A.I.'s career comes full circle (Game 20 Preview & Thread: Nuggets at 76ers)

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71644_76ers_iverson_basketball_medium_mediumWhen assessing the Nuggets schedule back in October, who knew that they'd cap off their first quarter of the season with a game rife with so much intrigue?  As Kenny Smith said on last Thursday's "NBA on TNT" pregame show, Monday night's Nuggets/76ers game is a "shut-the-door, tell-your-wife-and-kids-to-leave-you-alone" type game.  I wonder why...

I still have my Allen Iverson Nuggets bobble head doll displayed prominently atop my bookshelf alongside a basketball autographed by the 1989-90 Nuggets (which my friend Justin claims ruins the value of the actual basketball), a framed collection of the Nuggets 1981-82 Topps card set and a few more "Nuggets" of memorabilia.  I loved Iverson when he played for the Nuggets and love that he's back in the NBA. But of course - and perhaps amazingly - I love that he's not a Nugget anymore.

Make no mistake about it.  When the Nuggets acquired Iverson on December 20, 2006 in exchange for point guard Andre Miller, power forward Joe Smith and two first round draft picks, I was elated.  Like many Nuggets fans, I was convinced that the Nuggets overwhelmingly got the better end of the deal and were going to contend with the Lakers for the Western Conference crown for years to come.  I remember my friend and fellow season ticket holder Dan sending an email around to a bunch of us Nuggets fans proclaiming "basketball dynasties follow me wherever I go!" (he had just moved back to Denver from Los Angeles at the time).  

Upon arrival in Denver on a very snowy night in December, it appeared as though Iverson gave us more than our money's worth as ticket-paying fans: he hustled tirelessly, never stopped moving, played hard, took big shots, made big shots and kept the Nuggets afloat as they had been ravaged by suspensions to Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith after the "Madison Square Garden Melee" brawl.  With Iverson leading the way, the shorthanded Nuggets finished a respectable 7-8 during Melo's 15-game absence (although the Nuggets did suffer an embarrassing, one-sided home loss to Miller's 76ers during that stretch) and in his first 50 games as a Nugget, Iverson averaged 24.8 ppg, a career second best 45.4% shooting from the field along with 7.2 apg and almost two steals per game.  Almost immediately, Iverson was cementing his status as the second best shooting guard to ever wear a Nuggets uniform behind David Thompson and ahead of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, another undersized shooting guard who technically started at point guard like Iverson.

When Melo returned from the suspension, I too thought we had a new Nuggets dynasty on our hands that would match the Alex English/Fat Lever Golden Era of Nuggets basketball.  But after playing just five games together, Iverson would be beset by injuries that knocked him out of eight of the next nine games.  With 31 games to go, Melo and Iverson would finally pair up for 30 of them (Iverson rested in the final game).  For the first 20 of those games, the Nuggets lost 11 but ended up finishing strong - hence head coach George Karl's statement to me that "they always put together seasons" - winning nine straight games and 10 of their final 11.  Their reward?  A first round playoff exit won easily by the eventual champion Spurs, even though the Nuggets stole Game 1 in San Antonio. 

Entering the 2007-08 season with both Iverson and Melo healthy (and no pending suspensions!), the talk around the Mile High City was of a 60-win season and a deep playoff run.  But as much as we loved watching Iverson play, something just wasn't right with Nuggets basketball while the diminutive superstar was in town, and we couldn't quite put our finger on it.  Even with a healthy Melo, Marcus Camby, J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza and Kenyon Martin, the Iverson-led Nuggets almost missed the 2008 playoffs entirely, squeaked into an eighth-seeded matchup and were swept - embarrassingly - by the Los Angeles Lakers in four walkover games.  Worse, the Nuggets were either first or second in the league in personal fouls, technical fouls, flagrant fouls and ejections that seasons.  It all came to a head during Game 3 of that Lakers series when we witnessed Melo publicly barking at Karl and Karl benching Iverson for the fourth quarter.  It was ugly.  Dave Krieger's column at the time went as far as referring to Karl as a "zookeeper", noting that the Nuggets had run amok on their head coach.

(On a side note, I had the misfortune of being in attendance for both Games 1 and 2 played in Los Angeles and I'll never forget the expression on Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke's face during those games.  In both contests none of the Nuggets - Iverson included - showed up to play and the Lakers never broke a sweat en route to two straight blowout wins.  Sitting just a few rows above the Nuggets bench, Kroenke stood there stoically throughout both games as if he was thinking: "This is what I just spent $83 million on?!  This?!!")  

Perhaps we were blinded by Iverson's undeniably solid effort on the floor, because many of us - me included - never faulted him for the Nuggets shortcomings.  But the evidence was right in front of us.  Along the way to that playoff sweep, anyone who followed the Nuggets in Denver had heard the rumors about Iverson's off-court partying, the alcohol-on-the-plane story was routinely brought up on Denver sports radio and we heard the whispers about Iverson influencing Melo and the younger, more impressionable J.R. in all the wrong ways off the court.  We've even learned since that Iverson was granted special permission by the Nuggets to skip some practices (kudos to Denver Stiffs reader GottaLoveMelo for finding this).  As Iverson's tenure in Denver went on, it was clear that he was indeed a leader - but not the kind that the Nuggets brass, coaching staff and us fans had hoped he would be.   And nothing made Iverson's inability to lead the Nuggets in a positive fashion more clear than that playoff sweep combined with what has happened since his departure (and replacement by Chauncey Billups, the definition of a true leader).  

Little did we know that on December 20, 2006, with all the optimism that swept into Denver upon Iverson's arrival, that we wouldn't revive the glory of the English/Lever Golden Era until Iverson left...less than two years after acquiring "The Answer", no less. 

But while we've moved on to better times in Denver, Iverson's career has floundered mostly due to his own mishaps, making it even clearer that he was greatly at fault for the Nuggets struggles during his time in Denver.  Since leaving Denver for Detroit in the Chauncey Billups deal (a trade I argued was the fourth-best in Nuggets history, but might now be considered third), Iverson has been petulant, selfish, angry and downright stupid.  In Detroit, where he was in theory playing for his last big NBA payday, Iverson just couldn't keep his mouth shut, griped about coming off the bench and was essentially asked to stay away from the team for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.  Had Iverson just been a professional in Detroit, he wouldn't have had to spend all summer scrounging for another job in the NBA only to find the lowly Memphis Grizzlies as the only team willing to sign him because he was the owner's wife's favorite player (that's not a joke, by the way...welcome to professional basketball in Memphis!).

Lucky to score the gig in Memphis, Iverson was petulant there, as well.  Missing the first few games of the season and recovering from a hamstring injury, Iverson immediately bitched about minutes and coming off the bench again. After a mere three games in a Grizzlies uniform, Iverson had left the team "for personal reasons" (always a bullshit excuse that franchise PR guys attempt to sell the media on while they work out trades and/or releases of players) and eventually was released prompting the most phony "retirement" this side of Brett Favre.

Good fortune - perhaps! - has smiled on Iverson, however.  With 76ers point guard Lou Williams breaking his jaw and due out for eight weeks, the 76ers were suddenly in the market for a guard.  Oh, and being third-to-last in league attendance had the 76ers in the market for a star guard.  So in the irony of ironies, Iverson will be returning to the franchise he carried, killed for, fought with, demanded to be traded from, complained about, you name it, by re-appearing in a Philadelphia 76ers jersey on Monday night against none other than our Denver Nuggets.  (And making things even more serendipitous for the NBA, Iverson plays the Pistons just two nights later.)  What should have been a regular season walkover win for the Nuggets over the struggling 76ers, losers of nine straight, has become must-see-TV.  This will be a hard fought game as Iverson's teammates - new and old - will desperately want to win in his debut which is sure to be a sellout, as well.

Even though I think Iverson is selfish and never want to see him in a Nuggets uniform again, I can't help but root for the guy.  I'm a sucker for his game and I applaud him for always being true to himself, faults and all.  And his tearful, heartfelt press conference last week was proof that the passion for basketball still burns inside this former superstar (only two seasons removed from averaging 26.4 ppg, as Melo astutely pointed out last week).  But putting his individual passion aside, Iverson remains a conundrum for organizations, coaches and teammates.  He's a diva, pure and simple, and likes to play by his own set of rules.  Has Iverson finally had enough humble pie to make a real go of it with the 76ers and rescue them from their woeful ways?  It's possible, but I wouldn't bet on it.

The Wachovia Center tomorrow night (an early start for Denver fans, 5:05pm MDT on Altitude and NBATV) will be filled to the brim with emotions.  It should be noted that our Nuggets haven't played well recently in these types of emotion-heavy regular season games: they lost to the Knicks in their return to Madison Square Garden after the brawl, lost at home in Miller's debut as a 76er after the Iverson trade, lost in Philadelphia in Iverson's return there as a non-76er for the first time and lost to the Pistons twice last season - at Detroit and in Denver - after the momentous Iverson-for-Billups trade.  Like most of those aforementioned games, I suspect tomorrow night's contest against Iverson will go down to the wire and could end up being one of the more exciting games of the season.

It will be great seeing "The Answer" lace up his sneakers on an NBA court again.  It will be even better if the Nuggets can remind him why they're much better off without Allen Iverson.

 

SCOUTING THE 76ERS...

76ers Stiffs

-Elton Brand: I used to love Brand and still believe he was cheated out of two All-Star appearances simply because he played for the Clippers.  But Brand should have stayed with the Clippers instead of screwing them at the behest of his egomaniacal, has-been agent David Falk, and signing with the 76ers.  Since joining the 76ers, Brand has ruptured his Achilles tendon and has returned this season to average a career low 12.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 44.6% shooting.  Karma - as they say - is indeed a bitch.

-Samuel Dalembert: Armed with an $11.4 million contract that goes up to $12.4 million next season, Dalembert's 6'11", 250-pound body can muster only 6.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg and he's "shooting" a career-low 43.8% from the field.

-Jason Smith: I probably shouldn't pick on one of the few players ever from a Colorado-based university to make it to the NBA, but Smith is a Stiff...and not just because he's white (although it admittedly helps).  This seven-foot Colorado State alum is making only 41% of shots and grabbing just under three rebounds per game.  Huh?  How can a seven-footer play 15-and-a-half minutes a game, shoot 41% and grab just three boards?

76ers Non-Stiffs

-Louis Williams: As predicted in my fantasy preview, "Lou" Williams was having a fine season before fracturing his jaw bone, averaging 17.4 ppg on a most respectable 49.7% shooting to go along with 5.1 apg and almost two steals per game.  Unfortunately for Williams, things could get weird upon his return if/when Iverson refuses to cede minutes at the small guard spot.

-Andre Iguodala: The "other A.I." is shooting a career low 42.2% from the field but is still a dangerous scorer and a well-rounded player, averaging career highs in rebounding (6.9 rpg), assists (6.0 apg) and steals (2.1 spg).

-Thaddeus Young: Young has found his way on to my fantasy team roster for the second year in a row.  He's solid, not spectacular but good for 15-17 ppg and about four or five rebounds.

Opposing Take: Liberty Ballers

Photo courtesy of AP: Michael Perez

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