In Defense of Answer
January 9th, 2009

Santino is goading me with a post in response to this Matt Yglesias post questioning the talents of Allen Iverson. Since I, too, aspire to hold my own, I must rise up in defense of Answer.

First, understand that I’m an Iverson partisan–I’ve got a signed edition of his Sixers jersey in a giant frame at home. So take this as you will, but I think Yglesias underestimates both Iverson’s offensive and defensive skills.

Let’s start with Answer’s shortcomings: His big problem is that he shoots a relatively low percentage from the floor. There are all sorts of rational explanations for this: He’s little, he’s shooting under double-teams, he has only recently had a secondary scorer on his wing. That said, there’s no way around it: Answer’s game requires a lot of shots for him to get his points and a lot of touches for him to get his shots. This has traditionally caused rebounding and fast-break defense problems for his teams.

But in his defense, what choice has Answer ever had? During his tenure in Philadelphia, when he was at his physical peak, he was paired with a succession of “riding shotgun” players who turned out to be over-the-hill busts: Toni Kukoc, Derrick Coleman, Glenn Robinson, Keith Van Horn. Iverson never had the scoring help he needed.

It’s no coincidence, then, that his biggest success as a Sixer came when GM Billy King and Traitor Larry Brown finally abandoned the attempt to give him a secondary scorer and instead surrounded him with low-cost, highly specialized role players. Aaron McKie and Eric Snow provided ball handling and spot-up shooting. Theo Rattliff provided rebounding and shot blocking. George Lynch provided more rebounding and defensive presence. And then a bunch of other role players came off the bench to handle very specific tasks: Tyrone Hill did low-block scoring, Raja Bell did defensive guard work, etc.

You could make the case that had Matt Geiger stayed healthy (and Brown not made the insane trade for Deke), the Sixers would have had (at least) one more year of title contention because they were finally a team built to allow Iverson to get his shots, efficiently distribute the other scoring duties among the rest of the roster, and take advantage of Answer’s high attempt-per-point-ratio by getting offensive rebounds and being defensively tough, especially in transition.

(And let’s not forget that the Sixers were *robbed* in Game 2 of the Finals. If they get that game, the series is very different. And that was the closest 4-1 series in the history of sports. Yes, I’m a homer, but it’s also true.)

(Also, also, remember that The Traitor Larry Brown began blowing up this team even before the season was over, despite the fact that they had the best (or second-best, I forget) record in the NBA for most of the season.)

As for what Yglesias says about Deke being the heart of the Sixers defense during their Finals-run, he was a presence late in the season, but not particularly effective in the post-season. Most of the defensive intensity on that squad came from Lynch, McKie, and Iverson, who really did wreak havoc in the passing lanes. And from Ratliff, who, for one and a half seasons, looked like he might be one of the great shot blockers in NBA history. What happened to him, through injury and condemnation to Atlanta, was tragic.

I get that there’s a lot of Iverson haters out there. In general, I think they hate him because they don’t understand him. They see the tats and hear the “practice” clips, but don’t understand that on the court, he’s actually a throw-back player. He gives his body up every night, dives for every loose ball, plays every game like it’s Game 7. He never takes a quarter off and rarely whines about calls. And to go into the lane like he does–I’ve walked past him and he’s barely 6′ in sneakers, maybe 180 pounds–takes real guts.

It strikes me that athletes have limited control over their own success. Or rather, no matter how great an athlete is, they can only do as much as the system they’re in allows. You see this with NFL quarterbacks all the time. If Tom Brady had been a first-round pick to the Lions who started right away, I doubt he’d be Tom Brady today. Some athletes, like Jordan, or Peyton Manning, have skill sets which are conventional enough (and gargantuan enough) that it’s easy to see what to do with them. Iverson’s skill sets were so quirky that no one ever quite figured out how to build around him. Or perhaps, by the time King/Brown did figure it out, Answer only had a brief, one-season window and then things fell apart.

I’d put Answer in the category, with Marino and Barkley–guys who were truly great, but whose gifts were odd enough that the franchises around them weren’t able to figure out how to win the big one with them.

To my mind, that’s a very different issue than the players being over-rated or having chemistry problems.

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