Allen Iverson's absence for the past three games has been felt by his teammates, and not in the way most people would expect.
Before I go any further, let me reiterate that I've been extremely impressed with the version of Allen Iverson the player, and Allen Iverson the man who has donned the Sixers uniform for the second time this season. He's been a consummate teammate, a leader and a warrior. He's subjugated his game for the better of the team much more than he ever did in his prime, and his presence may very well be the reason we've seen some life from the team. He's been a positive factor, without a doubt.
Believe it or not, though, things have changed over the past three games in his absence. Or maybe it's more accurate to say things have become much more clear. I suffer no illusions that Iverson will suddenly become a bench player upon his return. His starting spot will be waiting for him, as it should. I'd prefer if his minutes were cut back a bit, short of that, I'd much prefer that his minutes came out Lou and Willie's share, rather than Jrue's, but even that's beside the point.
What this team needs from Allen Iverson when he returns is for his game to mimic the game Willie Green has played in his absence. He needs to be the recipient of passes, the guy who takes the mid-range jumper, the guy who gets the ball late in the shot clock. Call him the finisher if you want to make it sound sexier. Call him the safety valve. Call it whatever you want, but the point is, he needs to take a step back from the early offense in the half court.
Since today is Super Bowl Sunday, let's use a football parallel. Think of the half-court offense as a passing play, and you're the quarterback. You have your primary receiver, then a series of checkdowns. For the Sixers, the progression should look like this:
- Iguodala driving to the basket
- Brand in the post
- Iverson for a mid-range jumper
As far as generating points in the half-court goes, those are your three best options. I thought about going with Brand in the post first, but Iguodala on the drive opens up many, many different ways to put points on the board, with his excellent passing off penetration being the key ingredient. I think a drive by AI9 is worth more points than Brand with his back to the basket.
Now obviously Iguodala isn't going to be able to drive every time down the floor, Brand is going to wind up getting doubled if his shot is falling, etc. The beauty of having Iverson in the role Green has been filling recently is that he can do so much more with the ball beyond heaving 20-footers. Of the guys in the starting lineup, I'm completely fine with giving the ball to AI3 whenever the shot clock gets down to 8 and nothing else has worked. Odds are, he's going to give the team the best opportunity to put points on the board in those situations (meaning, if someone has to create enough room to get an 18-footer off with a few ticks left on the clock, he's got the best shot of getting the shot off and making it.)
We could also break down by time. Assume it takes 6 seconds to bring the ball up the floor and get the offense set. The second 6 seconds of the shot clock, you want the ball in Iguodala's hands, probing the defense with the dribble, putting pressure on the perimeter, maybe drawing help from the bigs and opening things up for a real high percentage shot. The third 6 seconds would be for Brand. If nothing else has presented itself by the time the clock hits 12, you get the ball in Brand's hands and let him try to create something. If you get the final 6 seconds, then it's time for Iverson to get the ball and work his magic.
The thing the team needs to avoid, and I mean make every effort possible to get this out of their playbook, is half court offense that begins and ends with Iverson. When he's on an island dribbling the air out of the ball for 20 seconds the team is essentially being held hostage by his hot or cold hand, whichever the case may be. Yes, sometimes he'll find a big for a dunk, but for the most part, the other guys are just standing around watching, he doesn't command double teams anymore, so there's really no advantage being gained. This doesn't just go for Iverson, either. Lou is just as guilty of dribbling for no reason other than to watch the shot clock tick down, and I've noticed Jrue doing the same thing from time to time. The Sixers need to get into whatever play they're planning to run and they need to be aggressive with the ball. Ballhandlers on the perimeter should be doing one of three things with the ball, dribbling into the paint, passing the ball from strong to weak side to make the defense adjust, or feeding the post. That's really it.
These dribble handoffs have to go. The isolation sets for Iverson, or Iguodala, or Lou where they just stand in one spot, dribble between their legs five or six times and then heave a contested jumper must go as well. I'm singling Iverson out here not because of anything he's done wrong. He's done exactly what's been asked of him. It's simply time that something else was asked. Let him be the recipient of drive and dish passes from Iguodala for open looks. Let him be the release valve when Brand gets doubled, or better yet, let him be the guy two passes away when Brand gets doubled, because he's the guy I trust most with an open 18-footer on the baseline.
To be clear, I'm not saying I want Iverson to take less shots, or score less points. What I'm saying is this is not the 2000-2001 Sixers where Iverson had to either take the shot himself or create a shot for someone else. This team has guys who can not only get their own shot, but create for Iverson, and honestly do a much better job of creating for the rest of the team.
I realize I've now spent over 1,000 words talking about how I believe the Sixers can improve, ostensibly to win more games. That's blasphemy to some of you, and you might be right. The fact of the matter is that sometimes I just want to talk about basketball. Stuff we all watch on the court every night. My brain may tell me losing is better for the team, but my heart just can't get on board. I know what the long-term goal is, I haven't lost sight of that. But my short-term goal is always going to be seeing quality basketball being played by the Sixers, win, lose or draw.