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Make No Mistake, It Was Worth the Risk

We have one more player to analyze in our 2008 Offseason series and it is Allen Iverson.

I have always been an Allen Iverson fan. I was fascinated by him immediately from the first time I saw him play at Georgetown. When he entered the league as a rookie I made sure he was on my fantasy basketball team and I bought a 76ers t-shirt (please forgive me Danny Schayes and Bryant Stith). I defended him against old school fans, like my dad, and voted for him for the All-Star game (back when I cared about that stuff).

When the Nuggets acquired him I was very excited. I knew they were getting a great player and it gave Nugget fans hope that they would finally make some noise in the playoffs.

I was also a little skeptical.

When AI was in Philly he was always The Man on his teams. The Nuggets already had their own man in Carmelo Anthony and there were other players that liked to get their shots up on the roster too in Kenyon Martin (though he was hurt when AI came on board), J.R. Smith and even Marcus Camby. The Nuggets desperately needed a number two scorer that they could count on night in and night out, but did they really need a 1A scorer?

How would Denver incorporate a player who was used to running an offense that basically gave him the ball and made sure the other four players stayed out of his way?

When AI arrived, he said that he did not need to be that kind of player anymore. He said that this was Melo’s team and he was looking forward to not having to carry the scoring load anymore. He honestly sounded like a player who wanted to just fit in and do whatever it took to help the Nuggets win.

Things got off to a rocky start as AI was acquired while Carmelo Anthony was still serving his suspension for his hit and scurry in New York. AI was forced to do it all (with some help from Earl Boykins) and the Nuggets struggled going 3-8 over his first 11 games. They temporarily righted the ship, but once Melo returned the Nuggets continued to struggle losing seven of his first ten games back as AI and Melo tried to figure out how to coexist.

Things seemed to click towards the end of the season and even though the Spurs dispatched them in a relatively easy five games the expectations for 2007-2008 were high. The company line was all they needed to join the elite teams in the NBA was a full training camp to figure things out.

What Nuggets fans found out was they could hold training camps from now until we colonize Neptune, Allen Iverson plays offense one way and one way only. He needs the ball in his hands and no one knows for sure where he might go with it. Because of that his teammates need to stay out of his way and therefore when AI has the ball almost everyone has to stand and watch.

I have put together a few clips from a randomly selected game from my Denver Nuggets archive. What you will see below is all of the half court possessions for AI in the first half of the Nuggets January 4, 2008 game at Minnesota. Judge for yourself if you think any team with AI can run any form of half court offense, especially with any flow to it.

Nuggets fans all wonder when Melo is going to get it. Well, I wonder when AI is going to get it. When we he realize that he does not need to dominate the ball to be effective. If he would just rely on his teammates to get him the ball in position to score he would be a much more efficient player. While there is hope for 24 year old Carmelo to figure things out, I fear there is little hope that the 33 year old AI can change his game.

If you look at the elite teams in the NBA they all run very efficient half court offenses and they all typically have only one guy who freelances at will. Boston has Paul Pierce as its freelancer. The Lakers obviously have Kobe. Utah has Deron Williams and New Orleans has Chris Paul. The Nuggets have two freelance guys who are on the floor together for large chunks of time. That makes it very difficult to run any organized half court offense. For the most part the Nuggets half court sets consisted of making an entry pass to either Melo or AI, maybe setting a screen and watching.

It is tempting to say the AI/Melo combo was a success by looking at the numbers. They were third and fourth in the league in scoring. They both posted career high shooting percentages and they have both claimed that things are easier out there than ever before thanks to the fact defenses cannot key on one or the other.

Well, from what I saw there were plenty of times where things did not look so easy. In fact sometimes they looked downright difficult. Did anyone think it was easy in the playoffs against the Lakers? If that was easy, I would hate to see what even mildly inconvenient would be. Part of the reason is the lack of complex half court offensive sets that require the defense to adjust to passing, movement away from the ball and penetration. The Nuggets philosophy of getting a shot off in seven seconds has made them very easy to defend. The few times they possessed the ball longer than seven seconds it frequently involved Melo or AI standing or dribbling with no real purpose.

The combination of AI and Melo is a microcosm of the Nuggets as a whole. The pairing is actually less valuable than the sum of its parts.

Another thing that bothers me about AI is his insistence on playing 42 minutes a game. There was just no reason most nights for him to be on the floor that consistently. The common belief is that he gives 100% all the time when he in on the court. Anyone who watches the Nuggets relatively frequently knows that is not entirely true. There were plenty of instances in every game Iverson plays where he was clearly conserving himself on defense in order to be able to go all out on offense for 42 minutes.

Now, what to do with AI? Give him a new deal? Trade him? Let him opt out and walk?

I have written before that every team has assets and it is the GMs job to ensure that the value of each one of those assets is maximized. Assets include everything the team has at its disposal from the players whose rights they hold to future draft picks to every dollar the owner is willing to spend. Figuring out what to do with AI, while maximizing his value as an asset, is going to be a difficult proposition.

Even though I respect the heck out of Allen Iverson I do not want to see him sign an extension with the Nuggets this offseason. In fact if it is at all possible, I would like to see him traded this summer.

Iverson has an early termination option on his contract and both AI and the Nuggets have claimed that ideally he will opt out and sign an extension with the Nuggets. I have no idea what kind of years or money the two sides are envisioning, but if I were the Nuggets I would not sign him to an extension. I would tell him that if he opts out the only way he will get anything more than the mid level exception would be to work out a sign and trade because no team with cap room would seek to sign him. At that point AI would be crazy to opt out of a deal that would pay him a whisker shy of $22 million next season.

The result would be a huge expiring contract that could be used to pull a Pau Gasol to LA type of trade. Of course, there is no guarantee that trading a player with an expiring contract will result in acquiring a quality player, just ask Knick fans.

Even though in an interview with Chad Ford, or more accurately a question I asked during a chat that he answered, he claimed that Allen Iverson is nearly untradeable you better believe I have a few options for Nuggets fans to consider.

Cleveland has been desperate to find a wingman for LeBron. Would they be interested in pairing King James with AI in exchange for Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring $13 million deal, Anderson Varejao and the 19th pick in the draft? Rumor has it Cleveland wants to dump Varejao because they believe he will not sign with them after next season.

Milwaukee has been looking for a way to get rid of Michael Redd’s deal. Would they be interested in a swap of AI and the 20th pick for Redd and Charlie Villanueva? The problem with this deal is it blocks J.R. Smith unless the Nuggets go small with Redd at small forward and Melo at power forward. I am sure AI would ask for a buyout so he could sign with a contender, but I doubt the Bucks would have a problem with that.

Miami is certainly looking to get back in the mix next season. How about a straight up swap of AI for Shawn Marion? Miami could replace Marion right away by drafting Michael Beasley with the second pick. Marion would probably not be the best fit in Denver and there would be quite a log jam in the front court with Melo, Kleiza, Kenyon Martin and Nene in the mix.

Once again Denver has been involved in a trade rumor with Memphis. The Grizzlies are still looking to drop more salary either to sell the team or to at least cut their losses. If the Nuggets took over the two remaining years of Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal’s contracts off their hands and Memphis included either Kyle Lowry or Javaris Crittenton in exchange for AI and the Nuggets 20th pick would Memphis pull the trigger? This would be another buyout situation, but I am sure Memphis would be OK with that.

The deal with Memphis would be my preference with the trade with Cleveland second. Not only would these deals make the Nuggets better, they would all save millions of dollars in salary costs and luxury tax payments this year.

Now do not get me wrong, I do not think there is any way the Nuggets dump AI. In fact I think there is about a 75% chance he opts out and signs a shiny and expensive new contract with the Nuggets sometime in the middle of July. However, there is an extenuating circumstance surrounding a contract extension for a player of AI’s age.

If a player signs a contract that goes past his 36th birthday there is some screwy accounting that goes on. Basically the salary paid on any contract above the mid level exception that is in effect past a player’s 36th birthday will be spread out and counted against the cap during the pre 36 year old seasons. For example, if the Nuggets sign AI to a four year $60 million extension the $15 million from the fourth year, when he is 37, would be divided and applied to the salary cap number for the Nuggets and spread out over the first three seasons. That means even though they are paying him $15 million in years one through three it counts as $20 million against the cap so they will owe him $15 million in salary, but it will count for $20 million when calculating the luxury tax and that is prohibitive.

Due to that rule, I do not see how the Nuggets could afford to sign AI to a deal of more than three seasons.

The primary issue to the Nuggets front office is that doing anything other than retaining AI, no matter the cost, would be paramount to admitting they made a mistake acquiring him. It was not a mistake, but that is how it will be viewed. Trading for AI was a risk that was worth taking, not a mistake. The mistake would be hanging on to a player despite knowing the marriage is one that will not work.

I would love to see AI win a championship, but it is not going to happen while he is in Denver. The Nuggets have a chance to keep their wise risk from turning into a foolish mistake. Let's just hope they have the vision and guts to do something about it.

Update: The deadline for AI to opt out is today (June 20th). The Nuggets and AI can mutually agree to extend the deadline to the 30th should they so choose. With that information I find it unlikely that AI will opt out and Denver has dodged a bullet in that they do not need to deal with signing him to a contract this offseason.