Maybe things could have turned out differently for Allen Iverson.
If the 11-time All-Star and four-time scoring champ had been willing to take on a bench role with the Detroit Pistons in 2009, perhaps that point in his career would have marked the beginning of a new chapter—and not the beginning of the end.
AI took a stand four years ago that was both entirely predictable and eminently painful. Everyone watching knew he was done as an alpha dog, but Iverson didn't know how to be anything else. If he'd been willing to learn, the recent talk of his impending "official" retirement might not feel quite so sad.
The Turning Point
Nobody knew it at the time, but Iverson's remarkable 2007-08 campaign was his swan song. AI played a league-high 41.8 minutes per game, posted a career best field-goal percentage (45.8 percent) and amassed the second-most win shares of any season in his career, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
But in 2009, the Denver Nuggets sent him to the Pistons after just three games. And from that point on, nothing went right for AI.
He felt betrayed by the Pistons, whom he claimed reneged on their promise to utilize him as a starter. Iverson told Scoop Jackson of ESPN:
So I went and talked to them. And they told me, straight up, 'Allen, we would never disrespect you or your career like that,' by making me come off the bench. That's what they told me to my face. And after that, I never thought about it again. I just went back to playing. Then [not long after that] they came to me saying that they felt it would be in the best interest of the team if I came off of the bench behind [Richard Hamilton].
For what it's worth, Iverson actually started 50 of the 54 games he played in Detroit that year. But he effectively ended his own season in February when the Pistons made it clear that they no longer wanted him to play such a major role.
Howard Beck of The New York Times wrote about how Iverson's bad back might have been a cover for his bruised ego.
Iverson’s back injury surfaced in late February, right around the time that Curry decided to make him the sixth man. He missed 18 games, then returned in late March. After three games as a reserve, Iverson unloaded his frustration.
'I’d rather retire before I do this again,' Iverson said last week after the Pistons lost to the Nets. 'I can’t be effective playing this way.'
Iverson didn't know it at the time, but he was basically predicting his own future.
What Could Have Been
As a purely hypothetical exercise, it's fun to imagine what Iverson's final years might have looked like if he had been willing to transition into a supporting role.
In order to have pulled off the change, he definitely would have needed an attitude recalibration, as well as some kind of divine intervention to subdue his sense of entitlement. Just as a reminder, here's what he said to ESPN's Jackson about his unwavering belief in his role as a starter:
But that's the only way I know how to play. What, [you're] just going to take [away] something God gave to me? God gave me this ability to play this way. He taught me how to play this way. He showed me the way. Now coach [John] Thompson and Larry Brown, they made me the player that I am. They molded me. But how [are] you going to try to change something that God gave me?
But assuming Iverson could have somehow stomached a reduced role, he also would have had to find a way to straighten out his jumper. Never a good standstill shooter, Iverson relied on copious drives (and resultant trips to the foul line) to get his points. But as he aged, his ability to draw contact dipped precipitously.
So a better jumper would have been a must in AI's imaginary bench role.
Other than that, there are very few physical changes that would have been necessary for Iverson to thrive as a spark plug off the bench. He could play either guard spot, always produced effectively as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and could easily have captained any team's second unit.
Direct comparisons are nearly impossible with a player as unique as Iverson, but it's possible that he could have become something like Jamal Crawford with better passing instincts.
Of course, we're assuming that Iverson would have also left his hard-partying reputation behind. One of the NBA's all-time great night owls, Iverson may never have lasted in any role without a marked slowdown in his evening activities.
If he'd been able to hang on for a few more seasons as a sixth man, Iverson could have easily climbed into the top 10 of the NBA's all-time scoring list. His 24,368 points rank 19th right now, but even if he'd barely averaged double figures over the past three seasons, he'd be right there in the mix with Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 9 all time with 26,946 points) and Oscar Robertson (No. 10 all time with 26,710 points).
With low-efficiency scorers like Iverson falling out of favor as statistics play a bigger role in NBA analysis, a few thousand extra points would have certainly helped AI's Hall of Fame credentials.
The Only Way
Maybe things could have turned out differently for Allen Iverson. But if you really think about it, would you have wanted them to?
Iverson’s career will end with his defiance and his self-destructive tendencies fully intact. AI went out on his terms, and as much as he could have given as an option off the bench these past few years, nobody would have really wanted to remember him that way.
Just as important as the points and the on-court effort was Iverson's unapologetic "realness." He was proud, stubborn and uncompromising from the first day of his NBA career to the last. He wasn't meant to hang on in a reserve role as the final seconds of his NBA career ticked away.
So while it'd be nice to pretend Iverson could have stuck around a bit longer, it's better that he went out the way he did.
This is how it had to end.