Allen Iverson and the Hall of Fame: An advanced stat reaction

Allen Iverson has been inducted into the Hall of Fame and with his entry countless numbers of anecdotes, stories, and think-pieces about his importance followed. He truly was a famous and outspoken player, and the combination of his on-court and off-court style has immortalized him in basketball history. However, there’s a rift between the mainstream consensus and most advanced stats, and the perception of Iverson is one of the keystones in the ongoing struggle for fans and NBA personnel to understand the databall movement.

The most obvious critique of Allen Iverson’s game concerns his lack of efficiency. Few players in NBA history controlled and shot the ball more often than him, yet he straddled the Mendoza line of field goal percentage, hovering a few points above and below 40 percent multiple times. One could argue this was before the current revolution in the way we think about the game and efficiency, but that doesn’t fix the issue — even with all his free throws, he was on the low end of efficiency among similar stars.

Conversely, Iverson’s inefficiency has led to aggressively negative opinions about his value that are overblown because they don’t factor in something important: environment. In his heyday with the 76ers, he had weak offensive support, and it actually maximized his value. Surrounded by defensive role players like the utility infielder of point guards in Eric Snow, Philly’s offense was Iverson. Their defense won games, but his manic efforts kept the offense from totally collapsing.

The relationship between usage, shot creation, and efficiency has been discussed at length, but some people still forget to adjust for the league’s efficiency. Iverson’s true shooting percentage looks anemic during his best seasons for the most part. However, from 1999 to 2004, league-wide shooting percentages were at some of their lowest points in the three-point era. His true shooting percentage of 51.8 in 2001 may seem like a poor mark, but it was actually above average.

During Iverson’s best seasons he was an extremely high usage player with league-average efficiency or higher, which is obviously quite useful for constructing a good team. But over the course of his career, he was a net negative in efficiency — using the “points added” method for efficiency, a player at league-average efficiency with as many attempts as Iverson would have accumulated 426.2 more points over his career. That’s not enough of a deficit to totally sink a player’s value, but it puts his scoring into perspective. It was impressive for someone his size to compete and score as many 50 point games as anyone except for Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Rick Barry, but it alone doesn’t make him the best, or one of the best, of his era.

There are other aspects of the game too, and this is where hardcore basketball fans should be more critical. Outside of scoring and racking up a few assists, he didn’t provide much for his own team. Functionally, he was a tiny shooting guard, and outside of his gaudy steals totals he was not a positive on defense. Advanced stats actually value steals extremely high for a box score component, but scouts and careful observers from his era understand that his weakness on D was hunting for steals and he was never a “stopper.”  There is a reason he never made an All-Defense team despite leading the NBA in steals several times. Indeed, advanced stats without box score information saw him as a significant negative over the course of his career — for instance, a 15 year version of RAPM, from 2001 to 2015, rated him at -1.1.

Unfortunately, Allen Iverson’s offensive RAPM was never high enough to compensate for his defense. It’s also a counterargument against the notion that Iverson’s contributions can’t be tallied in a conventional manner because he was Philly’s “entire offense.” He missed enough games during his prime that the sample of minutes without him on the court isn’t too overloaded with garbage minutes. Most metrics see him merely as an All-Star and not much more.

For example, by Dredge, a metric I recently created that factors in several stats not just from the box score but from play-by-play files too, Iverson’s best seasons suggest he was a clear positive but he wasn’t “top-of-the-league” level. Case in point — 2001 was his best season, and naturally that was when he won the MVP, but there were 21 players with a better rating. By factoring in everything countable and statistically significant in the detailed play-by-play logs, which show most major events in the course of the game, Iverson is definitely a good player but he doesn’t break into the category of the truly elite. MVP Index is on a scale of 0 to 100, where 100 is the top season historically and an MVP candidate typically has a score of 10 or more.

Table: Allen Iverson and Dredge (play-by-play metric)

Season Relative TS% Dredge Rank MVP Index
2001 0.0 2.9 21 2.5
1998 1.1 2.2 37 1.2
2006 0.8 2.1 33 1.1
2008 2.7 2.1 32 1.2

A hallmark of a superstar is that the team collapses without him, but when Philadelphia traded Iverson for Andre Miller and a couple draft picks in 2006 they did not get appreciably worse. When he was booted for Chauncey Billups in 2009, the Nuggets notably got to the Conference Finals afterwards.

I understand that advanced stats, like everything, aren’t perfect but he had a long career and the patterns are clear. I understand that the game is more than numbers and it’s difficult to quantify Iverson’s passion, intensity, and relentless energy, but you don’t get bonus points for level of difficulty. An Iverson dunk in traffic is two points and a Shaquille O’Neal dunk in traffic is also two points — the height disparity ultimately doesn’t matter. We root more for the little guy, but our enthusiasm doesn’t make him better.

I wanted to set the record straight with Allen Iverson and the advanced stats movement. I don’t support the notion that he was a net negative and a drag on a team overall; the evidence doesn’t suggest that. Don’t focus too narrow on efficiency because there’s so much more to the NBA game. However, despite the legitimate acclaim he received about his playing style and hustle, despite the circus shot attempts against giants a foot taller near the rim, despite all the effort laid out on the court, I don’t think he was MVP caliber and I don’t think he’s Hall-of-Fame worthy based on his value as a player. By pure fame and influence, he should be guaranteed a spot — I can’t argue against that. But the Answer about Iverson’s career, and his total career value, is more mundane than the myth we’ve built up around him.

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