Danger, High Voltage

Allen Iverson spent ten turbulent seasons in Philadelphia and made one NBA Finals appearance in 2001, the same year he won the league's most valuable player award.
Allen Iverson spent ten turbulent seasons in Philadelphia and made one NBA Finals appearance in 2001, the same year he won the league's most valuable player award. (Eliot J. Schechter - Getty Images)
By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What a wonderful basketball experiment the Denver Nuggets are putting together with the acquisition of Allen Iverson. How cool is this: Having the NBA's top two scorers together on one team when it isn't the all-star team? How bizarre is it to pair two players, each of whom has always taken the big shots, the last shots, all the shots that mattered?

We won't know for some time whether this lab experiment will work, what with Carmelo Anthony suspended for 15 games for throwing that punch the other night. For the next month, Iverson will only be asked to do in Denver what he did in Philly, which is to say, be the virtuoso. If the Nuggets are going to stay afloat in the beastly Western Conference for the four-plus weeks Anthony and J.R. Smith are away on suspension, they're going to need Iverson to score the way he's always scored.

Then the fun begins.

One of the two is going to have to do something he has never done in his basketball life: defer.

And Iverson is the one who's going to have to make the concession.

Pro basketball, more than any other sport, has a pecking order. Okay, once every green moon there's a team like the Detroit Pistons that doesn't have one. But the exceptions are so rare they're not worth talking about.

When Nuggets executive Rex Chapman asked after the trade, "How many times has this ever happened?" -- that the top two scorers in the league played for the same team -- he didn't know the answer was "twice." It happened in 1954-55 when Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin played for the Philadelphia Warriors and in 1982-83 when Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe played for, of all teams, the Nuggets.

So we're talking about the third such case in history. And I know for a fact that Vandeweghe and English were nowhere near the divas that Anthony and Iverson are.

Don't read too much into that last sentence. I think the Anthony-Iverson coupling can and will work to a great degree, because Iverson will compromise as he has never compromised before. And don't get me wrong, Iverson can still be difficult to get along with, but he wants so desperately to win. And what he found out the hard way these last few seasons in Philly is that no matter how much he scores he cannot carry a team into serious contention by himself. Iverson has been celebrated to the high heavens, but the fact is he still hasn't won . . . not in college and not in the NBA.

He's been the league's rookie of the year. He's led the NBA in scoring multiple times. He's averaged more points than anybody in league history besides Wilt and Jordan, and isn't that rarified air? Iverson has been the league MVP (2001). He has twice been voted MVP of the all-star game. He's even led a team to the NBA Finals.

But he's never won.

Not that it was his fault, but he didn't win the Olympic gold medal either.

That summer, 2004 in Athens, when the U.S. players were perceived as selfish bums, Iverson was anything but. He was overjoyed to represent his country for the first time; he talked eloquently about the privilege of being able to do so and how he didn't understand why players wouldn't want to. Iverson at 31 isn't Iverson at 20 . . . or 25. Is he going to practice like Jordan did? Ah, no. Is he going to drive George Karl crazy at times? Yes, absolutely.

But the bet here is that Iverson wants so desperately to be a part of the big action again, the playoff games in May and June that he'll find a way to coexist with Anthony, even play off of him. If this is going to work, Iverson has to realize the moment he puts on the uniform that Denver is Anthony's team, which is an important realization in the NBA.

Of course, winning is relative. Anthony and Iverson still might not win their division. Utah is better. In the conference, Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix are all better teams than Denver. But hey, Denver wasn't going to win with the roster it had either, and the acquisition of Iverson gets the Nuggets a couple of steps closer, at least.

The aforementioned Karl, who temporarily removed himself from the increased scrutiny over his petty part in creating an atmosphere that led to the brawl in New York on Saturday, sure changed the conversation in Denver, didn't he?

Anyway, Karl has always done well with shooting point guards, such as Gary Payton all those years in Seattle and Sam Cassell in Milwaukee.

Andre Miller is a nice player, but not Karl's type. It's going to take Anthony and Iverson a month of playing together, but during those final two months of the season the Nuggets should be something fabulous to watch. Remember, Anthony is averaging 31.6 points per game while Iverson is averaging 31.2. The NBA has never had teammates average 30 points, and it's up to Karl, Anthony and Iverson to make sure that's a blessing and not a curse. If all three -- and each is famously headstrong -- keep their senses about them, the Nuggets should be a nightmare to guard.

Of course, Georgetown's Iverson isn't the only man with local ties involved in this drama that took more than a week to play out. Billy King, the 76ers president, is from right here, Reston to be exact. He was charged with the unenviable task of getting back enough value in this trade to put a product on the floor that his demanding ticket holders will want to see and make the kind of deal that will allow the Sixers to assemble the pieces that will lead to contention within the next five years.

Did he get them in Miller, Maryland's Joe Smith and two No. 1 picks in the next draft?

Nobody knows.

The Sixers figure to be bad enough to figure prominently in the draft lottery. With their own pick and a little luck, they could get Ohio State's 7-foot phenom Greg Oden, who is shooting 90 percent (from the floor, not the free throw line) and has had the most impressive first four games of any freshman I've ever seen. Or maybe with the consolation prize they get Florida's 6-11 Joakim Noah. You get one of those two, the two non-lottery draft picks become a lot more important, especially because the 2007 draft looks like it's not only great at the top but uncommonly deep.

You never ever get equal value when you trade a star in the NBA. But Philly, with Iverson as its only star, was going nowhere. So King got one expiring contract (Smith's) and, hopefully for him, picks that will turn into at least one franchise player. And Denver got one of the most fascinating players in league history, a player dying to find a team with another great player and hope. The Anthony-Iverson pairing could blend beautifully or blow up. Either way, we cast our eyes west.


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