Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Iverson Dilemma: Logic Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Posted By on Wed, Nov 4, 2009 at 9:30 AM

Allen Iverson: Butt getting sore.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Allen Iverson: Butt getting sore.
I haven't had a chance to weigh in on yesterday's Allen Iverson eruption until now, though a couple of my favorite NBA writers — John Hollinger and Kelly Dwyer — had strong takes on the issue.

Iverson's post-game public reaction to playing 18 minutes off the bench — “I had no problems (with the hamstring). I had a problem with my butt sitting on that bench for so long.” — was not a surprise, but was still preposterous.

Two specific reasons:

1. Even if his role were not in question and it were clearly established that he were going to be a starter, in his first game back from an injury after a dormant offseason and not a second of game experience with this team, Iverson was going to come off the bench and play limited minutes. It was inevitable that Iverson would complain about a bench role if the team tried to keep him there. But to complain about it after this game is an act of extreme self-absorption.

2. The comical "my butt hurts" quote has understandably gotten the attention. But I'm more bothered by this:

“If we’re winning games with me in that (reserve) role, I would be a (jerk) for fighting that,” Iverson said soon after pointing out: “I came off the bench and we still lost.”

Iverson cites this game as evidence that the team is better with him as a starter? Not only is this one game, but it's his first game back from injury, it's the second night of a back to back on the road, and the team lost in overtime. And this is somehow definitive proof of how he needs to be used and gives him license to be outwardly disruptive after the game?


I've already said my piece about what Iverson's ideal role should be, so I don't want to fully re-legislate that here except to make a few additional points:

1. Through four games, a few clear team strengths and weaknesses have emerged: On the plus side, the team has been terrific on the boards and has gotten great offensive production from its starters. On the downside, the team has been terrible defensively and the lack of bench production has been an albatross. Adding Iverson is unlikely to impact the rebounding or defense much regardless of his role. Starting Iverson is more likely to negatively impact the currently strong starting-unit offense by taking shots away from higher-percentage shooters (in his first game, Iverson took 9 field-goal attempts in 18 minutes; Marc Gasol had 11 field-goal attempts in 50 minutes) while doing little to improve the bench production. The net impact could be to take shot attempts away from the other four starters while giving more shots to Mike Conley, probably not the impact fans screaming for Iverson and blasting Conley are looking for.

2. There's been another pattern to the season so far in terms of game flow. Routinely, the Grizzlies have been getting off to good starts, even in the opening-night blowout loss to Detroit. Through four games, here have been the scores at the time of the first Grizzlies' substitution — 12-14, 8-8, 28-21, 17-9. So, the Grizzlies are collectively +13 through four games with the current starting lineup in the first quarter, with the biggest deficit only 2 points. In the middle of games, the team has routinely lost ground as they start to work second-unit players into the rotation. And you could argue, based on the road trip, that the team has struggled to close out games. Clearly the Grizzlies don't need to start Iverson as they've done fine at the start of games, whereas Iverson's scoring ability could help the team from losing ground in the middle of games. And, as I've said before, Iverson not starting games doesn't preclude him from finishing them. Of course, I'm talking about what's best for the team here, not just what pleases Iverson or his fanboys.

3. By my count, from a cursory glance at recent box scores and factoring in short-term injuries, only about 4-6 teams in the league start their five best scorers. The vast majority of teams have one of their better scorers coming off the bench and a least one starter who can take a secondary offensive role and still help the team. This makes sense in a sport — unlike the college game, for instance — with an 82-game schedule, 48-minute lengths, and a 24-second shot clock. You have to balance production, to a degree, throughout the rotation. You could argue that if the Grizzlies want to keep one of their five best scorers in a bench role, it doesn't necessarily have to be Iverson. But who else would it be? Not Zach Randolph, obviously. A case might be made for Rudy Gay or Gasol, except their rookie backups are clearly not ready for starting roles. There has been some talk of bringing O.J. Mayo off the bench, but this leaves you with a too-small starting backcourt and, as your franchise cornerstone going forward, Mayo is the last player you want to put in a secondary role. Logic decrees Iverson is the best fit for this role, but logic doesn't live here anymore.


The problem with all of this, of course, is that it's predicated on a rational consideration of how good basketball teams function, but that isn't what the Iverson Experiment has ever been about. It's about a starstruck owner flexing his muscles and running roughshod over his own organization.

If Michael Heisley, Chris Wallace, and Lionel Hollins didn't directly broach the subject of a potential bench role with Iverson when they collectively met with him before the signing — and it appears that they didn't — then this is an act of negligence. And Iverson himself seems less like a person to be reasoned with than a bomb to be defused, a realization that detracts from the potential fun regardless of which direction things head. But we are where we are.

Iverson as sixth man, often closing out games, is the best role for the team, but it's probably better to accede to his demands to start than let this issue combust and tank a promising season. So, at this point, when he's physically ready for a big boost in minutes (and I'm not convinced that's as soon as tonight against Golden State), the team might as well let Iverson have his way. But letting him start opens up a couple of new questions:

1. Can he bend his game even a little bit into a team context? Iverson has always taken tons of shots, but he's older now, less physically explosive, and playing with the most talented cast of scorers he's ever been surrounded by. For this to work, his game needs to change a little. Is he willing to do that even if he starts? Against Sacramento, he had nine field-goal attempts and one assist. That ratio won't cut it if he's going to be on the floor with Mayo, Gay, Randolph, and Gasol for most of his minutes.

2. And where is the line drawn in terms of what Iverson is willing to accept? Is it okay to bring him out at the 5:00 mark in the first quarter or is that too soon? Playing him in shorter bursts, particularly early, will keep him fresh and help the team spread out the scoring options throughout the game. But would that kind of substitution pattern also draw Iverson's post-game ire?


The One Good Thing: There is one good thing that will likely come out of starting Iverson, and that's putting the ball in Mayo's hands more. A Mayo/Iverson backcourt would likely function as a pair of combo guards, with each player taking turns bringing the ball up and initiating the offense, which will help the team get a better read on the best way to use Mayo going forward and thus the best kinds of backcourt partners for him. Of course, putting Mayo on the ball would likely be best paired with a strong, physical defender who's a good spot-up shooter, and Iverson is neither of these things.


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