Stats: 27.1 PTS, 6.1 AST, 3.9 REB, 2.3 STL
Accolades: 8-time All-Star, 2000-01 NBA MVP, two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP, 3-time All-NBA 1st team (three 2nd team and one 3rd team appearance).
Allen Iverson, well into irrelevance as a basketball player, still is very socially relevant. How? He was, and continues to be, an icon.
Icon, I believe, is the best way to describe AI’s impact on the NBA. Because I would argue that he was never, at one point in time, the best player in the NBA. No point at all. Even when he won the league MVP and led a team to the NBA finals, I would never argue that Iverson was the best. He had way too many flaws in his game. Namely, his all-out offensive left much to be desired, and his other flaws oftentimes hurt the team as much as it helped it*.
*I promise that this won’t be an Iverson-bash session, but you have to acknowledge the flaws in order to get the true picture of Allen Iverson. Just bear with me for a moment.
His style of play, which can be described as thrilling, reckless, or inefficient depending on your point of view, wasn’t the best in the league by any objective measure. He shot 42% from the floor for his Sixers career, 31% from behind the three point line. His effective field goal percentage, as a Sixer, was only 44.5%*. Most players shoot a much higher percentage – the only Sixer with meaningful playing time in 2010-11 that did not have an eFG% that high was Evan Turner. He was inefficient. But, unlike Evan Turner’s jumper, his game was fun to watch. His game was unique. And that took a lot of the blame off of him. Well, that and his usually offensively-inept teammates couldn’t really help out. I don’t know, essentially, how to value Iverson’s abilities as a Sixer, because he did have the carry the entire load – how much to knock him down because of his rate-deficiencies.
*Effective field goal percentage, for those that do not know, gives extra weight to threes in calculating a field goal percentage. Since one three is worth the same amount as one and a half twos, for the purpose of this percentage two-pointers count as one shot made while three-pointers count as 1.5 shots made.
Allen Iverson recorded a lot of steals. However, that was his only real defensive attribute: he was putrid in other parts of the defensive game. While boasting high defensive ratings largely because of his teammates (again, for all their offensive challenges they surely made it up on the other end of the floor), he never was even a decent defender, let alone a good-to-great one. His specialty was playing the passing lanes – being his size has a few advantages. He sought out steals, which is to say he did that instead of playing shut-down defense. Now, I don’t think he could ever become a shut-down defender, if only because he’d be so worn down that he would play about 40 games per year. But his defense was certainly not a positive – his most successful teams were built around needing players that were willing to defend around him because he was not willing or that he just could not defend.
So in summary, he played an inefficient offensive game coupled with defense that’s best described as some combination between “passive” and “renegade”. Then, you may ask, how does Iverson reach this level on your list? By the sounds of it, he wasn’t actually all that good, right?
Well, the descriptions above do not take into consideration his size, skills, and impact on the game of basketball. And impact is a key word here. He was iconical for more than just his all-out style of play. No one had made quite the cultural impact on the NBA that Allen Iverson made. Here, a list of trends or moments created, inspired, or at least popularized, by Allen Iverson:
The headband – before Iverson, no one who wore headbands was “cool” except for hippies like Bill Walton. You didn’t find it in the NBA when Iverson arrived. Now? Well, Brad Miller has tried his hardest to make it uncool again, but otherwise many of the league’s best wear them during games.
The step-over – really a one-time thing, but still maybe his most iconic non-press conference moment. Tyronn Lue will never mess with AI again. This defiant act, in a career made possible through defiance, stands out the most.
The arm-sleeve – originally necessitated by an injury, AI made the sleeve fashionable. Now, you hardly find a top player that hasn’t tried, at one time or another, wearing an arm-sleeve.
Practice – no one in the NBA, or almost anywhere else in sports, can match the cultural impact of the “Practice” press conference. Almost 10 years later, it is still a meme.
Tattoos – yes, many players had tattoos before AI. You may or may not be a fan of tattoos themselves, but Iverson’s body was essentially a work of art. Without Allen Iverson, I don’t think you get the rainbow Nuggets of this past year (although now they are the rainbow CBAs I guess). He really elevated this part of the game, for better or worse.
Iverson’s cultural impact, however, took place because of his career on the basketball court. And his career was rooted, as I mentioned above, in defiance. He was too small. He didn’t have a position. His game wouldn’t translate to the NBA. He couldn’t lead a team to major success. He proved each of these thoughts to be wrong.
Listed at 6’1″ but more accurately described as being 5’10″ or shorter, AI had a skill set that had not been seen in the NBA: a “shooting guard in a point guard’s body”, the typical great pickup player that just didn’t meet the prerequisites of an all-star or even a rotation player in the league. It would be a blessing if someone his size, with his physical skills, even made a rotation. AI obviously did much more than that. He made it into the NBA through throwing his body around the court with an unmatched reckless abandon. He survived by coming back after every time he got knocked down, hit, thrown aside. He played more minutes than anyone else too – he was a warrior, always ready to get back up and get knocked down again. He defied physics, defied his injuries, defied everything.
His constant defiance made Iverson a load to handle for Larry Brown and his other coaches, but that’s essentially what made him a great NBA player. It’s also what got him into trouble after his star days ended. He could never accept a bench role – he had too much pride, not accepting that he was simply not as good as he used to be. Useful? Yes, but not as a starter. It also resulted in his reported financial and drinking problems – he couldn’t handle not being perceived as one of the best, considered an NBA star.
To this day, he still hopes to return to the NBA. He’s still defiant – he doesn’t realize that there is a time when you need to give it up. And this defiance, the refusal to say no, is what made AI an icon. He is the second greatest 76er over the past 30 seasons.