In this series, I’m taking a look at modern superstars and examining how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways. What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.
I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider the sample size of games missed, injuries to fellow teammates, and the context of the games, so those facts will be noted and considered.
Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Allen Iverson.
First 2 Years (’96-97 to ’97-98)
Iverson was the obvious #1 overall pick in the 1996 draft, making him the shortest player ever to have his name called first on draft night. He joined an 18-64 Sixers club that hadn’t topped 26 wins since the Barkley trade in 1992 and that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1991. Philadelphia’s roster was terrible and a direct result of a front office that reached on nearly ever move they made at the time, held down by rookie Jerry Stackhouse, undersized PF Clarence Weatherspoon, and the injured and always underachieving Derrick Coleman.
In ’96-97, Iverson immediately overtook Stackhouse as the team’s main draw and most exciting player, Coleman managed to suit up for 54 games (which never helps a team’s win column), and all-and-all the roster continued to look like one that couldn’t win. AI put up 5 straight 40-plus-points games in a row in April of his first year, shooting a promising 51% in the stretch. Fans ignored the fact that the Sixers lost all five games, and all but one of them in blowout fashion, but in retrospect a lot can be said about a rookie averaging 30 shots a game in meaningless losses in order to put up crazy point totals.
Philadelphia picked up coach Larry Brown for Iverson’s second year, traded Stackhouse for Theo Ratliff and Aaron McKie, traded nothing for Eric Snow, and more or less were starting to put some key pieces of the well-known 2001 Finals run in place. But the team was injured on top of injured, with only three players starting more than 48 games, and only Iverson starting more than 58 (odd side note: 38-year-old Tom Chambers played one game for this club, the final one of his career). They went 31-51, their last losing record with Brown at the helm.
All in all during AI’s first two seasons, the Sixers went 51-103 (.331) with Iverson starting and 2-8 (.200) with him not playing or coming off the bench (twice).
Iverson’s impact on W-L’s: The team did get better in Iverson’s second season, but it was Brown’s influence on the defense that looks most likely for that. That being said, the Sixers did win at a higher rate with Iverson than without, albeit the sample size and slew of overlapping injuries on the team blurs the issue. I’d say his impact was slightly to moderately positive.
Philly’s Peak (’98-99 to ’02-03)
For five straight years, Philadelphia finished over .500 and reached the playoffs, usually made noise in the playoffs (twice beat a higher seed in Round One, never lost to a lower seed, and made the Finals as the East’s #1 seed), and all in all looked like a real, honest-to-goodness team, albeit much much moreso on the defensive side of the ball. Brown and Iverson oscillated between loving and hating each other, but they made up and made nice at least once a season, so they gave us the most interesting player-coach pair that achieved success probably ever.
In ’98-99, Snow became a starter, Matt Geiger and George Lynch were signed, and Tyrone Hill was traded for. Nearly all of the 2001 Finals cornerstones were in place, and Brown had the team’s defense gelling (their Defensive Rating was 5th in the league, one year after being 18th). The Sixers went 28-20 (.583) with Iverson and 0-2 (.000) without, plus they made it to the Eastern Semifinals.
In ’99-00, rookie Todd MacCulloch was nabbed in the second round of the draft, and the team’s D moved up to 4th best overall, although their offense—an area that is much easier to attribute to Iverson’s influence—remained pretty crappy, coming in at 25th one year after being 23rd. Injuries were still a concern for the team, especially with Iverson, whose tiny size and kamikaze drives into traffic caused him to miss 12, 11, 22, 0, 34, 7, 10, and 13 games over the next eight seasons. Philly finished 42-28 (.600) with Iverson in the lineup and 7-5 (.583) with him sidelined during the season.
2000-01 stands out as the way-above-all-other-years pinnacle season of Iverson’s career in such a strong way that it’s impossible to discuss his historical impact without quickly talking about this magical season (similar to Bill Walton and ’76-77, or Moses Malone and ’82-83). FreeDarko’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History said of AI and this season “That was the only year Iverson made any sense… He never found that synergy again” in a chapter titled “One Shining Moment.” The 76ers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc, and Nazr Mohammed in February for a 34-year-old Dikembe Mutombo in order to guard Shaq if they were to meet LA in the Finals, which they did. The Sixers finished at 56-26 (easily their best season with Iverson), winning the East; they were 50-21 (.704) with Iverson and only 6-5 (.545) without, including losing the 4 consecutive games he missed in March, his longest stretch of absences for the year. Not only that, Iverson missed an Eastern Finals game against the Bucks, which the Sixers lost while scoring only 74 points. With him on the court in the post-season, Philly gutted its way into the Finals against the Lakers, heavy favorites after sweeping the comparatively dominant West, and somehow pulled out a Game One victory in Los Angeles. Iverson’s 48-point, 5-steal performance in the win is the emotional/spiritual centerpiece of his career; to rewatch that game today is to see one miniscule player carry a laughably un-Finals-worthy lineup up against and somehow over the decade’s deepest and most talented squad. You’d swear he was on the brink of truly becoming the next Jordan. But alas, LA predictably won the next four games and Iverson was never viewed the same way again, especially as he kept butting heads with Brown and the Sixers shrank from contender status.
The next two seasons with Brown saw more injuries for Philadelphia (Matt Harpring lead the ’01-02 Sixes in starts) and more questionable decisions by the front office (by ’02-03, Coleman was back and Keith Van Horn and Kenny Thomas were traded for, forming a new trio of front-court players that replaced Mutombo, Hill, and Lynch). During these two years of increasingly contentious interactions between Iverson and Brown, the Sixers went 84-58 (.592) with their star and a disastrous 7-15 (.318) without him, including 0-5 to start ’01-02 and 7-7 during the last 14 games of the same year.
Iverson’s impact on W-L’s: For the Finals year and the two following, it’s clear that Iverson’s impact on the Sixers was extremely significant, but for the seasons before then it seems inconsequential. While the Sixers’ Defensive Ratings during those three seasons remained decent (5th, 4th, and 12th), the Offensive Ratings were all over the place (13th, 23rd, and 11th). Considering ’01-02 was AI’s worst offensive season of the three from an efficiency standpoint (worst FG%, eFG%, and turnovers) and he singularly controlled the offense, the low team rating for that season makes sense. His fingerprints are all over the Sixers’ success during those three seasons, a peak of positive influence that was shorter than most fans remember.
Wearing Out His Welcome (’03-04 to ’06-07)
Rumors of Iverson’s imminent trade were swirling for his last seven seasons in Philly (remember this?), but things got maddeningly torturous for Sixer fans during his last three-and-change seasons in the City of Brotherly Love. Larry Brown moved on to coach the Pistons to a Championship, all the willing-to-defer-shots-to-Iverson role players from ’00-01 who at least knew how to play within a team dynamic were replaced by guys AI could never co-exist with like Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber, and the team simply got bad.
Andre Iguodala provided new blood to the team as a rookie in ’04-05, which truly got fans looking at a post-Iverson existence, but Iverson of course went way over the top with his alpha dog routine and never worked well with the new AI. Through numerous—and often preposterous—roster and lineup changes and injuries to Iverson during this time, the Sixers finished 100-110 (.476) with the disgruntled star in the lineup and only 19-34 (.358) without. By ’06-07, it felt like Iverson’s influence on the team’s success was waning quickly, so he was dealt to the Nuggets in December, 2006, for the forever-underrated Andre Miller who, along with the emerging Iguodala, lead the 76ers to a 30-35 finish after starting 5-12 with Iverson. These two kept the Sixers right near .500 for the next two seasons before Miller signed with Portland in 2009, proving that the team had truly hit a ceiling that Iverson’s impact and influence was no longer able to break through.
Iverson’s impact on W-L’s: His influence was certainly significant, but it wasn’t anything too special, especially seeing how the Sixers improved once he was traded. The trick to viewing Iverson’s impact on the Sixers is to consider just how horrendous his situation was there. Every coach except Brown was an utter disaster, his supporting cast is possibly the worst to make the Finals in the past 30 years (close contest with Jason Kidd’s Nets in 2002), and the front office really had no clue how to collect talent that worked next to Iverson without overpaying for it. AI certainly didn’t make things easy by not being able to play next to other #1 or true #2 scorers, but Philly really laid an egg when it came to assisting their franchise player.
Denver Nuggets (’06-07 to ’07-08)
Speaking of Iverson’s inability to play next to other top scorers, he was traded to the Nuggets in December of 2006. Denver was 14-9 (.609) before his arrival, and then went 26-22 (.542) with Iverson and 5-6 (.455) without the rest of the way. A squad that included Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, and Nene was certainly better than the situation he left, but not one he had a real clear place in other than highlight basket maker, which was sort of Anthony’s job.
The team improved to 50-32 (.610) in ’07-08 while Iverson started all 82 games, but the upswing in wins is more likely due to the health of Kenyon Martin and career years from key reserves Linas Kleiza and Anthony Carter. Considering the Nuggets went on to win 54 and 53 games the next two years without Iverson, plus they managed to get all the way to the 2009 Western Finals right after the departure of AI, only further shows that Iverson wasn’t adding much value if any to Denver’s ability to win.
Iverson’s elite athleticism was gone by the beginning of ’08-09 as his 33-year-old, injury-ravaged body no longer could do what it once did. That didn’t stop AI from insisting that he should be a starter and #1 scoring option for the next two seasons even though that elite athleticism was what had made him special in the past. In one sad display after another, Iverson spent the next two seasons playing 3 games with Denver, 54 for Detroit, 3 for Memphis, and finally 25 with Philly before no team in the United States was willing to put up with him anymore. His impact during these two years isn’t worth investigating because, frankly, he was done and teams were no longer leaning on him for success.
Iverson’s impact on W-L’s: Pairing Iverson and Melo together for almost two seasons was exciting, especially when they finished 3rd and 4th in scoring in ’07-08, but it didn’t produce results. If anything, he upset the team’s dynamic and capped their success. I’d place his impact as slightly negative to the Nuggets.
Iverson is certainly a polarizing player of the highest degree, and there’s nothing I can say to change people’s gut level reactions to him, which is just about the only reactions you can have about AI. Although he’s been out of the league for merely one year, he’s already taken on a Mike Tyson-like legendary status for the combination of his freakish physical abilities and his mental demons that caused some really ugly events along the way and a train wreck of an ending. I’ll simply finish by focusing on his impact on his teams’ W-L numbers, which for most of his career was very little. But for three seasons, including one of the most magically unique Finals runs we’ll ever see, Iverson turned a roster of also-rans into a scary squad capable of putting fear into the decade’s most dominant team. That alone is something worth remembering.