An Allen Iverson Comment

Malcolm Gladwell’s review of our book focused primarily on what we had to say about Allen Iverson. Consequently the media has often mentioned Iverson when discussing our work.

It is important to note that much of our book – in fact, the vast majority of our book – does not mention Allen Iverson. In fact, much of our book isn’t even about basketball. Given our desire to talk about these other subjects, we have frequently tried to comment on topics other than The Answer.

Still, a few weeks ago I promised someone that I would comment more on Iverson. Specifically, someone wanted to know how Philadelphia got to the Finals in 2001 with a team of role players and Allen Iverson. I was able to comment on that issue in the last post.

In this post I want to focus solely on Iverson’s value. Let me begin by reviewing Iverson’s career productivity. If one goes HERE, you can see how many wins Iverson has produced across the first ten years of his career. In four of these seasons, including the two most recent, Iverson has been above average. In other words, he has been “good.” And when he is “good”, Iverson does produce a substantial portion of his team’s wins.

But I would add, even when Iverson has been “good”, he has never been one of the top players in the game. In other words, many other players have been more productive.

Now people look at these numbers and come back with this argument: When Iverson does not take the floor, Philadelphia plays badly. I have not systematically checked the validity of this evidence, but I am willing to accept this as true. Without Iverson, Philadelphia has trouble winning. So does this mean Iverson is more valuable than his Wins Produced numbers suggest?

To answer this question, let me tell a story.

Imagine you are traveling and you come across a group of workers clearing a field. The workers are not using any machines, just machetes. You wonder at the efficiency of this approach so you suggest to the owner of the field, “there are machines that would allow your workers to clear this field much faster. Perhaps you should re-think the machetes.” The owner responds, “look we did a study. We had the workers clear the field with and without machetes. When we take the machetes away virtually no work gets done. Clearly this means the machetes are incredibly valuable and they must be the best tool for the job. In fact I can’t imagine another machine having the value of these machetes. Seriously, without these, the workers do nothing.”

Now, what does that have to do with basketball? Recently I argued that one can think of wins in the NBA being produced by two inputs: scorers and role players. In making this argument I was suggesting that scorers are indeed necessary to produce wins. So perhaps the best way to evaluate these players is to compare each scorer to another player who has the same job. In other words, one should compare scorers to other scorers.

Although it may not be clear, my machete story is designed to add to this tale. Basically, I would like to suggest that studies that look at a team with and without a player can be quite misleading.

And I can explain why with another story.

Imagine you are traveling and come across a basketball team. You look at the basketball team and notice that the team has only one scorer, yet the scorer is not very efficient. So you say to the owner of the team, “there are other scorers you could hire who are more productive players.” The owner responds, “look we did a study. When the scorer is not on the court the team has trouble winning. Therefore this scorer must be incredibly valuable and he must be the best player on this team. In fact, I can’t imagine another scorer havin the value of this scorer. Seriously, without this scorer, the team cannot win anything.”

The first story is about clearing a field, which I know nothing about. So if you ask me which machine is better than the machete, I really have no idea. I imagine, though, that technology has moved forward far enough that workers have better options than machetes. More importantly, and this is the point of the story, one would not evaluate the value of a tool by seeing how a worker did with and without that specific tool.

The second story is making the same point. And I think one can argue that the team in the story is the Philadelphia 76ers.

I looked at Philadelphia from 2000-01 – the year they reached the NBA Finals – to the 2005-06 campaign. Which scorers did this team employ across this time period? Let me define a scorer as a player who gets at least 0.4 points per minute and who plays at least 1,000 minutes in the season. As a point of reference, in 2005-06 the average NBA had 3.9 players who met my definition of a scorer. So, on average, NBA teams employ four scorers.

Philadelphia, though, often tries to get by with less. Here are the players who meet the definition of a scorer on the 76ers over the last six seasons.

2000-01: Allen Iverson

2001-02: Allen Iverson, Derrick Coleman

2002-03: Allen Iverson, Keith Van Horn

2003-04: Allen Iverson, Glenn Robinson

2004-05: Allen Iverson, Corliss Williamson, Marc Jackson, Willie Green

2005-06: Allen Iverson, Chris Webber

As this list indicates, in only one year did Philadelphia have four scorers. And in that year, everyone besides Iverson played less than 2,000 minutes. In every other year besides 2004-05, the team tried to get by with only one or two scorers. And other than Iverson, the team has changed scorers every season.

So if teams need scorers and role players to win in the NBA, and a team only has half the number of scorers employed by a typical team, what do we expect will happen when one of these scarce players is removed?

When this happens in the middle of a season, the team has to go to a player not accustomed to taking many shots and ask him to change his role. Now it is possible that any of these players could be scorers if that was their expectation when the season started. But suddenly changing a player’s role for one or two nights in the middle of the season is not likely to lead to very positive results. And I think this is what people observe when they see Philadelphia with and without Iverson.

Now the same observers who think that Iverson is essential to Philadelphia’s success might also notice the limitations of Iverson. But they look at the team without The Answer and conclude the stats must not matter. Although Iverson can’t shoot very well and is prone to turnovers, he must be valuable because the 76ers can’t succeed when he is not on the court.

I think the player statistics do tell us quite a bit about value, but you have to understand the production process to interpret the evidence. Specifically, if we wish to understand Iverson’s value we should look at how the 76ers team of role players perform with Iverson taking the shots vs. another scorer(s) playing the same role. In other words, as I said before, Iverson’s value might be measured best by comparing him to other scorers.

When we make this comparison, what do we see? Last year 114 NBA players played 1,000 minutes and scored at least 0.4 points per minute. Of these players, Iverson ranked 50th in Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48). This means Iverson was above average, but there were players who were more productive. Given the existence of better players at the scorer position, it is possible for the 76ers to replace The Answer with one or more of these players and post more wins.

So does all this mean the 76ers should trade Iverson? Actually, there is not a simple answer to that question. Here are some things to consider.

1. Iverson’s obvious star appeal does not appear to be important to Philadelphia. As we note in The Wages of Wins, star power attracts fans on the road. It does not attract many fans at home. And it is the home gate that matters to the team who pays Iverson.

2. So Iverson’s production on the court is what matters. Despite his shortcomings, Iverson has been an above average NBA player over the past two seasons. So he can be a “good” player. So he should not traded if the other team in the trade is not willing to part with a “good” player or two.

3. Iverson is also an old player. He will be 31 when the season starts, so he is closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning.

4. Given his age, it is not likely that teams will give up much to acquire Iverson.

Put it all together, and Phildelphia has a problem. They currently have a player who will probably help them win some games next year. But given that player’s age, it is unlikely another team will part with much to acquire Iverson’s services.

I would emphasize that we are not alone in our assessment of Iverson. For the many people reading the Wages of Wins Journal faithfully, I apologize for going into re-runs. But I once again wish to emphasize the following:

As I noted a few days ago, Steve Kerr may have said it best when he said the following about Allen Iverson just a few days ago:

“This is not Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal being shopped – a physical specimen who can dominate games and change the course of a franchise. Iverson is tiny – a ferocious competitor, yes, but a slightly built, high-volume, low-percentage shooter. (He has shot 42 percent for his career.) Yes, he’s a brilliant scorer – he poured in 33 points a night for the Sixers this past season – but he needs a lot of attempts to score his points. He dominates the ball and would dramatically alter the look of any team he joins. So any team that has a plan in place and is making progress would be very wary of threatening its blueprint by adding Iverson.”

Kerr seems to indicate that there are deficiencies to Iverson’s game. Furthermore, let me repeat the last sentence: “…any team that has a plan in place and is making progress would be very wary of threatening its blueprint by adding Iverson.”

I do not think Kerr is alone in this perspective. Again, trading Iverson for equal value might be difficult.

Consequently, I think the 76ers might be better off finding more productive role players to play along side Iverson. For six years Philadelphia kept trying to find another dominant scorer. So they went from Coleman, to Van Horn, to Robinson, and now to Webber. Certainly finding other scorers would help this team survive when Iverson is absent. But the most important input this team should focus upon is its role players. When the team had above average role players like Tyrone Hill, George Lynch, and Aaron McKie it reached the NBA Finals – a point made in the last post.

Of course, those players are not available. But I think similar players can be found and a championship team can be built around Iverson. That is, if Philadelphia simply finds the right inputs in the production process.

– DJ

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