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Bringing Iverson to a New Generation
By Will Muckian Posted in NBA on February 25, 2017 0 Comments
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The Boston Celtics are on a tear, and there’s only one man to thank for it. Their firebrand, charismatic leader may be towered over by the rest of his team, but Isaiah Thomas is the heart, soul, and offensive Atlas for the second-seeded Cs. His exemplary play has warranted shout-outs by figures across the league, ranging from his own coach, Brad Stevens, to celebrated ex-players like Allen Iverson. Iverson’s words, delivered to Thomas after an impressive comeback win against the Timberwolves in November, weren’t long-winded, as is his fashion, but they were certainly full of praise:

Keep doing your thing. I’m watching.

— Allen Iverson to Isaiah Thomas

“The Answer,” as Iverson is often known, is universally loved for his embodiment of the admittedly tired heart-over-height mantra, for defining the highlight-heavy and hip-hop-saturated transition of the NBA out of the 90s, and his daily defiance of the “no cornrows, tattoos, or chains” bent of David Stern and NBA officials with the nonchalant flair that he’s remembered for today. He asked the hard-hitting questions, like who should really be expected to practice? He inspired a wave of guards, some of which are all-time greats themselves, to wear 3 on the back of their jersey. He made the crossover a staple of the scoring guard’s repertoire. He was a self-made man, who dominated during his one year at Georgetown and used his rise to the NBA as a way to escape the Hampton, VA neighborhood that he grew up in. There’s no matching Iverson’s impact on the game, but there are ways to mirror his signature style. Thomas checks those boxes.

To emulate Iverson, there are a few requirements:

  1. You have to be undersized for your position. AI was a shooting guard (supposedly, though he handled the ball for the majority of his teams) at only six feet tall, and he succeeded despite his huge height disadvantage against shooting guards of the age like the 6’7 Tracy McGrady and 6’6 Kobe Bryant.

  2. You have to look for your shot first and the assist second. This isn’t to say Iverson was a poor playmaker — he was pretty good in his own right — but he definitely trusted his jumper more than he did his team.

  3. You absolutely have to have attitude. That can come in the pit bull mentality that so many small point guards have embraced (Kyle Lowry and Patrick Beverley are both terrific “pest” guards on the boards and defense, respectively) or the bully-ball physicality of a player like Marcus Smart, who puts his body on the line every play and lets his mouth run like it’s in a D’Antoni offense.

Isaiah Thomas has all these things, plus the kind of consistent outside shooting that even Iverson lacked, in an even stockier frame (5’9, 185 vs 6’0, 165) and a huge bone to pick.

Thomas, as nearly everyone now knows, is on track to becoming (if he hasn’t already become it) the greatest last pick of a draft ever. Taken 60th by the Kings in 2011, Thomas has outshone nearly everyone drafted before him. The only exceptions could be made for Jimmy Butler (the last pick of the first round, incidentally), Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard. Kemba Walker was taken ninth, but it’s hard to say that he’s a better player than IT right now.

Thomas’s run as the star for the star-less Celtics has been amazing to watch. He leads the league in fourth-quarter points, and has had 11 15-point fourth quarters. Russ, second in the NBA in fifteen-point 4Qs, has 5. It’s not new anymore; Isaiah Thomas is the guy to take superstar shots for Boston, or really for any team. Despite the constant assertion that Thomas’s size makes him easy to blanket in the waning seconds of the game, somehow the little muscle-bound leprechaun manages to spring free at the last moment with his jumper loaded. Whether it’s through the special crossovers that he saves for late-game situations (as he told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor) or the supreme self-confidence he has in himself, Thomas does not avoid the spotlights of TD Garden. Instead, he is pulled with the sort of gravity that attracts guts instead of physical mass.

Iverson was the same way. Though so many scrutinized his “selfish” shot selection, the truth is that Iverson paved the way for a smaller, score-first, on-ball guard. The point guards of the 90s were tall and lanky or small and third/fourth options offensively; Magic Johnson was much more a distributor than a passer and John Stockton was ceding shots to Jeff Hornacek rather than pulling up for his own. It was rare for point guards to be the center of attention offensively — though obviously this was partially due to hand check rules and not just stereotyping — and the point guards who did, like Penny Hardaway and Gary Payton, possessed empirically better size and strength to Iverson’s skinny, minute stature. Where AI separated himself was in the way he could create space to negate the longer reach of his defender. The crossover was nothing new to the NBA, but AI seemed to adopt the best parts of top 90s handlers like Tim Hardaway and Jason Kidd and throw them into a blender. The result was something so unpredictable and elusive that Iverson was instantly one of the hardest players to guard upon his entry to the league.

Of course, we’re now used to smaller guards with dominant scoring ability. We’ve seen a skinny kid from Davidson become a two-time MVP, a 5’9 point guard (from Thomas’s alma mater) win three NBA Dunk Contests, and a 6’0 Wake Forest guard morph into one of the greatest all-around playmakers of our time. That somewhat diminishes our infatuation with Thomas; what he’s doing is impressive, but it isn’t fresh.

Or so we say. In reality, we’ve only seen one other guard do what Isaiah does as effectively as him, and that’s Iverson. In addition, Iverson sustained, and played through, innumerable injuries, while Thomas and these other “little guys” play in what so many of the NBA’s old guard refer to as a “soft” era, with quick-trigger ejections and less physicality exerted on ball-handlers. The injury factor is less concrete in terms of on-court numbers, but it speaks volumes to the grit and resilience of Iverson as he fought through the hard fouls of much bigger players. While there isn’t a great way to really quantify how hand check and illegal defense rules impacted the numbers, we can certainly draw some conclusions about the enviable mental toughness and the offensive IQ of Iverson and Thomas, respectively. Iverson was never far from his roots — playing streetball at Rucker Park during his NBA career, refusing to cover his tattoos, and wearing his cornrows proudly in an age where most black players stuck with a close shave. While Thomas doesn’t have the same upbringing to point to, he’s been instrumental in building the basketball culture in Washington with Jamal Crawford. Crawford has been a huge nurturing force for Seattle ball, especially in their Pro-Am league, and Thomas is just as much a crossover- and shot-happy player as the Clipper guard. 

AI was a better defender almost definitively, averaging 2.2 steals throughout his career (and leading the league thrice in that category), but Thomas makes up for it in his penchant for deep threes; Iverson was much more a mid-range shooter than an outside one, and an inefficient one at that. Perhaps more interesting is the contrast between how Iverson’s and Thomas’s peaks impacted their efficiency — assuming Iverson’s spanned from 1998–2006, his best years as a scoring force (including his MVP season and four years as the league’s leading scorer) were accomplished with an eFG of 44.2% and 3.7 turnovers, with a scoring average a tick (in this instance, a tick is equivalent to .4 points) below 30 points. Thomas’s decline has not yet happened, but for the purposes of comparison, we’ll just use his stats from his last season in Phoenix (2014–15) up to his current 2017 stats. While the sample size is more compact than the Answer’s, Thomas is shooting at an eFG that’s 7% higher than Iverson’s, averaging seven less points a game.

That makes sense, you might think, Allen Iverson was shooting more, so his shooting percentages are bound to be worse. Well, kind of. The truth is more that Iverson was playing 42.3 minutes a game, whereas Thomas was only on the court for about 30. That difference is huge (it’s a whole NBA quarter of playing time, for crying out loud) and we can see how the playing time affects their numbers in the per-36 computations

The truth is that Iverson’s teams often necessitated him playing 40 minutes or more for the Sixers to win games, whereas Thomas plays for a much more complete team that allows him to selectively impact the game when needed. The higher level of player around Thomas helps him indescribably, because unlike Iverson, who had no other real shot creators on his Sixers teams, Thomas isn’t the sole focus of the defense. So the number difference is almost negligible — Thomas never has to carry his team like the Answer and Iverson never had a reason to delegate like IT. 

Beyond the way they impact their teams, the way they act on and off the court is remarkably similar. Thomas, like so many other scoring guards, has cited Iverson as a major influence before, but few guards have so thoroughly imitated the Answer like IT. Whether it comes in their absurd body control at the rim, their penchant for dropping defenders with a tight crossover, or firing a pass so ridiculous that you contemplate crowning them the greatest PG of all time, the two diminutive guards got big through the highlight reel. These aren’t just common point guard tricks; it’s the inherent attitude of “y’all just sit back and watch me do it” behind every made basket. It would be easy for Thomas to dump the ball off to Jae Crowder or Al Horford in crunch time. Brad Stevens is a wizard at motion offense and creating open looks, but when it comes to crunch time, Thomas dismisses any and all of the newfangled advanced schematics with one hesitation dribble and a hurled three. Iverson had Larry Brown, a coach with similar coaching acumen but a spotty past — and we’ve already broken down how weak his teams were. Iverson and Brown were always a central focus of the NBA gossip sphere, but Iverson denied any dissent, saying, “He’s helped me do so much in my career, helped me be the player that I am. If there’s no Larry Brown, then there’s no MVP, Allen Iverson.” The same sort of understanding seems to exist between Stevens and Thomas. The Butler product is free to direct traffic in the first three quarters from the sideline, but the fourth is Isaiah’s domain. The two guards share the same sentiment, perhaps put best by Derrick Rose in 2011: Why can’t I be the best player in the league? Why can’t I be the MVP? Thomas and Iverson both take it to the next level though. It isn’t about awards, but rather about moments. Instead, they say, “Why can’t I make this shot? Why can’t I singlehandedly beat the best teams in the league?” and no one ever provides satisfactory answers, apparently, because the two did (or still do, in Thomas’s case) it over and over. Thomas made headlines in January for an Iversonian quote: 

Not to be cocky,” he said, prefacing his cocky statement, “but I feel like I’m the best player in the world.

— Isaiah Thomas

And to call it “Iversonian” is far from a generalization; the Answer could fill a book with self-confident quotes, ranging from “I’m supposed to be a franchise player, and we sitting here talking ’bout practice” to “I make more money than you will in 10 years,” the latter of which was to a police officer. Like I’ve said ad nauseam, they differed in their execution, as Thomas is much more stable than Iverson ever was, but the sentiment has always been identical. What the two guards embody is the spirit of competition, and a living display of willpower surmounting the very real and physical barriers to their success. The chips on their shoulders shine through every move, whether it was Iverson’s poverty growing up or Thomas’s draft position. Isaiah is not Iverson in terms of career, or season, or greatness; instead, he’s Iverson in moments — in blinding flashes — where he seems to channel his own Answer spirit. 

Isaiah Thomas is not Iverson yet. There is indeed a long way to go before anyone can take Iverson’s spot as the premier tiny player, but Thomas is the closest thing to AI in recent memory. The Celtics have a real gift in the Washington alum, and Isaiah is sure to bring the kind of passion and skill to the game that set Iverson so far apart in his time. Thomas knows it, and the thought drives him, as he said, “I want to be the greatest player to ever play. I’m not even close, but you’ve got to shoot high.” Boston should hold him tight. 

Allen Iverson Boston Celtics Isaiah Thomas NBA

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