Friday, January 09, 2009

In Defense of Answer

Santino is goading me with a post in response to this Matt Yglesias post questioning the talents of Allen Iverson. Since I, too, aspire to hold my own, I must rise up in defense of Answer.

First, understand that I'm an Iverson partisan--I've got a signed edition of his Sixers jersey in a giant frame at home. So take this as you will, but I think Yglesias underestimates both Iverson's offensive and defensive skills.

Let's start with Answer's shortcomings: His big problem is that he shoots a relatively low percentage from the floor. There are all sorts of rational explanations for this: He's little, he's shooting under double-teams, he has only recently had a secondary scorer on his wing. That said, there's no way around it: Answer's game requires a lot of shots for him to get his points and a lot of touches for him to get his shots. This has traditionally caused rebounding and fast-break defense problems for his teams.

But in his defense, what choice has Answer ever had? During his tenure in Philadelphia, when he was at his physical peak, he was paired with a succession of "riding shotgun" players who turned out to be over-the-hill busts: Toni Kukoc, Derrick Coleman, Glenn Robinson, Keith Van Horn. Iverson never had the scoring help he needed.

It's no coincidence, then, that his biggest success as a Sixer came when GM Billy King and Traitor Larry Brown finally abandoned the attempt to give him a secondary scorer and instead surrounded him with low-cost, highly specialized role players. Aaron McKie and Eric Snow provided ball handling and spot-up shooting. Theo Rattliff provided rebounding and shot blocking. George Lynch provided more rebounding and defensive presence. And then a bunch of other role players came off the bench to handle very specific tasks: Tyrone Hill did low-block scoring, Raja Bell did defensive guard work, etc.

You could make the case that had Matt Geiger stayed healthy (and Brown not made the insane trade for Deke), the Sixers would have had (at least) one more year of title contention because they were finally a team built to allow Iverson to get his shots, efficiently distribute the other scoring duties among the rest of the roster, and take advantage of Answer's high attempt-per-point-ratio by getting offensive rebounds and being defensively tough, especially in transition.

(And let's not forget that the Sixers were *robbed* in Game 2 of the Finals. If they get that game, the series is very different. And that was the closest 4-1 series in the history of sports. Yes, I'm a homer, but it's also true.)

(Also, also, remember that The Traitor Larry Brown began blowing up this team even before the season was over, despite the fact that they had the best (or second-best, I forget) record in the NBA for most of the season.)

As for what Yglesias says about Deke being the heart of the Sixers defense during their Finals-run, he was a presence late in the season, but not particularly effective in the post-season. Most of the defensive intensity on that squad came from Lynch, McKie, and Iverson, who really did wreak havoc in the passing lanes. And from Ratliff, who, for one and a half seasons, looked like he might be one of the great shot blockers in NBA history. What happened to him, through injury and condemnation to Atlanta, was tragic.

I get that there's a lot of Iverson haters out there. In general, I think they hate him because they don't understand him. They see the tats and hear the "practice" clips, but don't understand that on the court, he's actually a throw-back player. He gives his body up every night, dives for every loose ball, plays every game like it's Game 7. He never takes a quarter off and rarely whines about calls. And to go into the lane like he does--I've walked past him and he's barely 6' in sneakers, maybe 180 pounds--takes real guts.

It strikes me that athletes have limited control over their own success. Or rather, no matter how great an athlete is, they can only do as much as the system they're in allows. You see this with NFL quarterbacks all the time. If Tom Brady had been a first-round pick to the Lions who started right away, I doubt he'd be Tom Brady today. Some athletes, like Jordan, or Peyton Manning, have skill sets which are conventional enough (and gargantuan enough) that it's easy to see what to do with them. Iverson's skill sets were so quirky that no one ever quite figured out how to build around him. Or perhaps, by the time King/Brown did figure it out, Answer only had a brief, one-season window and then things fell apart.

I'd put Answer in the category, with Marino and Barkley--guys who were truly great, but whose gifts were odd enough that the franchises around them weren't able to figure out how to win the big one with them.

To my mind, that's a very different issue than the players being over-rated or having chemistry problems.


Anonymous said...

I'm a conservative, middle-aged white guy, so Allan Iverson is not the kind of guy I'd ever want to hang out with (or vice versa, I'm sure).

Still, I fully agree that he's tended to get a bum rap in man quarters. I recall how much griefm he took when the U.S. Olympic team lost several games in 2004, and how much gleee some commentators and fans took in laying the blame at Iverson's feet.

It never seemed to register with such folks that:

1) Unlike numerous NBA stars, Iverson agreed to play for the U.S. team.

2) Unlike several players who'd committed to playing for the U.S. team, Iverson actually showed up!

3) Once there, Iverson played with a broken thumb, and never complained.

You'd THINK that kind of toughness and dedication would earn him some credit from the Old Schoolers, but somehow it never has.

Iverson's name has become shorthand, to many crotchety white fans, for everything they dislike about Hip Hop culture.

Anonymous said...

I'm of two minds on AI. On the one hand, he's clearly a tough dude who gives it his all on the court. He takes it to the hoop and racks up punishment. He's probably a little underrated as a defender.

But I think he's among the more overrated offensive players in the game. He's a volume shooter in the worst meaning of the phrase; he jacks up a ton of shots at low percentage, and that's the only reason he led the league in scoring for a couple of years.

And that's not even getting into the off the field stuff...the arrests, the bowling alley brawl, etc. If he's not a 'thug,' he's certainly thuggish.

Anonymous said...

I hate to wade into these waters, I find myself defending AI to idiot friends far too often, it mostly gets annoying. But anyways, here we go:
If you have never seen him play, IN-PERSON, you are not qualified to make any judgment re: The Answer. None. TV doesn't count. To understand what kind of genetic freak of nature, fluke, mistake, AI is, you must really see him in-person on the court with all the other players towering over him. He is not, as JVL generously mentions, 6'. He's 5'11" at best, and probably closer to 5'10". He doesn't weigh 180 in wet clothes, more like 165.
He is the #3 player ALL-TIME in ppg. #3. #1- MJ, #2- Wilt, #3- AI.
Ignore the poor shooting percentage, the man plays in the land of giants and is the third best scorer in the history of the game.
Thing is, the sport of basketball is almost TOO SLOW for Iverson. He has freakish speed, faster than NFL Cornerback speed, almost Olympic speed. Nobody in the history of the game is as fast baseline-to-baseline with a ball in their hands as Iverson. Nobody.
If AI has a fault it is his inability to slow down. He plays at 1 speed and it rarely fits within the team concept. He would have been far better suited playing soccer, or even football, than Bball. Let me clear: AI would have been the greatest defensive force in the history of the NFL as a cornerback. His speed, insane vertical, and terrific hands, would have made it impossible to throw anywhere near him.
But I digress....
As to the comments regarding his reputation as a thug:
He's a married man with 4 kids and another on the way. His conviction at age 17 was a sham and later overturned for lack of evidence (after he was granted clemency by Gov Wilder). The incident with a cousin also turned out to be nothing. Like Sean Taylor, the thug reputation has more to do with people misunderstanding AI than it has to do with his behavior.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but Iverson makes bad decisions (shot selection, lack of passing), is a poor teammate (Practice? We're talkin' 'bout Practice?), and a nightmare for team management. Iverson is the reason we gave up our Sixers tickets and the reason I no longer follow the NBA. I know he's gutsy, puts out effort during a game, etc...but the other factors to my thinking are overwhelming. I could not have been more pleased than when he left Philly.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with everything PG has to say--I wouldn't make too much of Doug Wilder's pardon--but PG is definitely right about this: Iverson is pure determination, and you have to see it to believe it.

I rowed at Georgetown while Iverson was playing hoops. Largely by coincidence, our squad's schedule in the varsity weight room sometimes overlapped with the basketball team a bit.

You know what Iverson benched? Go on, guess. A guy who was a serious NCAA threat. Average player on his squad was probably putting up 225 in sets of 8.

Iverson racked up 185. This is a guy that, as far as I can see, should have been muscled off the court. And yet he was clearly dominant. Why? Speed, tenacity, and guts.

When you see that in person, you get a sense of just how much Iverson accomplishes with the talents he has. It's pretty incredible.