1) Famous players;
2) Guys who used to play for their favorite team
In category #1 we have Allen Iverson, a player who gets mentioned in the comment section of any post having to do with free agency.
Iverson in his prime was probably more valuable than most advanced stats-oriented folks thought he was. His teams scored more points per possession with Iverson on the floor versus with him on the bench every season from 2003 through 2008, according to 82games.com. That’s six straight years of improving offenses in Philly and Denver, and in many of those seasons, the improvement was as dramatic as that provided by any player in the league. In 2006, for instance, the Sixers scored nearly 11 more points per 100 possessions with Iverson on the floor. In 2008, even with his game in decline, the Nuggets scored nearly 8 more points per 100 possessions when AI was on the floor—easily the highest mark on the team.
Iverson, despite embarrassingly low shooting percentages, was a positive offensive force. And good thing, because his team allowed more points per possession with AI on the floor in all but one of those six seasons.
So: Iverson is worth a veteran’s minimum contract, right?
Maybe. But the last two seasons should at least give you pause:
• The Sixers offense scored 3.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Iverson on the floor in 25 games last season, accoridng to 82games.com. (In fairness, their defense allowed about 6.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with AI on the court, a very solid number);
• The Pistons offense scored 5.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with AI on the floor in 54 games in 2009, according to 82games.com. (Again in fairness: The Pistons allowed about 3 fewer points/100 possessions on defense with AI in the game).
So for the first time in his career, Iverson is hurting his team’s offense simply by being on the court. Sure, 79 games is a small sample size, but Iverson is now 35, and we should expect players to decline when they reach their mid-30s.
The natural question is: Why are Iverson’s teams scoring less efficiently when he’s on the floor? Because of the sample size issue, we can only guess, but we can make some educated guesses.
His surface stats look the same. His shooting percentages from both two- and three-point range have stayed right where they’ve always been. His assist rate is down, but it’s not down dramatically, and a drop-off from his career-best levels is not surprising, given that he no longer dominates the ball or draws too much attention from defenses.
He still gets to the line about 5.5 times per 36 minutes, which would have ranked 2nd on the Celtics last season. His turnover rate has been steady.
So what’s going on with Iverson? Maybe those 79 games over the last two seasons can give us a clue.
Here are Iverson’s shooting percentages on close shots over the last three seasons (via 82games):
2008: 58 percent
2009: 51 percent
2010: 47 percent
Iverson made just 51 percent of his shots at the rim last season, according to Hoopdata. Of 157 guards who averaged 10 minutes per game and played in at least 20 games, Iverson’s 51 percent mark on shots at the rim ranked 131st, according to Hoopdata.*
*A few guys who played 20 games on two teams show up twice on this list
So over the last two seasons, Iverson has struggled to finish like never before in his career.
That goes hand-in-hand with bad (short-term) trend number two: More of his shots were jumpers last season.
In 2010, 80 percent of AI’s shots were jumpers, easily the highest percentage of his career, according to 82games. That might be a mere blip, though; in 2009, about 70 percent of Iverson’s shots were jumpers, a number right in line with his prime seasons.
All of this is not to say that signing Iverson to a minimum contract—should he be open to such an arrangement—is a bad thing. He’s capable of backing up Rajon Rondo and providing a measure of offense to a second unit that badly needs a creative guard. And perhaps Iverson can save his energy in a reserve role and regain some of his explosiveness. Because if you watched Philly at all last season, it was jarring and a little sad to watch Iverson try his old blow-by moves only to find himself undone by his inability to beat his guy off the dribble or finish over and around help defenders in the paint.
It just wasn’t there anymore.
Again: This is not to say signing Iverson is a bad move in pure basketball terms. But you shouldn’t expect 35-year-old guys with stats trending in bad directions to perk up when given a smaller role on a good team. It happens, but you shouldn’t expect it to happen—just as you shouldn’t have expected anything but further decline from Rasheed Wallace when all the numbers we had suggested his game was falling apart.
And giving a minimum contract to Iverson isn’t free. It’s cheap, but it represents a roster spot you can’t give to a younger player who might end up helping your team more. And if the experiment fails—and the Iverson experiments in Detroit and Memphis failed—Iverson becomes a wasted roster spot or a sunk cost that must be bought out.
It’s not a totally risk-free deal.
Is it worth it?