Allen Iverson should have retired after his storied career with a celebration that belied his immense talent. He is a former National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, he took the Philadelphia 76′ers to the NBA Finals, he popularized the crossover dribble, and he carried the NBA when Michael Jordan left the game. Iverson is a genuine NBA legend who changed the game of basketball despite having a fairly diminutive stature. But, he ended his career amidst a series of meaningless trades without any meaningful playing time. How could a man who dominated basketball from the late 1990s through the 2000s end his career as an afterthought? The answer is simple (pun completely intended). He was so physically talented that he never cultivated his gifts.
Allen Iverson is the guy from the recreation center that is just better than everybody. No one has ever seen him working on his game because he never practices hard, but he puts 30 points on whoever is guarding him come game time. He’s the guy from the neighborhood that no one calls by his God-given name. He’s Butter, the guy that launches and buries jumpers from near half court and never touches the rim. He’s Easy, who seems to move in slow motion on the basketball court, but can score at will against bigger, more athletic defenders. He’s Smooth, the lightning quick guard that darts between players in a blur, scoring and dishing the basketball mercilessly.
There’s something to be said for the naturally gifted player from the neighborhood. To this day, the most amazing basketball play that I have ever seen did not happen on television or at a pro game. It was in a small gym on the east side of Houston. “Cool” was breaking down the right sideline with a defender in his left pocket as he crossed half court when the basketball was thrown over his head towards the out of bounds line. He snatched the ball out of the air with his right hand, flung it around his back and the defender’s back midair, planted his left foot on the ground and spun to the opposite side of the defender. Before the ball took a second bounce, he tapped it with his left hand, threw it to the ground once and took back to the air. Cool switched hands in flight, snaked his back to let the initial defender fly past him, stretched out, flicked his wrist, and finessed the ball into the basket over the outstretched hand of a trailing big man. The play happened so quickly that no one in the audience could fully process it in real time. After a split second of bewilderment and awe, the crowd roared at what it had just witnessed. It was one play in hundreds that would occur that game, and it was over in a couple of seconds, but that play was the most dynamic basketball play that I have seen. You can not teach a person to make those types of plays. It is innate. And, Iverson was not taught to do what he does. It all came naturally.
His crossover befuddled Michael Jordan, and his speed and quickness with the basketball was unparalleled. Allen Iverson could score 30 points in his sleep. His ticket to the Basketball Hall of Fame is already punched, but how good could he have been? Allen Iverson famously went on a tirade about his lack of desire to practice, and the result of his reticence to practice showed on the court. Though Iverson was impossible to cover even in his last years in the National Basketball Association, he never developed into a more efficient scoring threat.
Allen Iverson was a career 42.5% field goal percentage shooter, and his percentages were completely erratic and unpredictable from his first season until his last. He averaged as high of a shooting percentage as 46.1% and as low as 38.7% during his career. And, he rarely averaged similar percentages from one year tot the next. The mark of an efficient scorer is consistency, and though Iverson always scored the basketball well, his shooting percentages varied wildly from season to season.
Allen Iverson failed to developed the finer points of his basketball game. As rookies, even the best basketball players almost exclusively use their athleticism to compete against more established players. Michael Jordan and LeBron James came into the league running faster and jumping higher over their opponents. They used their size, quickness, and leaping ability to create shots and to become stars in the league immediately. But, as they got older, they developed into reliable jump shooters, learned when to attack teams, learned when to get teammates involved, and learned how to get easier shots against the defenses that are specifically designed to stop them. Iverson never had the size to bully defenders, but his speed and quickness has been incomparable throughout the history of the NBA. His talent allowed him to dominate from the first year that he entered the league through the last few years that he played basketball. It allowed him penetrate into the painted area of the court regardless of the size and athleticism of his primary defender, the proposed defensive strategy of the opposing team, or the defensive efficacy of the opponent’s team as a whole. But where a casual observer could see the emphasis that other less talented ball players put on improving specific points of their craft, Iverson failed to improve one facet of his game over the years. He never became a consistent jump shooter like Jordan. He never learned how to attack defenses from specific points like LeBron. He never learned when to penetrate and attack and when to defer to his teammates. Iverson entered and left the NBA as the same player. The only difference between him as a rookie and a 17 year veteran was his vastly diminished natural ability and all the wear and tear that 17 years of basketball does on a body.
Allen Iverson stands as the best player under 6 feet in NBA history. He was sensational in the open court, relentless in half court sets, and an unstoppable scoring force. He was one of the best players of a generation, and he defined the league after Jordan retired. But, one lesson that he could have taken from Jordan was to work on his game. As great of a player as Allen Iverson was, he never reached his full potential because he never improved his skill set. His failure to practice failed him as a basketball player. And though the neighborhood shaped his game and took him to the highest level of basketball, the attitude of the neighborhood stifled his chance to become the best player to hit a basketball court in the National Basketball Association.