04 April, 2009

What Comes Next

A big piece of news came through last night, and I had to make a note of it, coming so shortly after my pre-emptive eulogy to the glory-days of Allen Iverson. Allen Iverson has played his last game of the season, and hence also his final game as a Detroit Piston. So much for being motivated by his next contract. Iverson, after a poor display against New Jersey on Wednesday, made it clear that he couldn't deal with playing off the bench. It's clear that for A.I. it's got to be a starter's slot or nothing. He plays the game in his way, and no other. That's why he was revered in Philadelphia. It's why he's a near-certain Hall-of-Famer. And we may be watching his last days.

NBA.com's David Aldridge considers "where next?" for The Answer, suggesting he could re-team with Larry Brown in Charlotte. It seems odd, considering the Bobcats are starting to look like a well-constructed, balanced team on the rise, and Brown's past history with Iverson in Philadelphia. But phrased as a last hurrah for a superstar and 'his coach,' it's certainly attractive, if not plausible. One thing the basketball world seems agreed on is that Iverson won't be joining a top team - they were all paying attention to how this one has turned out, and they know he won't settle for 'providing a spark from the bench,' the role that has commonly been suggested for him this season. He won't be earning an 8 figure sum on his next contract, either, assuming he even signs one.

I expect him to, though. This is a disappointing black mark on his stellar career, one that he will be keen to expunge with one more season on a playoff team, at least one more season as a superstar, and the All-Star farewell that the fan-voting system would give him. Many teams will steer clear, but a team will be prepared to take a punt on a brand like Iverson that can fill arenas and create a buzz, especially with some franchises threatened by takeover and transfer to new cities. I think his pride means he won't accept the paltry veteran's minimum, but a reasonable mid-level contract from a team that will let him play on his terms would do the trick. Add in this speculation that he shares an agent with LeBron James, making this an opportunity to 'cosy up' for the watershed Summer of LeBron in 2010, makes this look a little more likely.

It's too late for him to go out at the top, but as such a huge figure for so long, I think Allen Iverson will find one last shot irresistible. And I think in a system that suits him (one where it is all about him, and one that compensates on defense) it wouldn't be impossible for A.I. to surprise us all once more. A Shaq-style indian summer would, however, require him to use all his craftiness, ferocity and grit, and to play with a huge chip on his shoulder. It would also be the stuff of sports fantasy.

Was the Allen Iverson experiment a failure? It seems at first the answer is yes: Detroit were the second-best team in the East last season, but won't finish any higher than 7th this season. They probably won't do reach .500, and they're not a lock for the playoffs, although I anticipate that they'll scrape into the first round without the distraction of the A.I. story. Former PG Chauncey Billups, meanwhile, has propelled the Nuggets to second in the West and himself into MVP column top 10s, even though he's not seriously in the debate itself. Detroit gave away a great player, in return received a legend who can't play team, and have crumpled.

But Iverson's $20.8 million salary will expire this summer, giving the Pistons valuable cap space that a crafty operator like Joe Dumars will look to maximise (Aldridge suggests bolstering the frontcourt with PFs Paul Millsap or David Lee, both impressive this season and free agents this summer). With several years to come from Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and the ongoing hope that Rodney Stuckey can become a dominant point guard who can knock down shots and impose himself on games, life will go on in Detroit, who should be a playoff team for several more years.

I don't think they'll replace Billups satisfactorily for a long time, but even with him, the Pistons wouldn't have been able to hold off the Cavs or Celts this season, and much though they enjoy playing the Magic, their days as an elite team in the East were numbered. The A.I. gamble was a risk worth taking, especially considering his expiring contract.

Now Detroit have to hope they can display some masterful ability to trade again. And the rest of us have to hope Allen Iverson signs elsewhere to give us a swansong worth remembering.

In other news, I really should have kept my mouth shut about the Cavs, going by their loss against the bottom-feeding Wizards and last night's destruction by Rashard Lewis and the Magic. They're still good, promise. Playoffs are coming!

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