September 11, 2009

The announcement was fitting for the position in which Allen Iverson has found himself.

There was no talk of a big-number contract. No splashy introduction. Just 139 characters sent from the four-time NBA scoring champion's Twitter account on Wednesday that let the world know two months of free agency had brought the 10-time All-Star to a team that had never won a playoff game. Any intended excitement felt muted.

"God Chose Memphis as the place that I will continue my career," Iverson wrote before signing with Memphis on Thursday. "I feel that they are committed to developing a winner and I know that I can help them to accomplish that."

It was an odd turn of events for one of the league's premier players of the last decade. September is generally a time when role players are scooped up to fill out rosters long after the stars have signed. Yet here is Iverson, taking a one-year contract and potential 84 percent pay cut from a lone suitor just three weeks before training camps open after bigger offers from more attractive teams never materialized.

Perhaps this is Iverson's divinely chosen path. But if that is the case, he better realize why he is on it and embrace the position. Because even after his stay in Detroit melted down with his refusal to accept a role off the Pistons' bench, Iverson is being handed a shot at reinventing his game and his image. He has reached a career crossroads that offers a path that could keep him in the league for several more seasons, but only if he is willing to recognize one difficult fact.

Iverson is no longer the Man. At 34, he is now just a piece -- though still a potentially valuable one.

"He's a force still," one NBA executive said. "Right now, the league doesn't see much value in him [as a starter]. But he could reinvigorate his value. ... I do believe that if he accepts that [reserve] role, they're in the playoffs."

But it is still unclear if Iverson understands why his value has slipped or if he is willing to address it.

His offensive abilities are no longer explosive enough to offset his weak defense or convince teams to work around it. Iverson still averaged 17.4 points in Detroit last season -- a solid year for most players, though it was nearly 10 points below his career average. But there were nights like Detroit's Feb. 7 win over Milwaukee, when second-year guard Ramon Sessions picked apart Iverson and the Pistons for a season-high 44 points -- 17 more than his previous best.

When those breakdowns are added to the falling scoring average and low shooting percentage, it's easy to question how much of an advantage teams still gain from having Iverson on the floor.

And, of course, there is his widely advertised resistance to becoming a sub. Iverson was granted a leave from the Pistons in April under the guise of a back injury that kept him sidelined for the previous month. But the announcement also came three days after a postgame outburst over playing only 18 minutes off the bench in a loss to Cleveland. It may have only been the latest in a history of disruptive incidents -- from his infamous rant about practice in Philadelphia to late arrivals and absences from team events -- but this time the league seemed to question whether the risks of bringing Iverson aboard had begun to outpace the rewards.

During his now-infamous rant about his reserve role, Iverson told reporters that it was a "bad time for me mentally. I'm just trying to get through it without starting a whole bunch of nonsense. I'm kind of looking at the big picture."

If Iverson is truly focused on the big picture, then he needs to understand he is at an age where teams will value his experience, but will no longer look at him as a cornerstone. He is in a position to become a respected mentor and leader to younger players who will assume an increasing amount of their team's workload over him. And his skills are still sharp enough to be a valued contributor to a team, though not by playing 40 minutes or attempting more than 20 shots per game.

He can still be a force in the NBA. It just has to be through different means.

"He needs to go there and reinvent himself," an NBA scout said. "We know the guy can play. He can still put up a number every night. I think he's in a good spot. But again, he's got to know his role. It could be perfect for him."

Done the wrong way, Iverson's signing could hurt both parties. It could disrupt the development of Memphis' young and talented backcourt of O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley, and potentially freeze Iverson out of next year's free-agent market. Handled the right way, though, and Iverson could sell himself next summer as an attractive asset to championship contenders hoping to add some offensive punch, experience and leadership.

But that would require a significant change. He said last spring that he would rather retire than come off the bench. He has not publicly agreed to a reserve role in Memphis, but his decision to sign with the Grizzlies may signal a re-evaluation.

"[I]f I get beat out, then start that guy who plays the best," Iverson said during Memphis' press conference to announce his signing. "And if it helps the team win for me to come off the bench, then so be it. It's not something that I want to do. But if that's going to help us win basketball games, then that's the right thing to do."

Iverson also said: "It hurts, but I turn the TV on, I read the paper, I listen to some of the things people say about me having the season that I had last year and me losing a step, things like that. They're trying to put me in a rocking chair already."

The words bore a tinge of bitterness and a heap of motivation. But one fact remains unchanged: 34-year-old shooting guards survive in the NBA by adapting, and Iverson has reached that point. He could potentially stay out of his rocking chair for several more seasons if he can make the necessary changes and come to grips with where his greatest value now lies.

But it will fall on Iverson's shoulders to determine whether that path is one he is humble enough to follow.

You May Like