A Decade Later, Iverson Rises to New Level
Thursday, December 1, 2005; 12:33 PM
BOSTON -- While most everyone seems prepared to anoint LeBron James as king and Kobe Bryant launches jumper after jumper in his black leotards until his arm turns to rubber, the NBA's leading scorer is another familiar face, with that trademark cornrowed hair and continues to dive head-first toward the basket at age 30 with the same ferocity he did at 20. You remember Allen Iverson?
Some might try to forget about him or get caught in the glare of the next rising star, but Iverson endures, endangering his limbs and enhancing his game as an NBA graybeard. In his 10th season -- has it really been that long since he left Georgetown? -- Iverson is quietly putting together the best statistical seasons of his career. He averaged 34 points and 7.9 assists in November, finishing off the month with a 40-point, 9-assist effort in the Philadelphia 76ers' 110-103 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.
After playing all 48 minutes, hitting 11 of 27 shots, 16 of 18 free throws and absorbing a buckling elbow to the face from Celtics center Kendrick Perkins, Iverson wanted more. "Man, I can go another quarter," Iverson said as he rubbed the lapels of his charcoal-colored sportcoat.
Philadelphia Coach Maurice Cheeks was an assistant with the Sixers during Iverson's early years in the league -- when Iverson was perceived as a troublesome, uncontrollable gunner -- and was stumped for a moment when asked if he had seen Iverson playing better. "Hmm. I don't know," Cheeks said. "He's playing at a very high level. I don't remember him playing at a higher level. I don't know, maybe he has."
Iverson, one of just four active players with at least 17,000 points scored, won the league's most valuable player award in 2001, when he guided the Sixers to the NBA Finals and led the NBA in scoring average (31.1 points) and steals (2.51). But Iverson, arguably, is coming off his best all-around season when he averaged 30.7 points and a career-high 7.9 assists. How is he getting better?
"Allen is a tenacious player," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "He always is, and I think he always will be, and I think that's what makes him a great player."
Winning is all that matters in this league, so Iverson's incredible start has been overshadowed by the inconsistent play of the Sixers (8-8). Philadelphia has already lost three in a row, won six in a row and is the only team in the weak Atlantic Division that doesn't have a losing record. The Sixers lead the NBA in scoring at 103.9 points but they are one of the worst defensive teams, too, giving up 103.9 points and allowing teams to shoot 46.1 percent from the floor.
Iverson could only chuckle about being in this odd predicament after several seasons -- especially the six under Larry Brown -- when Philadelphia was defined by his one-man offensive show and dogged team defense. "In the past, we always had trouble scoring and we've always been a good defensive team," Iverson said. "This year, it's totally the opposite. We're putting up a lot of points on the board, but we can't stop anybody."
Iverson has scored 40 or more points in three of the past four games, including a season-high 45 points against Milwaukee, but the Sixers have lost all three of those games. No one has ever questioned Iverson's intensity but the 6-foot guard said he could actually provide more for his team. "Yeah, yeah. It's more that I can do," said Iverson, who also leads the league in minutes per game (44.1). "I'm never satisfied with what I do on the basketball court, because there is always something else I can do, especially after a loss."
After the loss in Boston, Iverson challenged himself to rebound better, since the Sixers have struggled on the glass all season long. "Same old story," Iverson said after the Sixers surrendered 15 offensive rebounds to the Celtics and were outrebounded by 19 overall.
A storyline that probably needs to be put to rest is that Iverson cannot coexist with another offensive option. Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Tim Thomas, Toni Kukoc, Keith Van Horn and Glenn Robinson all failed teaming with Iverson, but Chris Webber hasn't had that problem. Webber joined Philadelphia at the trade deadline in February, but the rest of the season played out like a recurring episode of "Everybody Hates Chris," as Webber was blamed for most of the Sixers troubles and even got booed at home games.
Though practically playing on one leg and lacking the athleticism that led to success in Golden State, Washington and Sacramento, the 32-year-old Webber still knows how to play. He is averaging 20 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists and Cheeks credits Webber's passing and playmaking ability for the Sixers' high-scoring attack and for freeing Iverson to do more damage. "When you have a guy like Allen who can score no matter what, and then you put the ball in a player like Chris's hands, he gets easier baskets and that makes Allen even more dangerous."