It is equal parts arms race, high-stakes poker (we'll see your Shaq and raise you a 'Sheed) and familiar tradition, this practice of top teams selectively plucking an NBA veteran free agent and enticing him with the prospect of a deep playoff run, a final season or two of fun and a few more solid (if not grand) paydays. Rasheed Wallace to Boston is a classic example, a player in the twilight of his career who is willing to fit his somewhat diminished skills into a specific role for a good team that's getting better. Grant Hill might try to do it with the Celtics, too, two years after applying the rationale in his move to Phoenix.
In Hollywood terms, it's the leading man or lady who transitions into character roles. Michael Finley and Antonio McDyess both did it recently, signing with defending champions San Antonio (2005) and Detroit ('04) respectively (and in McDyess' case, a year too late). Karl Malone tried it with the Lakers in '03. Gary Payton did it twice, jumping aboard the Lakers in '03, then getting it right with Miami in '05. Shaquille O'Neal's transfer to Cleveland is just a variation, officially a trade and way more trumpeted because of his overall Shaqness. But the idea still is the same: A household name who's past his All-Star prime, ready now to be a supporting player.
Allen Iverson ought to be next. The '01 MVP, nine-time All-Star and four-time scoring leader has the individual résumé for such a move. He presumably has the financial wherewithal to take the requisite pay cut after 13 seasons of superstar wages, including the $76.7 million extension he landed in '03 and the "lifetime" endorsement deal (whatever that means) he signed with Reebok in '01. He even has the game for it -- think instant offense, sixth man, the sort of player a coach could turn loose off the bench to mess with the opponents' second unit almost at will. At 34, Iverson still is quick enough, slippery enough and crafty enough to change games.
What he doesn't have, though, is the attitude for it. Or the personality, the ego, the inclination or the confidence. Iverson always has been the league's most self-contained offensive player, a dynamic, irrepressible and (pound for pound) generally durable scorer who asks as much of his own team's attack as he forces upon the other team's defense. It worked marvelously in Philadelphia, where Larry Brown directed players who were instructed to do all the things Iverson wouldn't or couldn't do. It did not work as well in Denver, where others wanted and needed the ball, and it most certainly did not work last season in Detroit, where the Pistons' run was over, and Iverson's pertinent number was not his 27.7-point scoring average but his $20.8 million expiring contract.
Yet Iverson still blames his "most miserable" season -- that's what he called it in a Detroit Free Press story Sunday -- on others. Recently fired Michael Curry "wasn't ready" to be an NBA head coach. Pistons boss Joe Dumars misled him into thinking he was acquired for competitive reasons, not payroll-clearing. That practice he skipped on Thanksgiving, his across-the-board dip in his numbers (17.4 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.6 spg, 36.5 percent shooting with Detroit), his refusal to embrace or even tolerate a reserve role (fine for Richard Hamilton but not fine for AI), his somewhat mysterious back injury that clipped the final two weeks off his season? Not his fault.
Even setting aside all that, would the Lakers bother to plug Iverson into their hallowed triangle offense? Would the Spurs welcome his ball-hoggery? Would Iverson find a way to spell "ubuntu" with an I in Boston, clear out for LeBron James in Cleveland or facilitate either Dwight Howard or the three-point shooters in Orlando? No, no and no.
Which explains why we hear mostly of the Grizzlies as the team Iverson now might consider and be considered by. That's right, the lowly Grizzlies who won 15 fewer games than the Pistons in Iverson's season of misery. Murmurs about Miami might make sense if he were open to sixth-man status, but Iverson reiterated to the Free Press that he would retire rather than come off anyone's bench. Besides, the help Dwyane Wade is lobbying for -- "someone who can make plays and make others better" the Heat star told reporters in South Florida on Monday -- doesn't sound much like this guy.
Iverson says he wants to continue playing in the NBA but apparently only on his terms, with minutes and shots more of a priority than victories or rings. At least you can't say dollars, since the pay cut he'll be facing down to the mid-level exception (about $5.8 million) or some fraction thereof will be staggering wherever he goes. He just sounds incapable of changing, too insecure to handle the "Didn't you used to be 'The Answer'?" looks and questions.
In terms of NBA precedents, Iverson is way ahead of Shawn Marion and on the verge of eclipsing Latrell Sprewell as the most rapidly marginalized and fallen talent, non-crippling injury category. The transitions that Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Archibald and Bob McAdoo successfully navigated, from Mr. Franchise types to supporting players who gained rings and added credibility late in their Hall of Fame careers, seems beyond him. Iverson's most face-saving option might be Europe, where he could truly be a gate attraction without rocking other NBA players' boats.
Don't forget, though, that even Dominique Wilkins -- after taking his dunking and scoring overseas for a couple of seasons -- eventually accepted diminished roles in Boston, San Antonio and Orlando near the end route to Springfield. Iverson, on the other hand, could end up like Madonna headlining on the casinos circuit because she wouldn't sing backup for Beyonce.
• Not sure why Toronto would bother doing a sign-and-trade involving Marion, since the Raptors would be forced to take back salary obligations they rather would avoid. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star sees at least one benefit: greasing the agent.
• So was it Toronto's international culture that changed Hedo Turkoglu's mind or the extra $3 million over Portland's pitch that swayed him? What I do know is that, in a big-picture sense, a desirable free agent leaving Orlando, snubbing Portland and choosing Toronto seems a healthy thing for the league.
• If this was the Year of the Point Guard in the NBA draft, will it stack up to the NFL's famous Year of the Quarterback of 1983? Ed Weiland of HoopsAnalyst.com thinks so, and even draws parallels to the top prospects' draft order. As in: Ricky Rubio is John Elway, Jonny Flynn is Todd Blackledge, Stephen Curry is Jim Kelly and so on. That might seem OK with Minnesota -- who wouldn't want Elway, even if you end up with Blackledge, too? -- until you remember that Elway forced his trade away from the Colts to achieve legend status in Denver.
• Trail Blazers assistant Monty Williams scored one of the early interviews for Minnesota's coaching vacancy, meeting in Oregon over the weekend with Timberwolves president David Kahn. Williams, with four seasons on the Blazers' bench, at least has prepared for such a job in ways that Mark Jackson, an alleged favorite, has not done.
• Wizards coach Flip Saunders isn't second-guessing the move by GM Ernie Grunfeld to acquire Randy Foye and Mike Miller for the No. 5 pick that became Rubio. "I thought Foye improved a lot over the course of the season; he averaged 17 [points] per game," Saunders told a Minneapolis reporter. "And everybody gets down on Miller as far as he didn't shoot the ball as well as he had in the past. But he shot 48 percent from the field and 37 percent from the three. And for most guys, that would be a hell of a shooting percentage."
In the interest of accuracy, it wasn't how well Miller shot that was the issue; it was how often (just 7.5 field goal attempts per game, compared to a career average of 11.5 before '08-09 -- in a Minnesota situation where Miller had a green light nearly as bright as James, Wade and Kobe Bryant).