Revisiting 2007, Allen Iverson and the Spurs

Photo by D. Clarke Evans, National Basketball Association

Featured in a new documentary, former Denver Nuggets guard Allen Iverson is back in the national consciousness ... and so are the San Antonio Spurs.

Just over seven years ago, our Denver Nuggets were one of hottest team in the NBA. They overcame a disastrous December 2006 brawl in New York City - and the 26 total player games of suspension that followed, including 15 to then-Nugget star Carmelo Anthony - and managed to win 15 of their final 21 games. Leading the way was a new addition to the franchise, Allen Iverson, the best point guard / shooting guard little man hybrid the NBA had seen since Nate "Tiny" Archibald laced up his sneakers.

Desperate to salvage a season that was destined to go off the rails in the wake of the Anthony (and J.R. Smith - 10 games) suspension, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, the Nuggets traded for the dynamic yet undersized Iverson just three days after the Madison Square Garden Melee took place. A shoot-first, ask-questions-later scoring machine in a sub-six foot frame, before coming to Denver Iverson was a four-time NBA scoring leader, a seven-time NBA All-Star, a two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP, a one-time NBA MVP and a one-time NBA Finals participant. And despite being 31 years old and missing some of that early 20-something quickness, Iverson averaged nearly 25 ppg as a Nugget in 2006-07 while shooting a career-best (at the time) 45.4% from the field ... thanks likely to then-Nuggets head coach George Karl's mantra of "no tough twos."

When Anthony returned from suspension in late January 2007, Karl had to quickly figure out how his shoot-first small forward and shoot-first point guard would mesh on the court. And for their first 22 games together, mesh they did not as the Nuggets lost 14 of those 22 games and saw themselves slipping out of the playoff picture in the West. But by the second week of March 2007, Karl had his new roster figured out and was able to coach the Anthony / Iverson pairing to those aforementioned 16 victories in their final 21 games. The sixth-seeded Nuggets were on a roll heading into the 2007 playoffs, where they were due to face the third-seeded San Antonio Spurs, winners of the NBA Championship in 1999, 2003 and 2005.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the Spurs were also the one NBA team playing better basketball than Denver was at the time. While the Nuggets' 16-wins-in-21-games was fun for fans in the Mile High City, the Spurs had (as they always do) quietly amassed 25 wins in their final 30 games of the 2006-07 campaign. In the opening game of their first round series - at San Antonio - the Nuggets punched the Spurs in the mouth and won the game 95-89, thanks largely to 61 combined points from Anthony and Iverson.

After that Game 1, the Nuggets wouldn't taste a victory again until the 2007-08 season.

In the final four games of that 2007 first round series, the Spurs held the Nuggets to 88, 91, 89 and a woeful 78 points. For the remainder of the series, Iverson never shot better than 40% from the field and in the closeout Game 5, he shot a putrid 6-22 from the field (Anthony didn't help much and went 8-20). In what felt like quick order at the time, the Spurs ground the Nuggets NBA third-best offense to a halt and made most NBA observers forget how the Nuggets won those 16 of 21 games in the first place. For what it's worth, the Spurs did the same thing in subsequent rounds as they easily dispatched the red hot Phoenix Suns and their "seven-seconds-or-less" offense in five games in Round 2, the upstart Utah Jazz in five games in the Western Conference Finals and the Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers in a four-game sweep in the NBA Finals. It was NBA Title #4 of the Tim Duncan Era.

Seven years later, Duncan and those same Spurs may be on the precipice of NBA Title #5. As the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder brutalize each other in the NBA Western Conference semi-finals, the Spurs are coasting against another Western Conference upstart - this time the Portland Trail Blazers. With the Clippers and Thunder tied at two games apiece while the Spurs are heading for a four-game sweep of the Blazers, it will surprise no one if the Spurs repeat as Western Conference Champions this June ... setting up a likely rematch against the Miami Heat (who amazingly bested the Spurs in seven thrilling games last June ... apparently the Heat didn't get the memo that Spurs are supposed to win championships in odd-numbered years).

But as a 38 year old Tim Duncan marches towards another NBA Finals, an also-38 year old Allen Iverson (he'll be 39 in June) will be watching the NBA Playoffs from someplace other than a basketball court - for the fourth consecutive spring. Departing Denver in 2008 after appearing in just 135 regular season games as a Nugget, Iverson's professional career went downhill fast and was over before the future Hall of Famer turned 35 years old. While Iverson's future Hall of Fame colleagues like Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Chauncey Billups and Vince Carter continue to play meaningful basketball well into their late 30s (and both Jason Kidd and Grant Hill played last season as 40-somethings), Iverson has been on the outside looking in for several years now. Not that far removed from being the NBA's most popular player, with each passing day Iverson's career seems like a fading memory from a distant past.

Well, a new documentary titled simply "Iverson" - which debuted two weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival - is hoping to change that. Directed by Zatella Beatty, "Iverson" features the 11-time NBA All-Star himself and those who played alongside him, coached him and covered him for the media reflecting on his amazing life story and career:

I haven't yet seen the film and its wide release date has not been announced, but it's already attracting some national attention. As soon as we hear about its release in the Denver area I'll be sure to post it here at Denver Stiffs. Because while Iverson's tenure in Denver was brief, he was beloved here among Nuggets fans just as he was beloved by NBA fans worldwide throughout his career (our readership at Denver Stiffs was actually up during the Iverson Era as he attracted such a huge international following).

But as I watch Duncan, Ginobili and the Spurs compete for yet another NBA Championship, I can't help but wonder about Iverson and what could have been ... here in Denver or elsewhere. Did all the years of heavy minutes while diving for loose balls and crashing into players twice his size finally catch up with him? Or was it the alleged partying, drinking and gambling that ultimately did him in? Probably a combination of both and it will be interesting to see how it's addressed in the forthcoming documentary.

In last week's column, I referenced the must-see "Bad Boys" documentary as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series (produced by Bill Simmons) and mentioned the 1980s Detroit Pistons' remarkable stability in the face of brutal adversity in the 1980s NBA Eastern Conference. A conference akin in competitiveness to today's NBA Western Conference. With the exception of a few trades, draft picks and free agent signings, those Pistons generally kept their team in-tact and it paid off in the long run despite an assortment of heartbreaking post-season disappointments along the way. Like those Pistons, today's Spurs haven't always been winners in the brutal West - in fact, during their 17 years of consecutive playoff appearances they've made it to "only" five NBA Finals and lost one just a year ago. And yet year after year, the Spurs keep their core in-tact and go after it again. And again and again and again while the rest of the NBA continues to re-tool around them with little chance of success.

As the Nuggets enter a 2014 off-season set to re-tool their own roster again with current GM Tim Connelly announcing recently in the Denver Post that the Nuggets are "open for business" and are looking for an "impactful piece", I hope Connelly and the organization take a close look at the Spurs and Iverson's career. Because should Connelly nab the "impactful piece" he's looking for, I'd like to see the Nuggets err on the side of stability and be patient with a roster that takes Denver back to the playoffs for years to come. Otherwise, the next few seasons of Nuggets basketball could end up in the dustbin of basketball history along with the end of Allen Iverson's pro career.

*****

SAVE THE DATE FOR TUESDAY, MAY 20TH
DENVER STIFFS NBA DRAFT LOTTERY HAPPY HOUR

5pm
Jake's Food & Spirits
3800 Walnut Street
Denver, CO 80205
(303) 295-3800


2-for-1 on all wine, well and draft beer as we watch the Nuggets
get TWO chances at a top-three lottery selection. And attendees can
WIN Nuggets game ticket vouchers and autographed memorabilia!

*****

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