No matter how long the Association continues to churn out players who morph into superstars, The Answer will always remain a unique specimen—a player who can't be imitated, even if he can be learned from.
That's right. We will never see another player like Allen Iverson in the NBA.
When thinking about Iverson, I'm reminded of a passage from Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, in which the Grantland founder discusses the legacy of Hakeem Olajuwon:
Add everything up and here are your odds that we'll see another Hakeem Olajuwon: a kajillionpilliongazillionfrazillionfriggallionmillion to one. You will see fifty reasonably close replicas of Jordan (and we've already seen two: Kobe and Wade) before you see another Dream.
Iverson—even if you eliminate the hip-hop influence, the "practice" rant, his rap career, the ubiquitous chain around his neck and all of his other off-court trademarks—falls into the same category. We're only discussing the basketball portion of his illustrious career, and he still emerges as one of the most unique players in NBA history.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we'll see another Olajuwon before we see another Iverson. But that's just speaking hypothetically: We won't see either appearing in the ranks of professional basketball again.
Changing Views on Efficiency
The black mark on Iverson's career is his field-goal percentage.
He shot 42.5 percent from the field throughout his career and even finished below 40 percent—basketball's version of the Mendoza Line—on two separate occasions. During one of those seasons, 2001-02, Iverson won a scoring title while averaging 31.4 points per game.
In '01-02, he earned only 2.6 offensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference, one of the lowest marks in his prime, yet still garnered MVP votes. A scoring title trumped any concerns about shooting his team out of games.
But, was it really a black mark? Calling it one feels rather anachronistic, as efficiency didn't matter to basketball analysts and fans like it does today.
Take a look at the points per game and field-goal percentages of scoring champions since the turn of the century, and see if a pattern emerges:
Many criticized 'Melo last season for winning the scoring title without maintaining Durantian levels of efficiency. And he shot 44.9 percent!
That mark would have been the third-highest mark of Iverson's career, and it loses out to only Tracy McGrady's 2002-03 campaign during the first half of the 2000s. The way we look at basketball has experienced a seismic shift in no time at all, and it only helps to make Iverson more unique.
We were thrilled by the crossovers and explosive bursts to the basket. We lived with the ill-advised pull-up jumpers and the insistence on taking over each and every night. That was the way things worked back then.
However, Iverson's style of play wouldn't cut it in today's NBA, and it's a major reason why he wasn't able to find a long-term home after leaving the Philadelphia 76ers. A player who shoots around 40 percent from the field is now lampooned mercilessly, and he's typically asked to fire away less often by his coaching staff.
That's just the way things work now, as we care as much about shooting a high percentage as we do about posting gaudy scoring totals.
The points-per-game numbers for scoring champions have declined ever so slightly over the last decade, and it's not because players are less talented now. It's because there's more of a focus on the value of scoring rather than the sheer quantity—a disparity that didn't exist to the same extent during Iverson's heyday.
This isn't meant to diminish Iverson's accomplishments—not in the slightest.
No one can take away his scoring titles, nor do they want to. And despite his inefficiency, he was still an unquestioned superstar who drew tons of media attention and won over fans with each and every brutalizing crossover.
As Dennis "Cutty" Wise might say in The Wire, "The game done changed." But instead of getting fiercer, it's just experienced a shift in focus.
You won't ever see another scoring champion like Iverson because he wouldn't be kept in the No. 1 role for so long. He'd be given the red light until he proves that he can display better shot selection.
Lack of Diminutive Success
Basketball is a sport for giant human beings, and it's tough for tiny guards to succeed unless they're blessed with insane skill or athleticism.
Iverson had both.
According to Basketball-Reference, 248 players in NBA history have stepped foot on the hardwood and been 6'0" or shorter. Of all of them, only Chris Paul has earned more career win shares than Iverson, and no one else comes within an MVP-worthy season of the two diminutive guards. Tim Hardaway and Calvin Murphy are the only two other players to top 80 win shares.
But how about if you sort the players by career points?
Iverson is over 6,000 points clear of the field. Murphy comes in second, and only 10 players have hit five figures.
- Allen Iverson, 24,368
- Calvin Murphy, 17,949
- Tim Hardaway, 15,373
- Mookie Blaylock, 11,962
- David Wesley, 11,842
- Damon Stoudamire, 11,763
- Mark Price, 10,989
- Kenny Anderson, 10,789
- Guy Rodgers, 10,415
- Chris Paul, 10,326
But it's not just about the fact that Iverson is one of the best little guys of all time—if not the best. It's that he was one of the last of a dying breed.
Per Basketball-Reference, in 2012-13, only six players 5'11" or shorter suited up for an NBA team: Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson, Isaiah Thomas, John Lucas, Josh Akognon and Justin Dentmon. The last two combined to play only five games, so they barely count.
While players under 6'0" were quite common in the early days of the NBA, the same isn't true anymore. There was a spike following the ABA-NBA merger and the subsequent expansion of the league, but the little guys are becoming a rare breed.
Iverson is one of the pound-for-pound greats, and there aren't likely to be many candidates in the coming years who can top him. Shorter players are harder to come by, as the human race naturally gets taller, and NBA teams gravitate more and more toward size and length.
But LeBron James won't settle for labeling Iverson "one of."
He expanded on that thought in an interview with ESPN's Chris Broussard:
They say he was 6 feet, but AI was like 5-10½. Do we even want to say 160? 170 [pounds]? Do we even want to give him that much weight? And he played like a 6-8 2-guard. He was one of the greatest finishers we've ever seen. You could never question his heart. Ever. He gave it his all. AI was like my second-favorite player growing up, after MJ.
It's tough to imagine that we'll ever see a player like that again. Not only are his efficiency numbers prohibitive of it, but so too is his small stature.
Of the current tiny guards in the NBA, it's tough to compare any of them to Iverson. Lawson is a well-rounded player who thrives off making the right decisions. Robinson is an explosive player who likes to function as a spark off the bench. Thomas may be the closest thing to AI, except he's really, really, really just a poor man's Iverson.
Disappearance of One-Man Teams
Part of what made Iverson so special was his ability to completely carry a team on his shoulders, even though they weren't too far from the floor.
Take the 2000-01 season when he led the Philadelphia 76ers into the NBA Finals, where they eventually fell 4-1 to an unstoppable Los Angeles Lakers squad. Only four players on that team averaged double digits in the points column: Aaron McKie, Theo Ratliff, Dikembe Mutombo (the 34-year-old, washed-up version) and Iverson.
Ratliff was the No. 2 scorer on the team, putting up 12.4 points per contest. Iverson averaged 31.1.
In the playoffs, Iverson increased his scoring output to 32.9 points per game, and only McKie and Mutombo joined him in the above-10 category.
I'd be selling the team short if I failed to mention Eric Snow, who was a fantastic distributor but couldn't score to save his life.
However, the point still stands. This was Iverson's team, and it truly went as far as he could carry it.
Want to take a guess at how many players in last year's postseason averaged more points per game than the combined output of the No. 2 and No. 3 scorers on their team?
Carmelo Anthony barely did, but his New York Knicks weren't able to advance to the NBA Finals, falling instead to the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals. And there was no one else.
One-man teams are a thing of the past, a relic of a time when the league wasn't as deep and "Big Threes" didn't exist with such alarming frequency. Now, it takes an entire team effort to advance into the later stages of the postseason, and it's inordinately difficult for one player to carry a squad.
What Iverson did, even if he retired without any rings (well, the NBA-championship variety) on his fingers, was truly special and won't be replicated for a long time.
Over the next handful of years—decades, even—we'll see a lot of players come and go. Stars will rise and fall. Scoring champions will emerge, as will a few smaller studs.
But there's one thing we won't see: another Iverson.