What's Next for Allen Iverson?

Ryan CardarellaCorrespondent IApril 8, 2009

CLEVELAND - FEBRUARY 22: Allen Iverson #1 of the Detroit Pistons looks on from the bench during a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 22, 2009 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 99-78. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Allen Iverson is undoubtedly a warrior on the basketball court.

Season after season, he has put his body on the line in his dogged pursuit of an NBA title, famously dragging a startlingly untalented Philly squad to the NBA Finals in 2001 with his grit and otherworldly shot-making ability (that team's second-leading scorer was Theo Ratliff; just chew on that for a moment).

But after carrying the hopes and championship aspirations of the Philadelphia 76ers for nearly a decade, and unsuccessfully attempting to conquer the West with fellow superstar Carmelo Anthony in Denver, Iverson was traded to Motown, and was recently asked to assume a sixth-man role with the veteran Pistons.

While Iverson is still clearly a great, starting-caliber player, sliding him to the bench appeared to be a move with at least some logic behind it.

With the Answer nursing a sore back, along with the presence of Rip Hamilton and the emerging Rodney Stuckey on the roster, the Pistons could limit his minutes and have an explosive scorer to pair with the rest of their second unit.

That recipe has worked mighty well for the four-time NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and their star guard Manu Ginobili. On the flip side, bringing a guy with a balky back cold off the bench may not be the wisest move.

It took Iverson two games to become fed up with his new role.

Iverson took the move personally and treated it as a demotion, quickly speaking out against the decision.

"It's a bad feeling, man," he said after playing just 18 minutes against Cleveland. "It's a bad time for me mentally."

A later comment from Iverson stated that he would rather retire than accept a reserve role next season.

With Detroit still jockeying for playoff position, the Pistons recently chose to simply shut down the Answer for the season. In the team's eyes, his injury, as well as his potential to be a locker-room distraction, outweighed his contributions on the court.

Knowing the kind of player and competitor Iverson is, his reaction was not surprising. And at this point in his career, he is not a bench player, unless he's backing Kobe or D-Wade.

He was understandably upset, and he still feels that he can produce and carry a team like he always has. The problem is, that may no longer be the case for Iverson.

We aren't talking about practice anymore, we are talking about the games. And in the games, like many other aging Pistons, Iverson is clearly a player in decline.

Iverson is averaging 17.4 points per game this season, nearly 10 under his career average, and his five assists per game are his fewest since 2000-01. He is also shooting just over 41 percent from the field.

Granted, he is playing about five minutes per game less, and in a bit of a different role in Detroit, but the numbers don't lie.

Iverson will be 34 in June, and his body has taken a beating like few in NBA history. His game is predicated on speed and explosiveness, and those qualities do not age like fine wine.

What made Iverson so great all these years is what will also hurt him the most as his career enters another phase. Iverson is a very proud player, and has always relished being the top dog. But that mentality made it hard to find players to complement him, and Iverson's teams struggled to get over the hump because of it.

Players like Larry Hughes, Jerry Stackhouse, and Chris Webber struggled to mesh with Iverson, and the Sixers were often short that extra scorer who could have put them over the top.

Philly was largely comprised of hard-working role players who didn't need the ball (Tyrone Hill, Mutombo, and Aaron McKie, to name a few), but they ultimately lacked the firepower to consistently compete at a championship level.

Much of that is on management, but Iverson and his uncompromising style has to shoulder some blame for that dearth of skill in Philly as well.

The bottom line isn't that Iverson is done. He is still an impact player who can be a difference-maker for several years to come.

But the key to him making that impact in Detroit, or most likely elsewhere, will be his willingness to accept more of a supporting role.

No team is going to bring him in to be their primary threat at this point.

He is going to have to learn, at this advanced stage of his career, how to finally mesh his considerable skills with other talented players, or he will struggle mightily as Father Time chips away at him athletically.

So, it comes down to this.

It is tough to alter the mentality of an assassin. Iverson has played only one way for his entire career: 40-plus minutes of all-out attack. But those days are nearing their end.

The real question is, can Iverson accept being an answer instead of the answer?

I hope so.