Remembering One Of The NBA’s Greatest And Most Underrated Guards, Allen Iverson
by 14 January 2016, 12:45 PM
For AI, it was all about practice. He may have been an inefficient volume scorer, but that shouldn’t diminish what he brought to the NBA.
Analytics is the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data. It is also a tool for measuring the greatness of a player in any sport. However, it doesn’t always tell the full story. For Allen Iverson, it has served as an impediment to his image as one of the NBA’s greatest guards. Instead, Iverson claim to greatness has taken a back while many people overlook him in their discussion of the all-time greats.
In other words, analytics portraying a player’s efficiency has dismissed AI as something other than the elite player he was. Considering what he brought to the game of basketball, as well as other statistics (other than simply efficiency metrics), there are several reasons why Iverson belongs with the best of the best.
In his rookie season, Iverson showcased his entire offensive arsenal, as he averaged 21.1 points and 6.7 assists per game. That sounds like an outstanding rookie year, which it clearly was, as indicated by his Rookie of the Year award. But take a look at his FG% (41.6%) compared to the league average FG% (45.3%).
Iverson, for the most part, was below or well-below the average FG% in his rookie season. But that’s not what the average fan will remember. Instead, they will remember the highlights he put forth and the fact that he led his team in points, assists, and steals.
Fans with knowledge in analytics will use other numbers to support the notion that AI wasn’t as good as it seems to the average fan. Although, ignoring what the average fan uses to judge Iverson’s performance is incorrect; analytics, basic statistics, and the eye-test should be used cohesively when considering the degree of greatness of an NBA player.
Iverson proved early that he was a volume scorer, setting a rookie record with five straight 40-point games, and hitting the second-most three-point field goals (155 threes) in a rookie season in NBA history. While setting records in his first year in the NBA was impressive, as mentioned earlier, the efficiency AI postulated was extremely low.
Inefficient volume scoring was practically, and unfortunately, the story of Iverson’s entire career. In the first 10 years he spent in Philadelphia, he averaged 20+ points per game eight times while shooting 42.4% or less from the field. In fact, on his career, Iverson fell short in many categories compared to the average shooting guard (AI played both positions):
These statistics don’t support the notion of AI being one of the greatest guards of all time, but regardless of his poor shot choice, he was a player everyone wanted to watch because of how he played the game on both ends of the floor.
Before Iverson, it wasn’t about how many shots you took to get 50 points; it was about the fact that you scored 50 points. Playing the point guard position was simply about leading the offense and setting up teammates.
AI led the charge from one era of basketball into a new one. Today’s top point guards are characterized by their aggressive, ball-dominant scoring, looking to score above passing. Iverson would be the first strong example of this type of a player, setting a precedent for players such as Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and Kyrie Irving.
In perhaps the best season in his 14-year career, Iverson averaged 31.4 points while playing 42 minutes per game. This was enough to earn AI the MVP award for the 2000-‘01 season. Many people will point to his high usage of 35.9%, but can you really blame him? On a team where Aaron McKie was the second-highest scorer on the team behind AI, it’s safe to say Iverson was justifiable to postulate such a high usage percentage. What makes this more impressive is the fact that he led this team to a 56-26 record and an NBA Finals appearance against the Los Angeles Lakers.
This is not to dismiss the fact that Iverson was a low-efficient scorer. Instead, it makes the point that in the long run his inefficiency meant little next to the fact that he was by far the best player on the team. He almost carried his team single-handedly to a championship.
When compared to other shooting guards, AI makes the top ten almost every time. However, when compared to other top point-guards, Iverson for some reason really isn’t in the conversation. In fact, in 2013, Complex.com released a Top 25 Best Scoring Point Guards in NBA History list that didn’t even include Iverson. That’s ridiculous. Even though he could be considered for both positions, Iverson did things many other NBA players have never accomplished, things that sit alone as very impressive.
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Despite his inefficiency and high minutes played, Iverson ranks among the best in many aspects. Throughout his career, he led the league in scoring four times, minutes seven times, and usage five times. He ranks seventh in NBA history for points per game with 26.66 and eighth in steals per game with 2.17.
Iverson is among a list of seven players to ever average 30+ points and 7+ assists for a season; the others on the list were Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Tiny Archibald, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade. Not bad company for just an “inefficient scoring point guard.”
It doesn’t stop there.
He is also one of only four players to have averaged 30+% usage, 30+% assist rate, and under 11+ turnover rate in the same season. Jordan, Tracy McGrady, and James are the other three players on that platform. On his career, Iverson ranks third in NBA history for highest usage percentage, only sitting below Jordan and Wade at 31.83%. He also ranks second, only behind Jordan, in PPG in the playoffs, averaging 29.73 points. Talk about a big-time player.
In terms of comparing Iverson to fellow point guards, the competition gets tight. Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Robertson, Isiah Thomas, and Jerry West are five point guards known as the best of the best at their position. Comparing Iverson to these players using advanced analytics throughout their career reveals interesting facts.
One cannot say that Iverson is better than any of these five other players, but he certainly fits in the discussion. He sits behind only Kidd in VORP, third in BPM, and first in USG% and TOV%. And in the other categories, he’s right in the mix. The problem is that Iverson has never been part of this point-guard discussion, remaining overlooked.
Even though he seems to be relatively comparable to other players, he’s sort of an exception to the efficiency argument. What he did for the 76ers and the NBA that makes him one of the greatest players goes beyond statistics and analytics. AI did what super stars do, as he put a losing team on his back, and night-in and night-out, he put 100% in for his team, for his love of basketball.
On his career, he averaged 41.1 minutes per game. Only five players in NBA history have averaged more than 40 minutes per game in their career: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Robertson, Elgin Baylor, and Iverson (via iknow.io).
None of the players mentioned above, besides Iverson, were in the NBA past the year 1974.
In other words, Iverson did something throughout his career that no other player could do in his era or the era before. Not only was he almost always on the floor, but when he was on the floor, he was one of the most exciting players to ever play in the NBA. AI truly is one of the best examples for young players in displaying love for the game of basketball. Even at a disadvantage at six feet tall, he put on a show every night and put in great effort on both ends of the floor with insane put-back dunks, crossovers, and memorable plays.
When he joined the Sixers in the 1996-97 season, the team hadn’t had a winning season since 1990-91. In his MVP season (2000-01), he carried them to 56 wins. The last time the team had reached 56+ wins was in 1984. It isn’t far-fetched to say Iverson singlehandedly brought basketball back to the city of Philadelphia. Fans came to watch AI, and kids were amazed at his crossover and tried to perfect it.
Iverson wasn’t the first player to have a killer crossover, but he made it more popular and caught people’s attention with how he did it (hello, Michael Jordan). Due to his height, he needed and had insane hang time on his jumper. Although, he created so much space from the defender with his hesitation before the crossover, that it was almost never a problem to get a shot off. That’s what made it even more special. Even bigger than basketball, AI had the swagger that many NBA players didn’t possess at the time, making him an NBA role model.
Iverson isn’t the only victim of advanced analytics; some do not consider NBA great Kobe Bryant as a top-50 player. Yet many people ignore these statistics, like true shooting percentage, saying that Bryant is a top-20 or even a top-10 player. So are advanced analytics really all we should consider? Are certain players an exception to this method of ranking players? It’s a fair method to use analytics to say that Bryant is a “statistically inefficient player,” but nonetheless, he is clearly a top player when playing at his most elite level.
Advanced statistics and analytics may bring down Iverson from being one of the greatest players in NBA history, but an eye-test and fair basketball knowledge will tell you that AI should go down as one of the best to do it. The highlights speak for themselves—there will never be another AI.
Who else has crossed up a player twice with three dribbles to make him look like he’s break dancing?
Sorry, Antonio Daniels, it’s all about practice.
*Stats via Basketball Reference, Double Dribble, Nylon Calculus
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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