Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Why I Don't Miss Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson is my favorite basketball player of all-time. I'm glad he's not on the 76ers anymore. How can these two truths still hold? Let me explain:

I just finished watching the Denver Nuggets lose to the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets, led by Iverson, were humbly ushered into the off-season by the superior Spurs, but what resonated was how little remorse or envy watching Iverson inspired. When the Sixers initially traded him, my god, I figured I'd spend the next 5 years(at least) of my basketball watching life huddled by the set, bucket of alcohol nearby, tears slowly rolling down each cheek as BubbaChuck scored impossible basket after impossible basket. It would be bad enough that Philadelphia would lose the most exciting, bewitching guard ever, but his talent, heart, and pure swagger would be transported to a new, undeserving city, a town famous for it's high altitude and shitty beer. I'm sure AI was excited to be a mile high, but would the fans there even appreciate the contact buzz he would provide?

Almost 5 months later and the scenario has changed. The Sixers responded to Iverson's departure by playing better basketball than they have in years. What had been a tormenting mantra of If's and Maybe's became a unremarkable but satisfying set of answers. Andre Iguodala CAN score when called upon; Korver IS a real NBA player; Sammy D WILL still foul the shit out of you if you give him a pump fake. Slowly this team played better and more consistently, as a team, then maybe they should have. They sacrificed a better draft pick but in the process learned more about what they have and don't have, arguably the more important achievement.*

This could not have happened had Iverson stayed here. It WOULD not have happened. Watching the Nuggets play brought me back to many hundreds of games I've watched Allen Iverson play over the past 11 years, and my gut feeling was one of relief. Relief to be moving in a new direction and away from the treadmill team-building we Philly fans have been watching since 2000. Surround AI with mediocre, overpaid players and hope they all have career years. Didn't work? Repeat with new, equally mediocre and overpaid players and try again. The real problem, which I see now but was not allowed to see then, is that as brilliant as Iverson was/is, he stands alone as THE most difficult superstar to build around, of all-time, in any sport. In my opinion. Which is right.**

For an Allen Iverson team to win a championship you need the perfect blend of defenders and role players, guys have no ego and are happy setting picks and boxing out, mixed with just enough offensive help to mop up the table scraps left in his wake, and coached by nothing less than genius. This actually existed for one season, in 2000-2001, and the more I look back the more I shake my head in disbelief at what occurred. It all fell into place. It was magic. It was the perfect Iverson team, the only type of Iverson team that could possibly win a title, led by Larry Brown, who turned in one of the greatest coaching jobs since Gene Hackman told Jimmy Chitwood to fuck off. And it wasn't enough. The magic couldn't hold up and we went down in 5 to L.A.

Once the magical season ended and the long hangover began, the team faced a big question: stay competitive, viable, and legitimate(streetwise at least) with Iverson on the team, or trade him and stare into the abyss. The question began to answer itself when the abyss was suddenly staring into us while Iverson was still here, and so Billy King pulled the trigger. What had long been speculation was now able to play out. Without AI handling the ball 85% of the time and taking 65% of the shots, the other players, mostly young dudes, had room to grow. Room to breathe. The chance to mess up and get the ball back the very next time. The aforementioned Iguodala, Korver, and Dalembert each progressed more in the past 4 months then all of last year. I'm not kidding or exaggerating. Maybe exaggerating a little, but definitely not kidding. The team was no longer Iverson and a bunch of stiffs, it was now a bunch of stiffs who had the chance to show whether or not they were actually stiffs, on their clock, not AI's. This is important.

Even Mo cheeks, a coach I had lost respect for, was rejuvenated by the AI trade. He started to coach instead of cower at the sight of Iverson's posse. No longer distracted with having to scold Allen for eating Taco Bell in the huddle, he had time to diagram plays and devise strategies. And the players listened!! Practice?! We talking bout practice?!?! Yes!! We talking bout practice!! It's important!!

Meanwhile, Denver seems lost. They don't have the magical group necessary for a title run anytime soon. And we won't even mention the coaching disparity. Denver fans have reason to be excited no doubt; Iverson and Carmelo will score a ton of points, alley-opp many hundreds of times, and might even win a few playoff series. Throw in the dozens of amazing sound-bites("fatigues is army clothes") and news conferences Iverson will provide and those people are much better off than they were at this time last year. And I still love the guy, I still root for him and I'll always watch him with something of a teenage awe. But I'm glad he's gone. Glad it's up to another team to pull off the most difficult building project since Mutumbo in Africa. And ready to watch my brand new team of stiffs.

* I don't actually believe this
** Proven by science too complex for you to understand