Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Allen Iverson: Three Up, Three Down

Posted By on Wed, Sep 9, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Quick, extremely conflicted thoughts on the first day of the Iverson Era:

Up:

The Good A.I.: The rare chance to see a true star up close.
  • The Good A.I.: The rare chance to see a true star up close.
1. A Rare Opportunity: Whatever else the addition of Allen Iverson means for the Grizzlies, one thing is clear: This provides an opportunity for Memphis-area sports fans to watch one of the most compelling and charismatic athletes of his generation, up close, for as many as 45 games. In my seven years of covering the Grizzlies, my two favorite NBA players to watch in person have been Iverson and Kevin Garnett: Both play the game with palpable passion and both are unique athletes — Garnett a 7'1" basketball ballet dancer who covers the entire floor and doesn't need to score to dominate; Iverson a scoring machine who attacks with a geometrical feel few possess, as if he's on ice skates while everyone else is in sneakers.

Even a diminished, 34-year-old Iverson will be fascinating to watch. In a small market with one major-league franchise, the opportunity to watch an all-time great is rare. Whatever my reservations about the signing, I'm genuinely excited to take advantage of that opportunity.

2. Starpower: If the main reason for signing Iverson is to get fans excited and sell tickets, well, those are pretty worthwhile goals. Nevermind the impact on the team's bottom line — the paltry attendance at Grizzlies games in recent seasons has severely hurt the quality of the experience for fans that are there and has seemed to impact the energy level of the players. Iverson will sell tickets. He won't fill the building, but will clearly bring many more people in than would otherwise have been there.

His presence will also encourage casual/potential fans that have tuned the Grizzlies out to take another look. And if the team manages to make any sustainable progress on the floor this season, maybe some of those people will be smitten enough to stick around next season after Iverson has moved on.

3. Fills a Legitimate Need: While the Iverson signing may well have been driven by owner Michael Heisley and not at all sought by his basketball staff, there is a real on-court role for Iverson on this team should he choose to accept it. With the absence of Hakim Warrick, the current Grizzlies team lacked a single proven scorer off the bench. Now a potential second team of Iverson-Sam Young-DeMarre Carroll-Darrell Arthur-Hasheem Thabeet intrigues. That lineup could pair Iverson with defensive-oriented young players who could focus on defense, rebounding, and energy and be willing to fully defer to Iverson offensively, to let his shot-making run wild. Sort of a limited-minutes bench version of the 76ers team that Iverson took to the Finals. Things get much, much more complicated when Iverson is on the floor with some of the team's starters, all of whom need touches and shots. Maybe coach Lionel Hollins should think about utilizing fleet substitutions, drawing on the two-unit concept that Hubie Brown had.

Down:

The Bad A.I.: A gimmicky, shot-hungry disruption on a growing team.
  • The Bad A.I.: A gimmicky, shot-hungry disruption on a growing team.
1. Bad Fit: While the specific scenario I outlined above would seem to make good use of Iverson's shot-happy game, the likelihood is that the Grizzlies are going to be trying to blend Iverson into lineups with O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Zach Randolph.

In the backcourt, Iverson isn't a good fit with Conley or Mayo: An Iverson/Conley backcourt will be severely limited defensively in halfcourt sets. An Iverson/Mayo backcourt will pair two pure shot-creators.

As far as the overall fit, the Grizzlies had — by far — the worst assist ratio in the NBA last season and have added two high-volume scorers in Iverson and Randolph (both of whom are now far too fond of their three-point strokes) to the mix. Add Iverson as a sixth man to the Grizzlies' current prospective starters and it looks interesting on paper. It looks like a promising fantasy squad. But on the floor, where skills must blend in a team concept to have success, it looks like a potential mess. Too many scorers. Not enough defenders. Not enough deferential playmakers.

2. Combustibility: When we last saw Allen Iverson he was being banished from a playoff team. This summer, the former MVP and scoring champ found the market for his services so decimated that a profound salary cut to play a supporting role on a cellar-dwelling team was his only option. There's a reason for that, and it mostly has to do with Iverson's problematic reputation on and off the court for failing to blend his ability and personality into a team concept.

These inherent questions about Iverson become bigger concerns in the context of the Grizzlies' roster: Another new acquisition — Randolph — with a terrible track record and the reputation as a follower rather than a leader is now paired with a dominant personality who has never boasted the greatest practice and off-court habits. A young point guard — Conley — just seeming to turn the corner last season now has a legend looking over his shoulder that most fans would probably prefer to see on the court.

Everything will be sunshine and roses on Twitter and at the press conference, but does anyone really have faith that Iverson will gladly and easily slide into a supportive, secondary role on a growing team?

3. Not a Serious Move: The biggest problem with the Iverson signing is that it feels like an owner-driven gimmick, not the product of a strong organization with a coherent game plan. And if you're an attentive basketball fan who would like to follow a serious team, that makes it a difficult move to be happy about.

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