Monday, November 9, 2009

The Iverson Debacle: Men Behaving Badly

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 10:37 PM

The Iverson Era was supposed to be fun and interesting even if — especially if! — it descended into chaos. Then why am I bored with it already?
  • The Iverson Era was supposed to be fun and interesting even if — especially if! — it descended into chaos. Then why am I bored with it already?


I spent this past weekend in deepest, darkest Arkansas, in the internet-free zone that is my mother's house, and when I finally returned to town Sunday night it was into a lengthy to-do list of on- (and, um, past-) deadline Flyer and Memphis magazine work. This is all to explain why I am the very last person with any reason to comment on the latest twist in the Allen Iverson saga to get around to doing so.

The one benefit of coming in last is being able to gauge the general reaction. The bad part is that pretty much anything worth saying on the subject has already been said. So I'm going to try to keep my commentary brief. (Warning: When it comes to basketball, I always fail to live up to this promise.)

Predictably, the local media reaction has seemed to be a matter of choosing sides, assigning primary blame to Michael Heisley, Lionel Hollins, or Allen Iverson. But I refuse to choose sides in a debacle in which everyone comes out looking bad. A pox on all their houses.

Michael Heisley: I've riffed on this so many times that writing about it bores me, but the Iverson mess is just the latest and (so far) worst outcome of Michael Heisley appointing himself the team's President of Basketball Operations, an overreaction to his (somewhat justifiable) disappointment over the Jerry West era and his (clearly justifiable) disenchantment with Marc Iavaroni. The lesson Heisley thinks he learned then — a conclusion that denigrates his basketball employees, past and present — is that anybody can run a basketball team, and that he can be that anybody.

His imposition of Allen Iverson onto this team did a disservice to a basketball operations staff that didn't want him, a young roster that needs some stability and focus rather than yet more drama, and a fan base that over-estimated Iverson's potential impact even if things had gone well and underestimated the considerable odds of things going poorly. It would have been a disservice to Iverson as well if he had any other options for playing in the NBA this season. But he didn't. (This fact seems to have been forgotten by those who think Iverson has been mistreated.)

Heisley, of course, made a bad idea even worse by presiding over what seems to have been a slipshod evaluation process before signing Iverson, having an apparently vague meeting with a difficult player when past history suggests total candor was in order.

If anyone involved would like to be more forthcoming about what happened in that now-infamous meeting in Atlanta, that would be great. But the uniformly shifty public comments from all parties involved suggests that specifics about Iverson's role with the Grizzlies were danced around and that everyone left having convinced themselves that they heard what they wanted to hear.

The Grizzlies need someone running this organization that is serious about building a competent basketball team rather than flexing his muscles, resorting to marketing gimmicks, and signing a player because of his own fandom. It's past time for Heisley to step down as de facto President of Basketball Operations, put good people in place (some of whom may well already be there), empower them, and then try to keep himself out of the newspapers for awhile. If Heisley is chagrined enough by his self-created Iverson mess to move in this direction, then something good will actually come from this. I'm not betting on it, though.

Allen Iverson: Most people in Memphis are more concerned about the Grizzlies than about Allen Iverson's career, and since Iverson is responsible only for the latter, I can understand why locals would want to direct more anger at the Grizzlies. But looking at this situation from a wider NBA perspective, the nearly uniform national take has been the correct one: The Grizzlies made a mistake in signing Iverson, but Iverson's own irrational and self-absorbed behavior is the main reason the unlikely union combusted so soon and the reason his own great career is in danger of ending prematurely.

One line of argument is that this was to be expected of Iverson. There's certainly a rationale for that argument, but I find it condescending. This is a grown man we're talking about, and seemingly an intelligent one. He's responsible for his actions, and his actions here have been ludicrous. The "Iverson is just being Iverson" and the more rare total defense of Iverson arguments both lack context. So let's remember exactly how we got here:

Iverson quit on the Detroit Pistons last spring, a team that was paying him millions of dollars to play basketball, playing in only three of the team's final 26 games. A free agent worried about getting injured without a contract, Iverson, by his own admission, refrained from playing much over the summer. He came into camp out of shape and almost immediately tore a hamstring, an injury that caused him to miss most of training camp, all of preseason, and the team's first three games. When finally cleared to return, he was restricted to limited minutes at the request of the training staff. He played 18 minutes and immediately began to complain publicly about his playing time. The next game, his minutes increased from 18 to 28. In his third game back, he didn't play very well and the game was out of reach down the stretch, his minutes falling slightly to 22. At this point, he'd had very little time — in game or practices — with his new teammates and coaches and was stilling working his way back from a fairly serious injury. He had also, by all accounts, not been told that he wouldn't ultimately move into the starting line-up. A modicum of patience was required, but he couldn't be bothered. Iverson went home, potentially quitting on his second team in less than a year, and this one the only NBA team willing to give him a contract.

If Iverson were still playing limited minutes in a bench role with the team losing after a couple of weeks, then his displeasure would seem more rational. But for him to publicly complain and then bail this soon in this context is not defensible.

Lionel Hollins: I have some sympathy for Lionel Hollins here. He was put in a bad spot by his owner. He had a player forced on him that he didn't want and that wasn't good for the team. And was potentially put in a situation where what was best for the team on the court didn't mesh with what was in the team's short-term economic and marketing interests. That said, he's complicit in the team's apparently failed Atlanta meeting with Iverson, by his own statements asking Iverson only if he would be willing to be coached rather than getting into specifics about potential roles.

And regardless of Hollins' apparent opposition to the signing or the validity of this opposition, once the decision was made, it was his job to make it work. Hollins' grouchy, resentful public performance in regard to having to address Iverson's presence was not at all helpful. Hollins' behind-the-scenes performance is more difficult to gauge, but his communication with Iverson does not seem to have been attentive enough and one gets the feeling that sore feelings between player and coach was as much a factor in Iverson's early departure as his displeasure over his minutes or non-starting role.

Hollins must have known that he'd been given an extremely high-maintenance player, that he needed to build early trust with Iverson to make the relationship work, but he doesn’t seem to have acted accordingly. Hollins was given a very difficult job, but doesn't seem to have handled it very well.

I'm using a lot of qualifiers here because without being on the inside, it's hard to fully gauge Hollins. I'm struck by Ron Tillery's implication that the remaining players on the team are not upset to see Iverson go. The team's performance in the coming weeks without Iverson might be as interesting now as their performance with him. But regardless of that, Hollins should have recognized the enormous — if short-sighted — bet the organization had placed on Iverson, a bet that went far beyond his locker room and practice court. Making this marriage of convenience survive the season was a difficult assignment, but a crucial one, and I'm not sure Hollins took it seriously enough.

Chris Wallace: I'm reluctant to give Chris Wallace a pass in this fiasco considering he is technically the team's highest-ranking basketball executive. But he didn't choose to sign Iverson and wasn't asked to coach him, so it's hard to determine what his role — beyond participating in the Atlanta meeting — has really been. The worst you can say is this: There may be only two ways to view Wallace in relation to this mess — complicit or irrelevant. I'm not sure which is worse.

Where Do We Go Now?: I've got plenty of ideas about how this situation might and should develop assuming Iverson doesn't return to active duty with the Grizzlies. But I've written too much — and, I fear, too listlessly; I'm tired and this is all depressing — already. And I think it's better to let things settle down and get a better sense of where this is headed before I start wondering about Iverson's contract situation and tossing out trade suggestions. (I have some.) Besides, there's a pretty interesting basketball game tomorrow night. Portland Trailblazers at FedExForum. Z-Bo against his old team. Fun match-ups at center. Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo against a player — Brandon Roy — who has already made The Leap they'd like to make. I look forward to focusing on actual basketball again, if at least for a night.

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