Owner Michael Heisley, general manager Chris Wallace, and coach Lionel Hollins have all provided different accounts of their meeting with Iverson this summer, but none of them have said definitively that the team discussed in specific terms what Iverson's role would be. As for Iverson, he's said all the right things except when asked about coming off the bench. In those instances, he's responded with variations on the refrain that no one would even consider such a thing if not for his problems in Detroit last season.
Iverson is an all-time great, no doubt. But in this instance I think he's completely wrong. Iverson is a small guard who is much more of a scorer than a distributor. He's a wobbly outside shooter whose game is dependent on quickness yet he's 34 years old and coming off a hamstring injury. In his prime, his outlandish ability triumphed over the peculiarity of his game. But those days are gone. I would argue that any team that would sign Iverson at this stage of his career would want to use him as an instant-offense sixth man, a la Jason Terry or Nate Robinson. A rich man's Flip Murray. Of course, the Grizzlies were apparently the only team this summer that was serious about signing Iverson, which, itself, tells you plenty.
Iverson's role to start the season — or at least to start his season — has been cleared up by his injury. Iverson is highly unlikely to be in uniform opening night, and after missing all of preseason is almost certain to make his Grizzlies debut off the bench. But how long will the team be able to keep him in that role? To some the idea of Allen Iverson coming off the bench behind Mike Conley seems silly, perhaps most of all to Iverson himself. But that's the role he needs to play. It's what's best for Iverson and the Grizzlies. Here's why:
Why it's best for Iverson: Allen Iverson has averaged 41.4 minutes per game in his career and averaged 41.8 just two seasons ago. This can't last forever. Playing reduced minutes will be a tough adjustment for Iverson, but it's inevitable if he wants to play into his late 30s. Iverson played 36.5 minutes per game last season after joining the Pistons and that number should probably drop down to 30 or less this season.
Playing Iverson off the bench will allow the team to limit his minutes and keep him fresher while still retaining the option of using him to close out games. It will also better allow Iverson to play the game the only way he really knows how — searching for shots on offense and searching for steals on defense.
Were Iverson to take the court with the full bench — say, alongside Sam Young, DeMarre Carroll, Steven Hunter/Darrell Arthur, and Hasheem Thabeet — it would be something of a (very) poor man's version of the 76ers team he once took to the Finals, a lineup of defensive-oriented role players fully content to defer to Iverson's voracious need for shots and rare ability to create them.
Coach Hollins is unlikely to deploy fleet substitutions, but coming off the bench would maximize the time Iverson spends on the floor with the rookies. This will help Iverson by allowing him to freelance offensively without taking too many shots away from other primary scorers and allowing him to freelance defensively with potentially solid defenders (Young and Carroll) flanking him and a shot-blocker (Thabeet) behind him.
Why it's best for the Grizzlies: Iverson is a short-term fit on a team that still needs to properly evaluate, develop, and promote chemistry with a Conley-O.J. Mayo pairing that might be the long-term starting backcourt. Bringing Iverson off the bench will help to team continue to do so.
Also, the role for Iverson I described above can be very helpful to the team if Iverson chooses to embrace it. Iverson may be an increasingly low-percentage scorer, but these things are relative. Last season, the Grizzlies' perimeter bench minutes were soaked up by Kyle Lowry (41% shooting), Quinton Ross (38%), Marko Jaric (33% — not a typo!), and Greg Buckner (38%), none of whom made up for their percentages by being dynamic shot-creators. Even a diminished Iverson will be a big upgrade in that role, one that could significantly improve what was the league's third-worst offense last season.
Starting Iverson and bringing Conley off the bench, conversely, would put too much stress on the team's shot distribution in the starting lineup without giving the bench the needed offensive punch.