This is where all Special Reports of the Quest for the Ring (QFTR) are archived in one place where they are easy to access on an extremely fast loading page. Special Reports are multi-part and multi-year investigations of basketball topics at the "highest level" and of the greatest interest to QFTR. The term "highest level" as used here means that the topics, people, events, etc. in Special Reports are of the highest importance for investigating, discovering, and reporting on who wins Championships and why and who doesn't and why. Not only are they of the highest importance, but they also are complicated and/or mysterious enough that not everything is known about them while the Special Reports series is being produced. Hopefully everything is known by the time a series is completed!

Special Reports began shortly after QFTR itself started in January 2007. So far two Series have been started and both of them are still ongoing as of February 2011; see the index just below for what the two series are.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Allen Iverson: What Could Have Been Part 1

So Allen Iverson returned to Philadelphia recently as a Denver Nugget, but for all practical purposes he never left. Amazingly, there has not been the slightest adjustment in Iverson’s role after the move from the 76’ers to the Nuggets. He still has exactly, and I mean exactly, the same role he had in Philadelphia. He’s still playing the same old position, shooting guard, even though he started out in high school, in college, and in his rookie of the year season as a point guard, and even though he returned to that position for most of the 3 1/3 years after Coach Larry Brown left the Sixers, and even though the Nuggets are starting a player at the point, Anthony Carter, who has never been even hypothetically let alone actually regarded as a starting point guard until this year.

In seven years prior to coming on the Nuggets, Carter never started more than 30 games in a season, never played more than 23.5 minutes a game, never made more than 4.8 assists per game, and never scored more than 6.4 points a game. This is the player that George Karl chose over Allen Iverson to be the starting point guard for the Denver Nuggets after Chucky Atkins, who has been regarded as a true starting point guard for many years, was lost for most of the season.

And now as if to make everyone absolutely sure that he doesn’t know what he is doing on the point guard front, Karl has suddenly discontinued the crucial effort to get Chucky Atkins in good form for the playoff run and for the playoffs. Atkins played three extremely good games in a row, against the Grizzlies, the Raptors and the Sonics. Then, after he was only average in the Pistons game, he played only 6 minutes in this 76’ers game. So much for the theory that even Karl is not dumb enough to not know that getting Atkins back into good form is crucial for the Nuggets if they really want to make the playoffs, and if they really want to avoid losing a playoff series 4-0 or 4-1.

Before this season, Carter had started 102 games in an 8-year career and had played about 7,000 minutes. Before this season, Atkins had started 314 games and had played about 16,000 minutes. But in Karl’s mind, Carter needs to start the rest of the way for the Nuggets regardless of whether Atkins is back in good form or not. In fact, Karl apparently doesn’t even consider himself to be responsible to try to make sure that Atkins gets back into top form.

Lord help you if you are injured and don’t come back for awhile while playing for George Karl, because when you do come back, you might find that your entire NBA career now counts for nothing, and you are no longer considered, in Karl’s world, what you were before the injury.

I had a forum conversation with a 76’ers fan on a 76’ers forum. I am reprinting it here, because you can see what I am up against as I explain why the Nuggets have failed this year. And how it turns out that the trade of Andre Miller for Allen Iverson failed, not because it was intrinsically a bad trade, but because the Nuggets simply did not understand that using A.I. in the exact same way that Larry Brown used him would lead to the exact same result, Melo or no Melo: no playoffs or a quick early out in the playoffs. All having Carmelo Anthony and Marcus Camby on his team does for Iverson is to offset the fact that the Western Conference is far better than the Eastern Conference.

Iverson has ended up in the exact same situation he was in Philadelphia. Iverson in Denver, like Iverson in Philadelphia, continues to be asked to do too much and not enough at the same time. As in Philadelphia, Iverson in Denver is asked to play both guard positions at once and he is asked to be at the same time the number one playmaker and the number one scorer among guards for the Nuggets. But he is not asked to adjust his game a little, so that the number of easy to defend isolation plays he runs is reduced and the number of hard to defend passing plays he runs is increased.

By reading the following interesting interchange, you can see how even a major 76’ers and Iverson fan has fallen into the trap of thinking too narrowly about Iverson and what he can do. There is a logical fallacy, or optical illusion if you prefer, involved with thinking that Iverson can not be a good point guard. And there is more of interest, so read on.

Well, I don't think Iverson is a perfect PG, and he is obviously a much more aggressive scorer than most PGs, but I think it is going too far to say he is a poor PG. Just a few quick reasons off the top of my head:

1. Iverson was the PG in his 2 years at Georgetown University and heavily dominated in assists for his team.

2. As you confirm, Iverson was the PG in his rookie of the year first year in the NBA.

3. As you confirm, Iverson returned mostly to the PG position after Larry Brown was gone. It turns out that although Iverson has played more years at SG than at PG, more coaches have preferred Iverson at PG over SG.

4. The NBA front office has always considered Iverson to be a PG at least as much as a SG, since his position at the all-star games has been PG, not SG.

5. Everyone agrees that Iverson can play either position, and he frequently plays both positions at once at the same time. So if he were truly a poor PG, wouldn't he have evolved over the years to limit himself to the SG role, with or without having to be told to do that by coaches? In other words, if he is much better in the SG role than in the PG role, than why can he still be seen today often running the point, and why is he 7th in the NBA in assists per game, ahead of most of the actual point guards?

6. The Nuggets, once Chucky Atkins went out for most of the season, were left with the choice of playing Iverson at the point or playing Anthony Carter at the point. Carter is someone who never averaged more than 23.5 minutes per game and 4.8 assists per game before he was befriended by George Karl, who likes his personality and conservative playmaking style. So even a good number of those who don't think Iverson is all that great a point guard would have to agree that the Nuggets should have played him at the position in the emergency they found themselves in when Atkins was lost for most of the season. In other words, Karl made a mistake regardless of exactly how great a PG Iverson really is.

These are because of his height. Iverson's height makes him a defensive liability at SG, and tall, effective points are a rarity.

Most of his coaches have preferred him at SG, I'll show you

PG: Davis, O'Brien, Thompson
SG: Brown, Ayers, Ford, Cheeks, Karl

Cheeks didn't have another point option, so he was forced to play AI there, but he hated it. He even played Iguadala there in the 06-07 season over Iverson.

Cheeks can’t be counted as just SG, because it was both, so he should be 1/2 point for each. Ayers and Ford can only count as 1/2 each, because they coached in the same season, and it is even rarer for one of the best players in the NBA to have his position changed during the season than it would be for him to have his position changed from one year to the next. So it is really 3 1/2 coaches each. But I bet if I went back to high school, it would be PG again!

[Sure enough, Iverson's high school coach did indeed think that Iverson was best as a point guard.]

The same is true in the all-star game. He gets point by virtue of being shorter.

Well if he’s too short to play the SG position in the all-star game, then he is definitely too short to play the SG position in ordinary games. One or the other is wrong; either the NBA front office is wrong for listing him as a PG for all-star voting, or Larry Brown and George Karl are wrong for designating him as a SG.

Assists do not equal being a good point guard. Iverson gets most of his assists as bail outs - last resorts after his scoring options are exhausted. He doesn't set up the offense, and he holds the ball for too long to be an effective point. When he runs it, the other players feel alienated from the game, and it leads to inconsistency from the team. His numbers will look great, but the overall offense becomes stagnant. It's why the Nuggets traded for Blake.

There is some truth in your observations, but you can’t use those observations to prove that Iverson is a poor PG, because the SG position has different priorities than the PG position does, and any player moved from PG to SG would have to change his game or be a failure at SG. In other words, there is a lack of logic in saying: “Look, there’s Iverson running another isolation dribble and fade away again. See, he would be a bad PG. But he’s doing what shooting guards are allowed and frequently encouraged to do, so it is an invalid observation.

It's not really much different from saying that Ray Allen, Rashad McCants, or Jason Richardson would not be good point guards based on how they are playing right now. It's true, but it isn't a valid or logical observation. It is an irrelevant observation with respect to the question of which position Iverson should have played.

The nuggets are visibly more energetic and better on offense with Carter in the game. He's not as explosive as Iverson, but he's solid and consistent, which Denver really needs. Keeping Blake would've done them better, but they didn't want to pay the luxury tax.

I think the Nuggets are more energetic and better on offense with the Iverson / J.R. Smith backcourt than they are with the Iverson / Carter offense. Adjusted for pace, and you have to adjust to get the real truth, the Nuggets are about the 5th best team in the NBA on defense, but only about the 15th best team in the NBA on offense.

Playing carter has really helped the Nuggets' turnovers, as Iverson turns the ball over way to much as a point, he's never had even a 2 to 1 assist to TO ratio while playing that position.

First of all that is factually wrong. Iverson had three seasons with a better than 2 to 1 assist to turnover ration while playing his mix of point guard and shooting guard. Asking how many seasons he had with that ratio while the official, designated point guard is a dumb and/or and intentionally misleading question, because Iverson was the designated point guard only a very small number of years.

Moreover, the Nuggets are still a high turnover team even with Carter. Iverson is still handling the ball extensively even while being designated the SG. In every game, Iverson runs the point to one extent or another. The more Iverson runs the point, the less value Carter has in games. J.R. Smith offsets his turnovers with steals and explosive scoring, so the Iverson PG / J.R. Smith SG backcourt would not be worse than the Carter PG / Iverson SG backcourt in terms of net damage from turnovers. George Karl simply decided that he couldn’t stomach the number of turnovers you would get with the Iverson / Smith backcourt; he never made a reasonable estimation of all costs and all benefits.

Don't get me wrong. I'm as big an Iverson fan as there is, and I've watch nearly every Nuggets game since he was traded. But I'd like to see him appreciated for what he is. Classifying him as a point exposes his weaknesses at that position. He's an incredibly versatile shooting guard who can fill in there when needed.

Well the Nuggets lost their starting PG for most of the season, so if AI wasn’t needed then at the position, then when would he be needed? Never, because Karl will go through all kinds of contortions to avoid playing AI at the point, because Karl buys into the myth that AI is a poor PG, or at least because he thinks that AI has been spoiled as a PG by playing SG for so many years.

Iverson briefly started at PG last year for the Nuggets, and did reasonably well. But ever since Karl grew to detest J.R. Smith about a year ago, starting AI at the point has been out of the question, because he would have to start J.R. Smith at 2-guard if he did that and he will not start J.R. Smith under any circumstances. Smith has been one of the best shooting guards in the NBA since 2008 began, but all it has gotten him is about half a dozen more minutes per game. Karl still refuses to even consider starting him and would rather miss the playoffs than start J.R. Smith.

By the way, the reason the Nuggets are struggling is inconsistent effort, especially on the defensive end, and a lack of ball movement. Combining two isolation players in Iverson and Anthony was never a good idea. They don't, and can't work off of each other, so they end up taking turns scoring, with one of them holding the ball 5-10 seconds on most possessions. It effectively limits both of their explosiveness.

And by not involving the players enough, it takes their heads out of the game, which leads to long stretches where they barely play any defense. Carmelo is the worst at that, but Iverson isn't much better, and his height hurts things.

Ok, you have done extremely well describing some of the big problems the Nuggets have with Iverson at SG, unaccountable for how many isolation plays he runs at that position. If Iverson is designated the PG and you tell him: “A.I., I want 10-12 assists per game and 18-20 points per game instead of 7 assists per game and 25 points per game,” and as long as all the years he has played the wrong position for Brown and Karl have not made him unable to adjust, which I greatly doubt, you have gone a long way to solving the big problems that you described.

You see what is going on here? Iverson is faulted for not being a good point guard while he is assigned to the shooting guard position, by people who swear he is not a good enough point guard to be designated as a point guard. This is both a circular and an illogical argument. Most of the Iverson critics are trying to have it both ways. They are criticizing Iverson for not being what he has not been instructed to be, on account of an assumption that he can’t be that. They are watching Iverson playing the SG position and saying “Look, there’s Iverson running all of those isolation plays. You see, he can’t be a good point guard.” To which I respond: you have no point and you are not making any sense.

The bottom line is that the Nuggets clearly should have moved AI to PG after Chucky Atkins went out for most of the season at the beginning of the season. That is what all the basketball sites were expecting at the beginning of the year; all of the depth charts were showing Iverson starting at PG and Smith starting at SG. But George Karl dislikes J.R. Smith with a passion and has overestimated his negatives by far. Almost every decision Karl makes in relation to the guards has the same common denominator: Smith's playing time is reduced from what it would be if a different decision were made.

Now we will never know for sure if the Iverson / Smith back court would have gotten the Nuggets a decent seed in the playoffs, but I would be extremely surprised if it would not have. I think the Nuggets would have been 3rd, 4th, or 5th seed in the West had the Nuggets realized who really was their best point guard, and their best back court.