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Mailbag: What's your beef with A.I., Charley?

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Charley Rosen

Charley Rosen is FOXSports.com's NBA analyst and author of 17 sports books, the current ones being Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees and Crazy Basketball: A Life In and Out of Bounds.

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What's your beef with Allen Iverson? He wouldn't talk to you or something? You're supposed to have such a high basketball IQ and you act like you've never seen him play. There were problems in Detroit before, during, and after A.I. played there, so don't blame him for the Pistons' downfall. You need to explain yourself.
Thomas, New Jersey
In my very limited face-to-face encounters with A.I., I found him to be intelligent, fairly cooperative and extremely personable. So I have no personal beef with him whatsoever. I've also seen him play dozens upon dozens of times, both live and on TV. It's therefore easy to appreciate his various talents, his competitive edge and his courage. Plus, I've discussed his game with several coaches, players (including his teammates), scouts and general managers.
According to what Larry Brown once told me when he was coaching AI in Philadelphia, here's the genesis of Iverson's problems: "Everybody knows about the poverty, the mean streets and the absence of a father-figure in Allen's childhood. But Allen was also deprived on the basketball court. Coming up, the kid never had good coaching. I mean, he was so talented that his coaches just let him do whatever he wanted to do. None of his coaches ever held him accountable for his selfish attitude. But I'll give him this ... Allen always plays hard and always wants to win." Moreover, Brown claimed another mitigating circumstance: "What goes on in the NBA these days has little to do with team basketball anyway." Even so, there's no excuse for Iverson's attitude toward practice sessions. An ex-teammate reports that AI habitually loafed his way through practice. "It was a very bad example for the rest of the guys," the player said. "Everybody else had to really dig deep to keep working hard when No. 1 was on cruise control. Philly's practices were so bad that whenever we were running through drills, Coach Brown wouldn't even look at Iverson. He'd just walk over to the other end of the court where a different bunch of guys were working." After coaching Iverson for several years, Brown finally realized that AI could never (and would never) evolve into his Dean Smith-inspired vision of what a point guard should be. That is, someone who shoots only when he has to pick up his team. Someone whose guiding principle is to help make his teammates better players. A coach on the floor. Dependable. Unselfish. So Brown moved Iverson to the shooting-guard slot where his primary responsibility was to score — which he did, leading the NBA in scoring for several seasons. Brown would never admit it, but in doing so he knows that he sold out to Iverson. That he compromised his principles. Here's a more specific rundown on the deficiencies in Iverson's game plan:
  • Brown was driven to distraction by AI's belief that there was only one way in which a point guard could initiate a half-court set — dribble as far as possible into the paint and then either shoot or pass.
  • Iverson also routinely takes too many ill-advised shots, either shooting too quickly or else forcing up shots from hardly-ever land.
  • What makes Iverson's faulty shot-selection even more damaging is that he's only a mediocre shooter. For his career, he shoots only 42.5 percent from the field, and a measly 31.3 from beyond the arc.
  • He averages 22.1 shots per game. Compare this stat to Michael Jordan, who took 22.8 shots per game, but had a career shooting percentage of 49.7 and won six championships. Or Kobe Bryant, who takes only 19.1 shots, shoots 45.5 percent and has four championship rings.
  • While Iverson's lifetime assist-per-game average is 6.2, this number isn't especially impressive since he dominates the ball so much.
  • Because he frequently over-penetrates, AI is frequently surrounded by the opponent's big men and therefore has some difficulty making precise passes. That's why he has averaged a hefty 3.6 turnovers per game for his career.
  • Coaches and players protest that it's impossible to run any kind of disciplined offense when Iverson is on the court.
  • Whatever position he happens to be playing, at 165 pounds Iverson lacks the bulk to play adequate defense. As a result, he resorts to gambling for steals with modest success — 2.2 per game overall. Yet his gambles come up empty much more than twice every game, leaving the defenders behind him at great risk.
  • Iverson also loses his concentration when playing off-the-ball defense and is extremely vulnerable to back-door cuts.
  • Because of his slight physique, opponents seek to run him into perpetual screens, also to post him and to knock him down at every opportunity. On the other hand, Iverson also presents huge problems for opponents.
  • He's extremely athletic with outstanding speed and quickness.
  • Can drive both ways but prefers to go right.
  • Will use left-to-right dribble between his legs to establish a jump shot rhythm.
  • Is especially dynamic in an open field.
  • Uses big-screens very well.
  • Can slip and slide into open spaces to get his shot off even in heavy traffic.
  • Is an excellent free-throw shooter. What, then, does the future hold for the 34-year-old Iverson? If his ego allowed him to function as a designated scorer off the bench, he could still be a volume point-maker (and shot-misser) for another two years. As such he'd be a good addition to a championship-minded team. But as a starter, AI can only function as a short-term sideshow for an audience of unsophisticated fans. In sum, Allen Iverson is (and always was) a flawed genius, who has ready answers for questions he doesn't fully understand.
  • Tagged: Pistons, Lakers, Kobe Bryant

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