the average amount of points allowed per 100 possessions in today’s league is currently at 106.3, while the number back in 2001 was at 103. The average amount of possessions per game in 2016 has also increased by 4.5 possessions. Neither of these numbers sound that big, but they make a huge difference on the court.
If we look at Iverson’s skillset as a player, we can see that his main talent comes from his amazing shot creation ability, which stems from his legendary handles and ability to make something out of a bad situation, whether double teams or a last-second isolation play. You don’t need numbers to gasp at Iverson hitting an “and 1” two-point layup after getting decked by an opposing big man. You just need your voice.
Nevertheless, Iverson took 519 field goal attempts in 2001, which was over 100 more than the second-leading shot taker behind him, Shaquille O’Neal. Can you imagine thinking at the time that the league’s top shot taker would be a six-foot and relatively lightweight point guard?
Unfortunately, Iverson was also not very good at converting his shots on the court. For his career, he shot a subpar 51.8 True Shooting Percent (which takes into account the value of three-point shots and free throws) and only reached the line at a 41.0 free throw rate. It sounds pretty good given Iverson’s ridiculous amount of volume (he played over 40 minutes per game in his prime seasons), but also keep in mind that Iverson was a big fan of taking ill-advised three point-shots.
From the 2002 to 2004 season, Iverson shot 4.5, 3.7 and 4.1 three-point attempts per game, but each season he shot sub-30 percent from the arc. This is almost Josh Smith-level stubbornness, demonstrating Iverson’s limited, if not nonexistent value off the ball on offense. That kind of stuff destroys an NBA offense.
As a result of his ball dominance, Iverson owns three of the top ten highest usage-rate seasons in NBA history, including the fourth largest one. The only three people above him: Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Michael Jordan.
Did Iverson’s teammates hurt him or vice versa?
Most often, you’ll hear Iverson supporters claim that he never had any help during his time in Philadelphia, or how the 76ers wasted away his prime. This couldn’t be any further from the truth.
During his MVP season, Iverson was surrounded by that season’s coach of the year (Larry Brown), sixth man of the year (Aaron McKie) and the league’s best defensive player (Dikembe Mutombo). That year, they were the No. 13 ranked offense per offensive rating, but also the No. 5 defense, per defensive rating.
Though Iverson certainly had moments where he had to carry his offense, it’s only fair to mention the excellent defensive cast around him, which included Mutombo, Eric Snow and Toni Kukoc. These guys were solid role players that helped the defense carry the team through moments like when Iverson shot 34 percent from the field for an entire series against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2001. People remember Iverson’s big shots, but they don’t necessarily remember all the big misses.
The biggest problem I have with Iverson is that while he was an exceptionally gifted passer, he never was willing enough to develop players or sacrifice his own style in favor of running an efficient offense. During Iverson’s time in Philadelphia, the 76ers only had two seasons where their relative offensive rating (the difference in their points scored/100 possessions to league average) were in the positives, 2001 with +0.6 and 2003 with +1.4.
Iverson may have had a similar kind of responsibility as Jordan or Bryant for his prime, but he was never actually able to capitalize off it the same way as they. This puts Iverson’s gaudy individual numbers into a more accurate context.
If you’re not a skeptic of advanced numbers, then you’ll be happy to know that the “#WINZ” argument stands strong here too: just a year after Iverson left, the 76ers record dropped only by three games before they made the playoffs the second year after Iverson’s departure. Meanwhile, after the Nuggets initially succeeded with Iverson, they actually improved even more after trading him to the Detroit Pistons for Chauncey Billups, making the Western Conference Finals.
There’s a reason Iverson’s most successful season came with the 2001 76ers - that’s the kind of environment that Iverson thrives in: being able to take subpar offensive talent and cap out at a middling offense. In order to maximize Iverson’s skillset, you basically have to create a system similar to the “surround Derrick Rose with defenders, rebounders and three-point shooters” strategy of the 2011 Chicago Bulls. Iverson wasn’t held back by his teammates; if anything, he thrived because of them.
This brings me to a last thing you have to consider, though I realize it’s something far more intangible than statistical.
Was Allen Iverson a team-killer?
Despite his immense individual talent and passion for basketball, it’s only fair to also acknowledge that part of Iverson’s legacy comes from his unpredictable persona off the court. This manifested itself in moments like the infamous “practice” press conference breakdown, as well as his tendency to run coaches out of town. Take a look at the 2003-2006 stretch when he played under Larry Brown, Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O’Brien and Maurice Cheeks before getting traded.
It might not be entirely his fault, but much like with other charismatic players (Wilt Chamberlain being one of them), this is an undeniable part of how we remember Iverson. With that said, you could also argue that some of the perception around Iverson being a “coach killer” and selfish player came from his tendency not to get along with sports journalists or members of the sports establishment, like then-commissioner David Stern.
In my opinion, Iverson could still be a great player in today’s league, though I think his unwillingness to play off-the-ball and questionable decision-making would hurt his offensive value. Meanwhile, his relative size issues could hurt him on the pick and roll and isolation defense, though you also should remember that Iverson was excellent at playing the passing lanes, as seen through his high amount of steals per game during his prime.
I’d say that he’d probably be a borderline top 10-15 player and probably slightly beneath or around the same level of James Harden today. Then again, it’s hard to say how effective Iverson would be, because so much of it is context dependent. Would he be as dead set on trying to single-handedly carry an offense if hypothetical-teen Iverson was drafted by the Spurs? Who knows?
One thing is for sure: no matter how you look at him, how we remember Iverson will certainly always be a hotbed for debate. Maybe that’s what we should remember him as: the enigmatic presence capable of both destroying and captivating the hearts of fans on and off the court. For an undersized and Hall of Fame-caliber point guard in a period where giants like O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett dominated the NBA, that isn’t too bad, is it?