Was Allen Iverson Overrated?


When word leaked that Allen Iverson was set to announce his retirement, I joined every basketball fan in celebrating his legacy. When he arrived in the league, he single-handedly changed the culture of the NBA with his edgy hip-hop personality (no I’m not talking about that ‘roided out rabbit that used to be the mascot). And when he crossed over Michael Jordan during his rookie season, we realized he could play a little basketball too. But the more time I spent remembering the highlights of his career (like stepping over Tyronn Lue during game 1 of the 2001 finals), the more I stumbled upon a troubling realization: Allen Iverson’s advanced stats kept telling me that he was severely overrated. They said he wasn’t a great player. In fact, they indicated that he was actually below average.

If you know anything about Allen Iverson’s 2000-2001 season, you’re going to think I’m crazy. That year, Iverson averaged 31.1 points, 4.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game. He was named MVP of the league and his PER was a very impressive 24 (league average is 15). But PER is not a very good advanced stat. As long as you shoot a minimum of 30% from the field, your PER will increase with each shot you take, even if you miss the shot.  30% is a terrible field goal percentage, and a good stat should decrease if you do something bad, not increase. Shooting percentage is the reason why other advanced stats don’t like Iverson – he wasn’t a very good shooter, but he took a ton of shots. He shot the ball 25.5 times a game that year and only made 42% of them.

I believe Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) is the best advanced stat available to us fans (who knows what mathematical voodoo Sam Hinkie has at his disposal). WP48 is hard to calculate but easy to understand. The average WP48 is .100, and if you multiply it by the player’s minutes that year, it will tell you how many wins that player produced that season. During his MVP season, Iverson had a WP48 of .077, meaning that he was responsible for 4.8 wins. But the Sixers won 56 games that season and Iverson was supposedly their best player. Where did the other wins come from? According to WP48, Iverson was actually the 7th most valuable 76er that year. Who was the best? George Lynch, who contributed an amazing 11.26 wins.

May 23, 2012; Philadelphia, PA USA; Philadelphia 76ers former guard Allen Iverson before the start of game six against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

At this point in my analysis I knew for sure that I was going nuts. I watched the 76ers that season, and Iverson was definitely a better player than Lynch. How could this reliable stat be so wrong?

Wins produced undervalues two of Allen Iverson’s greatest skills.
– He regularly got the other team in foul trouble. He took 10.1 free throws a game and made over 80% of them. By drawing fouls, he sent their best players to the bench, and helped out the Sixers in a way that doesn’t show up in the box score.
– He was the only shot creator on the team. If he didn’t score, the Sixers often didn’t score. Eric Snow and Aaron McKie were the team’s other two guards and they were solid, but couldn’t easily create their own shot. Iverson’s athleticism and ability to create chaos on the court created better shooting opportunities for his teammates.

Now we know why Allen Iverson’s WP48 is so low and why it didn’t account for some of his value, but that still leaves one question. How could George Lynch possibly be so sneakily good?

His shooting (44.5%) wasn’t that much better than Iverson’s and he was merely average at most other things on the court. The majority of his value came from one impressive skill. With 7.2 rebounds a game, he was an outstanding rebounder for a small forward.

Does WP48 overvalue Lynch? Probably. Most basketball stats come from single opportunity plays. If you shoot, you might make it or miss it, but no one else on your team could take and make the shot when you had the ball. When you get a steal, or block, or assist its the same thing. Either you make that play, or no one does. Rebounding is a little different. If you miss a defensive rebound there’s a good chance one of your other four teammates might get it, especially if those teammates are Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff, and Tyrone Hill.

So after all that, what is the take away? Advanced stats are a great way to analyze players but sometimes you have to dig deeper to find the story behind the numbers. Is Allen Iverson overrated? Probably a little, because he was a good scorer but a bad shooter. But he was better than his WP48 suggests. And as for George Lynch? We all probably didn’t appreciate him as much as we should have. During the 2000 – 2001 season, the Sixers were excellent at three things. They got to the foul line, grabbed a lot of rebounds, and played great defense. Both George Lynch and Allen Iverson contributed to all three of those advantages to help lead the Sixers to the Finals against the Lakers. Fans will have to remember that year fondly when they watch this year’s team try to go Winless for Wiggins.