A.I.'s Memphis Blues

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

This time last year, the outlook for Allen Iverson couldn’t have been brighter. But now he’s struggling to stay in the league. How did things turn around so quickly? 


Last summer, Iverson, a perennial all-star, was coming off another stellar season; he scored an average of 26.1 points per game, dished 7.1 assists, and he did so more efficiently than ever, making 45.8 percent of his shots. He continued to get to the rim better than most guards; more than half of his shots came from within the immediate basket area, a stunning feat for a man who was usually the smallest player on the floor. 

In addition, the 7.1 assists proved that he didn’t just hog the rock. He created opportunities for his teammates, too. It seemed that Iverson would either help his Denver Nuggets play deeper into the playoffs, or since he was in the final year of his contract, he would be traded to a team with championship aspirations and that was looking for a short-term boost to put them over the top. He seemed like a sure bet to get another big contract this summer. 

Instead, the exact opposite has happened. Iverson was traded to the Detroit Pistons in November, and the team disintegrated upon his arrival. The Pistons had been the model of consistency before the acquisition of AI. The team made six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, but last season they bowed out meekly in the first round of the playoffs, losing four straight to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In addition, the team went 39-43, its first losing season since ’00-’01. Meanwhile, Iverson’s former team, the Nuggets, enjoyed their best season in 21 years, wining 54 games, two playoff series and taking the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals. 

In addition, AI’s game went into freefall. On the surface, his numbers look respectable—17.5 points and five assists per contest—but you don’t have to dig far to find troubling indicators. He shot 41.6 percent, well-below the league average. Iverson, long one of the league’s most durable stars, started to break down. He missed 25 games with injury, and his unwillingness to come off the bench hastened his exit from Detroit who then signed a younger player, former Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon, to fill his role as soon as the off-season began. Meanwhile, Iverson and his agent spent weeks waiting for the phone to ring.

Iverson is 34, an age when most guards have left the game. He has always played with such reckless abandon and unbridled desire that it often seemed that the end would come quickly; his body would succumb to the relentless pounding. But his stellar ’07-’08 season seemed to offer proof that Iverson would defy father time for as long as he wanted. His performance last season suggests that the conventional wisdom may have been right all along.  

Iverson has always had a rebellious reputation, and his unwillingness to take a reserve role with Detroit has pretty much torpedoed any interest in giving him a long-term deal. (Of course, giving almost any NBA player a long-term deal at 34 is fiscal insanity.) Iverson might have been a perfect “sixth man” to provide an offensive spark for a contending team, but without that possibility, his options narrowed considerably. 


The financial struggles of many NBA teams haven’t helped Iverson’s quest. With many teams hemorrhaging money—the league took a $200 million line of credit this winter to help 12 clubs—the market for any high-risk free agent shrunk dramatically. 

These factors are why late in the off-season, Iverson has been forced to seek deals from the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Memphis Grizzlies. The Clips and the Griz are among the league’s laughingstocks, and the Bobcats are a team looking to trim payroll in the hopes of finding a buyer. Iverson had extended talks with the Clippers, but they fell through when the team acquired Rasual Butler from New Orleans. The Bobcats have made their interest known, but the team’s financial issues may prevent them from making a serious offer. The Griz made an offer, but it’s hard to imagine Iverson choosing to play in Memphis unless he has no other choice. 


The Miami Heat and the New York Knicks are also often mentioned as possible homes for Iverson. But the Knicks have yet to make a serious offer, and Miami has a shooting guard that you may have heard of—Dwyane Wade—which means minutes and the opportunity to play his accustomed starring role would probably be an issue. In addition, Miami is over the luxury tax threshold, which means for every dollar the Heat pays Iverson they would pay another dollar as penalty to the league. In other words, Iverson may have no choice but to plan a visit to Graceland. 

Iverson in Memphis wouldn’t be the worst scenario. It would provide him with an opportunity to prove that last season was a fluke or the result of a bad fit in Detroit rather than evidence of a severe decline in his skills. If he does, then he may find himself dealt to a contender by the February trade deadline. Iverson has won the Most Valuable Player trophy, and he has been selected to 10 all-star games. He will be elected to the Hall of Fame. (All former MVPs have been inducted into the Hall.) The only thing his lengthy resume lacks is a championship. At this point in his career, Iverson’s route to a ring will be much more circuitous than any drive to the hoop.


Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter