Undersized and inefficient, Iverson, the person and the player, was both great and enigmatic, lauded and condemned.
Love-hate relationships existed between the NBA, its fans and Iverson for the better part of 15 seasons. Missed field goals and rants about practice were generally abhorred. MVP awards and scoring titles were revered. We loved him. We hated him.
Then he retired, reluctantly and involuntarily, going out with the same defiance and rejection of reality that will put him in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Retrospectively, it remains difficult to answer many of the queries still surrounding Iverson. But hindsight has provided clarity, and nostalgia has worked in Iverson's favor, not against him.
Pound for pound, Iverson is considered one of the greatest stars of all time, but it's LeBron James who offered a more poignant admission in October, via The New York Times' Harvey Araton:
With Iverson's retirement official and the Philadelphia 76ers having retired his No. 3 jersey, similar support has rung loudly throughout the Association. There is a growing belief that Iverson is not only one of the greatest, but the absolute best to ever play the game.
But is he?
Plenty of diminutive talents have passed through the NBA.
Merely playing was an accomplishment for Iverson in and of itself. Not many players his size have made it in the NBA. Not only did Iverson play, he played a lot.
Iverson became just the fifth player in NBA history to retire while averaging over 40 minutes per game for his career (41.1), joining Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell, all of whom are Hall of Famers.
Robertson was the last of the other four to retire, and he did so in 1974. Think of what that says about Iverson, who is at least five inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than anyone on that list.
Iverson played in a time when size came at a premium, when bruising centers and forwards were the ultimate prize. Guards like Iverson needed to be built for interior assaults, for the scars that come with going up against unforgiving towers.
Size was infrequent in earlier years. Russell- and Chamberlain-sized ballers were almost anomalies. Yet there was Iverson, whose best years came during the age of big men.
Between 1996-97, when he entered the league, and 2008-09, the year before he left the game for good, only Kevin Garnett played more total minutes; Iverson's 36,719 check in at second. Not Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan—Iverson, who wasn't your prototypical NBA player at 6'0" and 165 pounds.
There were others his size who passed through the NBA, but no one who rivaled the presence of players much stronger and taller than themselves the way he did. Only four other players standing at 6'0" or shorter have surpassed 30,000 minutes for their career, the closest of whom is Mookie Blaylock, who logged 6,500 fewer ticks than Iverson.
What does his continued presence say? What does it mean?
It says and means everything we need to know: Iverson's durability and longevity exceeded that of players bigger, stronger, taller and more fit to play in the NBA than himself.
Unprecedented Scoring...And More
For his size, no one ever scored like Iverson.
There's a tendency to discredit some of his scoring ability because of his lifetime 42.5 percent clip from the floor, and it's a legitimate concern. Iverson ranks second-to-last in total points scored for those who attempted at least 19,000 shots for their career, ahead of only Baylor.
On the flip side, it's impossible to taint a lifetime scoring average of 26.7 points per game. Only seven players can match that scoring output, and only two of them stand shorter than 6'5"—Jerry West (6'2") and Iverson.
One of the more understated parts of his legacy is also his playoff success. You won't find a ring on Iverson's finger, but his 29.7 points per game in the postseason is second only to some guy named Michael Jordan. Heard of him? I thought you might have.
Often depicted as a selfish scorer, Iverson was, in fact, more.
For his career, the shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body dished out 6.2 assists per game and 5,624 total for his career. He also forced 2.2 steals a night, registering 1,983 for his career.
On the back of his net-shredding prowess, Iverson scored, passed and gambled (defensively) his way into the history books, joining Jordan as the only players to reach benchmarks of 24,000 points, 5,600 assists and 1,900 steals.
Feels good, doesn't it? Well, it's about to feel even better.
Iverson is the only player in league history to average at least 25 points, six assists and two steals per game in the playoffs. His 45.1 minutes per playoff game also rank third among all players who appeared in at least 10, behind only Russell and Chamberlain.
Sensing a pattern here? You should be.
For more than a decade, Iverson's production rivaled some of the game's greatest, and his playing time matched that of legends from decades ago.
When taken literally, the phrase "pound for pound" can become too technical.
Pound for pound, Jordan scored more than Iverson. His Airness tipped the scales at an estimated 216 pounds and finished with 32,292 career points, or 149.5 points per pound. Iverson's 24,368 points come out to 147.7 per pound.
But again, that's if we become numerical sticklers, which we shouldn't.
Iverson is not the greatest NBA player to ever walk the earth. Depending on where you stand and what you value, that honor belongs to Jordan, James, Russell or someone else.
The thing about most all-time greats, though, is they weren't or aren't pint-sized talents in a league dominated by giants. Iverson was.
Coining the former No. 1 pick an underdog would be a stretch. He wasn't drafted out of Georgetown and expected to fail. But what he did at his size and weight was and remains unprecedented.
"You could never question his heart," LeBron told ESPN's Chris Broussard of Iverson in October. "Ever. He gave it his all."
You could never question his size either. Iverson was small and skinny, yet played like Goliath. He used an underdog's build to play a tall man's game.
Maybe one day, the answer to this question is "no."
Right now, it's an unequivocal "yes."
There were better players than Iverson. There are better players than Iverson. Plenty of them, actually.
Pound for pound, inch for inch, ounce for ounce, though, Iverson remains the greatest NBA star there has ever been.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
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