To The Iverson Apologists: There Is No A.I. In Team

Jay Wierenga@@JayWierengaCorrespondent INovember 13, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 06:  Allen Iverson #3 of the Memphis Grizzlies staands on the court in the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on November 6, 2009 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 114-98.  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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

On Saturday, Allen Iverson was officially granted a leave of absence from the Memphis Grizzlies to tend to a "personal matter".

To speculate on what those personal matters may be would be inappropriate, but one can not help but notice the timing. 

Iverson's absence coincides perfectly with his dispute with Memphis coach Lionel Hollins over his role on the team.

For Memphis fans, they are now getting a taste of what Detroit Pistons fans went through last year- an upset Iverson.

While I can not speak for Grizzlies' fans, I can only imagine what they are feeling because Detroit fans felt it last season when Iverson was essentially shut down for the year when he refused to embrace his role as sixth man.

My advice for Memphis fans is simple...count yourself lucky!

This is one of the rare occurrences in which a subtraction nets an addition.

The Memphis Grizzlies are an up and coming team. They are blessed with a very talented young core comprised of the uber-talented O.J. Mayo in the back court and a front court packed with a smooth-scoring Rudy Gay, a promising Hasheem Thabeet and a gritty Marc Gasol who will remind people more of Chris Kaman than "Big Country" Bryant Reeves.

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First off, I have absolutely no clue why Memphis would bring in Iverson. Perhaps the owner was looking for a way to sell tickets, but that is really the only reason one could possibly come up with.

This notion seems flawed based on history. Forget for a second that Iverson has lost a step and has not shown an ability to improve a team's chances of winning, even while in his prime (more on that in a minute); Iverson has not shown a ability to put fans in the seats.

Over the past five seasons, Iverson has only once played on a team that was in the top half of the league's attendance rankings, and that was last year in Detroit.

Sure, Detroit led the league in attendance.  But Detroit has led the league in attendance six of the last seven years, and actually saw their attendance drop with Iverson's presence, and Denver saw their attendance rise without him.

Addition by subtraction.

Secondly, there was no way Iverson was going to start in Memphis, and if nobody told Iverson this, he should have known it already. There is no way he is that delusional to think that he would fit in the starting lineup.

Who, exactly, would Iverson start over? Currently, the two starting guards are Mike Conley and Mayo.

Granted, Conley is no sure-fire NBA star.  Personally, I think Conley is a borderline NBA starter.  However, he is a true point guard, and nobody (Iverson included) believes A.I. can play that position. 

Therefore, it seems Iverson would have to replace Mayo.  Mayo is not only bigger, stronger and more athletic than Allen, but he is a better defender, shooter, and at this point in his career, scorer. 

More importantly, he is younger.  Mayo just turned 22 and has a very bright future ahead of him.  Iverson is 34 and a half, and is coming off of an injury-plagued season that saw him unable to turn the corner like he once did.

Furthermore, Mayo has the size needed to guard other shooting guards. Iverson has always needed to be paired with a bigger guard to hide his inability to play position defense, especially against bigger opponents.  In Memphis, he would be paired with Conley, who is actually about the same size as Allen. 

Can you imagine a back court of Iverson and Conley trying to cover Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or even Rip Hamilton? 

By cutting bait with Iverson, it allows Hollins a chance to see a young and improving Marcus Williams spend more time on the court and gives the team another roster spot that could be used on any number of available shooting guards.

Addition by subtraction.

We are nearly half way through this article and we haven't even mentioned Iverson's attitude!

Last season, Iverson, who has been accused of being a malcontent in the past, was finally placed on a veteran team comprised of professionals playing for one of the classiest franchises in the game.

Essentially, it was the first time Iverson would be on a team that did not need him to do everything in order for the team to win. 

Team President Joe Dumars saw this as the perfect fit. Not only would he be getting one of the league's purest scorers, but he would be getting a player known for toughness that could give his aging franchise a new way to win. What could go wrong?

In a word, everything. 

Iverson's laziness on defense was contagious, and not only did his presence on offense not improve the team, but instead his inclusion spurred regressions in most of the Pistons' players individual numbers.

A.I. over the course of his career has been known for a certain style of play. 

On offense, he needs the ball in his hands for nearly the entire shot clock, allowing him to feel his way through the defense and attack it at its weakest point. 

On defense, he gambles on steals and gets overpowered by bigger players.

As a result, he needs to be surrounded by certain types of players.  He needs shooters that will spread the defense, a big point guard that can play defense and does not need to shoot, and big shot blockers up front that can cover up his gambling tendencies on defense.

Most of all, he needs a team to be a supporting cast that will not raise a fuss when Iverson takes 3/4 of the team's shots.

The team he joined in Detroit was not built that way.  As a result, Iverson's style of play was stamped all over Detroit's team statistics. 

In the year before Iverson joined the Pistons, Detroit was in the top 10 in the league in assists, the middle of the pack in scoring, and tops in team defense.

With Iverson, the team dropped to the middle of the pack in assists, 28th in scoring and gave up over four more points per game on defense!

Interestingly, with Iverson, who is known for his ability to grab steals, Detroit actually swiped one less steal per game than they did without him.

Furthermore, Iverson became a distraction for a veteran team, and when he finally was shut down due to his inability to accept a lesser role, the Pistons season was lost.

This year's Pistons are not as talented, but they are already on pace for a better year than they had with Iverson, record-wise, and their fans are no longer subjected to Iverson apologists and their constant rose-colored assessments of their hero.

Addition by subtraction.

This brings us to Iverson's apologists.

First off, let me get this on record.  I was not an Iverson hater.  I was actually one of the few Pistons fans that embraced the trade that brought in Iverson in exchange for, among others, Chauncey Billups.

I, like Dumars, believed that the Pistons had gone as far as they were going to go with the Billups-led core, and that the team would need to be rebuilt following one last shot at a winner.

The addition of Iverson as a one year rental helped clear up salary cap space, putting Detroit in a position to add some younger talent in subsequent seasons.

I also thought that Iverson would allow Detroit to win in a new way, as one of the biggest problems the Pistons had in the playoffs were their long scoring droughts and a tendency to depend way too much on jump shots and not enough on getting to the hoop.

Of course in the back of my mind I feared that it could also go in the other direction, but I am an optimist by nature.

What I did not expect was the throng of followers that Iverson brings with him.

On a daily basis, Detroit fans were subjected to these "fans" and their unabashed loyalty to "the Answer". If the Pistons won a game, it was because of Iverson. If they lost, it was because they weren't letting A.I. be A.I.

And heaven forbid anyone says anything bad about their leader.

For a fan base that is loyal only to the team, and not individual players, this was strange to witness. Perhaps Pistons fans are unique (although I don't think this seems likely) in the sense that we honor our team above the individual players.  While we love our players, when they leave we don't leave with them.

This, for me, is what is wrong with the league and the way it markets itself. Commissioner David Stern learned the wrong lesson from the league's hay day in the 1980's when the Celtics and Lakers dominated.

Apparently, Stern believes that it was just about Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird.

Sure, that was the centerpiece of the rivalry. But the truth is that it was more about the teams. The Lakers were comprised of high-flying finesse players that could run their opponents right out of the gym, while the Celtics were scrappy shooters that never went away.

There was also a cultural difference, with the Lakers representing the glamorous Hollywood and the Celtics representing a hard-nosed town of blue collared workers.

This spawned other rivalries, like the Celtics and the Knicks and Pistons, the Lakers and the Trail Blazers and the Pistons and the Bulls.

Perhaps a more vibrant free-agent culture added to the marketing plan, but Stern and his people began shifting away from team marketing into individual marketing. 

The centerpiece, of course, was Michael Jordan. But Jordan was special for any generation, and his team's were always good anyways.

However, beginning in the 1990's, the league began focusing on a new crop of players, coinciding with Jordan's absence from the league, and Iverson was the new centerpiece of the league's push to promote players over teams.

This marketing idea is flawed by its shortsightedness. The sad truth is that an NBA player's career is quite finite. Players tend to only stick around the league for basically 10 years, give or take a few.

Therefore, if the league is successful in hooking the public on one particular player, they will lose that fan when his career is over. The league saw this phenomenon in the 1990's when Jordan retired and television ratings took a huge hit.

Instead of taking the hint and promoting its teams, they instead doubled-down on the new generation of stars.

But what happens when that crop leaves? The numbers will likely take a hit and the league will be forced to count on a new generation of fans.

If they had instead focused on the teams, those previous generations would have stuck around and the numbers would only increase due to the inclusion of new generations being added to an already strong base.

Instead, the NBA finds itself now on the third tier of sports popularity, barely edging out newcomers like MMA fighting and MLS soccer and oldies like Nascar and the NHL.

That is why I do not hate Iverson apologists, but rather pity them for being sucked into a marketing campaign that preyed on them.

I also don't view them as fans, which is why I will be glad to no longer have to sift through their comments on Pistons boards...something that Memphis fans are no doubt just now encountering.

Addition by subtraction.

Lastly, this brings us to the legacy of Iverson.

Personally, I think he will be thought of as something between "Pistol" Pete Maravich, "Tiny" Nate Archibald, World B. Free and Adrian Dantley.

He was a curiosity, a scorer, a talent and likely Hall of Famer.

But was he a winner?

If you look at Iverson's career, the answer doesn't appear to be yes.

In the year before Iverson was drafted by Philadelphia, the 76'ers were 18-64.  In his first year, they improved only four games.  In fact, they only made the playoffs once they secured Larry Brown as their head coach.

In Iverson's 10 full seasons in Philly, the 76'ers made the playoffs six times, and only made it out of the first round four of those six times.  Therefore, 60% of his career in Philly his team did not even make it to the second round of the playoffs.

The one season that Iverson reached the NBA Finals he played brilliantly. He was motivated by the fact that Philly had tried to trade him in the off season (ironically to Detroit), and he was eager to prove them wrong. He responded with an MVP season.

But that season was certainly the outlier in his career, and in the first full year without Iverson, Philly improved from 38-44 in their last year with A.I., to 40-42 and made the playoffs.

Conversely, Iverson's new team, the Denver Nuggets, did not see a marked improvement with Iverson's arrival, continuing to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

However, when Iverson was traded to Detroit, the real story emerges. Denver went from the West's first round punching bag to a team that was two games away from the NBA Finals.

On the flip side, Detroit went from a 59 win team that had reached the Eastern Conference Finals in six straight years, to a sub-.500 team that lost in the first round in a four game massacre versus Cleveland.

Obviously, there are always other factors at work. But the fact remains that for all of his individual success, Iverson has never won an NBA Championship.

Standing here at what most likely is the end of his NBA career, the fact remains that Iverson represents the face of the "Me-First" generation of the NBA. He is essentially a cautionary tale of what happens when individual greed trumps the collective good of the team.

And those left behind are forced to face the truth of what his absence means for the future of the league...

Addition by subtraction.