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If I Knew Then (What I Know Now): How the Unholy Alliance of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony Could Have Actually Worked
When I was a kid, my favorite sport was baseball. I can't explain it; can't justify it. But hey, when your dad gives you a Chicago White Sox jersey, you're in. You're adopted by the tribe.
I happened to grow up as a White Sox fan at a particularly great time, too, because my first few years of fandom coincided with the first few years of their young first baseman, Frank Thomas. In a way, we grew up together, and I could proudly watch him develop into one of the best in the game and a multi-time MVP.
When you're a kid like lil' Zandrick -- husky and better in math class than the baseball diamond -- Frank Thomas appeals to you in several different ways. He was a mammoth 270 pound hulk who dwarfed his peers. But despite that size and his natural power, he had the foresight to draw a lot of walks: over 100+ a year.
But at that time (the 1990s), Thomas didn't get a lot of credit for that virtue. Walks. Psh. They didn't even register a blip on the traditional box score. It was like the at-bat didn't even exist. In some ways, Thomas got criticized for his patience at the plate. He's not aggressive enough!
Even back then, even lil' Zan realized how stupid this was. After all, when the bases are empty, there's no difference at all between drawing a walk and smacking a single. Yet, it wasn't treated that way during that era.
There was a time when Frank Thomas had the third highest OPS (on-base+slugging percentage) of all-time, behind just Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. Yet, for a lot of old school baseball writers of the day, the best hitter in the game was Tony Gwynn. After all, Gwynn hit about .340; Thomas a mere .330. Sure, Thomas got 35+ homers and 120+ walks a year (whereas Gwynn would slap a bunch of singles), but that didn't really count. What the hell is OBP? OPS? Pure batting average: that's where it's at!
I say all this to praise Frank Thomas, not to criticize Tony Gwynn. After all, Tony Gwynn was born and raised and developed to be a contact hitter, and to care about his batting average (as opposed to on-base percentage.) It's hard to criticize him for engaging in the group-think of the day.
In that same way, I have a hard time blasting old school basketball players for not taking enough threes, or not worrying as much about their "true shooting percentage." Those simply weren't priorities of the day; I doubt TS% even existed for most of them.
So rather than to blast anyone, I'm using this hypothetical to simply wonder: what if? What if we knew then (what we knew now?)
new school villains
Today, baseball and basketball fans have embraced modern stats and the modern style of play. If someone around here dares to cite field-goal percentage (as opposed to TS%), they get eyerolls and scorn. We all understand the virtues of the three-point shot, pace and space, and small ball (or "hot wing" basketball as some call it).
To us fancy folk who actually utilize advanced stats, no one represents the sins of the past like iso-scorers Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. High-usage, high-volume, low-efficiency scorers. Even in his peak, Carmelo Anthony was the king of the long contested two. Iverson may have won an MVP, but he wasn't an efficient scorer either. In the three seasons after that MVP, he averaged 28.5 points per game on 40.2% field goal and 28.4% from three. Can you imagine if someone tried to pull that shit now? They'd be crucified.
Clearly, these two were dinosaurs. It's no wonder they never won a title playing their crude, caveman ways. That's not winning basketball (as we understand it now.)
If you’re young (a safe bet on /NBA), you may not remember that these two actually played TOGETHER for a short period of time.
Then 31 years old, Allen Iverson's time came to a head in Philadelphia. They made a Finals trip together, but the honeymoon had ended and the marriage went sour. So in 2006-07, the Sixers traded him to Denver, uniting him with another (iso) superstar in young Carmelo Anthony.
While that union earned splashy headlines for a short time, the results went about the way you'd expect. They only managed the # 8 seed in their next full season together, and in the next year, the Nuggets dumped Iverson out to Detroit (and improved with Chauncey Billups in his place.)
Hah. We knew it, right? Looking back, we can laugh and scoff at the silly notion that those two ball hogs would ever work out together.
But looking back… I wonder… maybe it could have.
the unholy alliance
As mentioned, the pairing of Allen Iverson (then around 31-32 years old) and Carmelo Anthony (then 22-23) didn't really work out. The Nuggets didn't rise up into contender status until after Iverson was gone.
At the time, the logic by those stupid old school execs was that AI and Melo would take pressure off each other and become better than ever. Dumbos. There's only one basketball, and playing two ball-dominant non-shooters together wouldn't help them out at all.
But here's the weird part... it actually did.
Allen Iverson's first full year helped spark Carmelo Anthony's first All-Star appearance (in Year 4). Better yet, the pressure AI drew allowed Anthony to improve his efficiency. Anthony actually shot 49.2% from the field, a mark that was then (and still remains) his career high by a consideration margin (he's a career 44.9% from the field.) That season, Anthony didn't shoot many threes, and had an odd slump from the free throw line (78.6%, well below his career 81.1%), but still managed to record his best ever true shooting percentage at 56.8%. You can argue that Melo's most efficient season ever came with Allen Iverson.
Meanwhile, there's no "debate" about that with Allen Iverson, because it was clearly his most efficient scoring season as well. He jacked up his FG% to 45.8, which is extremely high for him (career 42.5%). He had his best TS% of his entire career, nearly matching Carmelo Anthony identically with 56.7%.
Now, 56-57% true shooting may not be anything to write home about these days, because we live in a world where Kevin Durant and Steph Curry shoot 60% even on their off nights. But 56% is still above-average for today, and would be even better at the time; the average true shooting percentage during that period was an even 54.0%.
so... what went wrong?
As discussed, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson both had their most efficient offensive seasons while playing together and taking the pressure off each other. They both attacked the basket like raging bulls, with Iverson averaging 9.4 free throw attempts per game and Anthony not far behind him at 7.7. Coach George Karl had the two running and gunning, with the Nuggets leading the entire NBA in pace.
Everything we know about modern basketball suggests that this team should have been good. And they were. Sorta. Their # 8 seed came with 50 wins, only 7 removed from the # 1 seed.
But why weren't they better? What was holding them back?
No doubt, Iverson and Anthony were not defensive standouts, a clear problem that was unavoidable and may have ultimately doomed them either way. But there was another problem, too. Old-school thinking.
These days, we understand the merits of a "3 and D" role player who can be effective defensively, but also space the court for your stars.
But back then, in the 90s and 00s, that type of logic wasn't prevalent at the time. In a sense, role players were viewed as "3 or D" players. "Offensive" players. Or "defensive" players. Pick one; you didn't get both.
And oftentimes, when a team had a perceived offensive player (like an Allen Iverson), they would pair him with a "defensive" player in the lineup to help balance out the roster.
That was certainly true with the Nuggets of the day as well. Rather than give Iverson and Anthony some "3 and D" players who could have helped space the court for them and allow them to attack the basket even more often, they filled the lineup with defense-only players (figuring AI and Melo could handle the entire load on offense.)
At center, they had Marcus Camby, an excellent defensive player and rebounder (13.1 per game that season). That said, not an offensive player. Not a spacer. In fact, Camby made a total of 18 threes during the course of his 973-game career. But obviously, we can understand the need for Camby as a defender and shot-blocker. That made sense back then, and would make sense even now today. He was a good fit for this team.
At PF, the Nuggets threw out Kenyon Martin, another defensive player with limitations on offense. K-Mart was a great all-around energy guy and wrecking ball, but again, not a shooter. Not a spacer. In fact, he went a grand total of 2 for 11 from three during the course of that season. We can understand now that pairing two non-shooting big men like Camby and Martin may be problematic, but the Nuggets of the day didn't realize how that may have limited them.
But just wait, friends, there's more. Under Larry Brown, Iverson's Sixers teams had some success by moving him to shooting guard and pairing him with a steady point guard in Eric Snow. So naturally, George Karl tried to do the same. He started (and played heavy minutes) to 32-year-old veteran Anthony Carter, the Nuggets' point guard of the day.
Now, Anthony Carter was a good guy and a feel-good story as an undrafted player from Hawaii who cobbled out a nice career for himself. But in reality, he was a backup-caliber player. As a starter, he had his limitations. He couldn't shoot the three either (a career average of shooting 0.2 for 0.7 threes per game, good for 25%), and couldn't score much at all (he never averaged more than 8 points a game in any year.)
These days, teams want all five of their players to be able to shoot the three. Worst case, you may be able to get away with one non-shooter, or in dire circumstances, maybe even two. But here were the Nuggets, surrounding their two attacking stars with THREE non-shooters at once. These were not just as nominal or ceremonial starting lineup either; those five players played the most minutes on the team.
Certainly, Iverson and Anthony's inconsistent defense deserve some blame for their partnership not working out, but they were also dealing with some lineup decisions that were questionable back then (and nearly unforgivable in hindsight.)
what went right (after Iverson left)
As mentioned, the Nuggets decided to wash their hands of this experiment and trade Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups. Immediately, the team got better, and actually had some playoff success.
There's an easy takeaway there: Billups > Iverson when it comes to winning basketball!
Maybe. But not necessarily. The truth is more nuanced than that.
Billups was a better fit for this team, for a multitude of reasons. He provided strong leadership and a winning attitude, sure, but he was also a good spacer and three-point shooter (something the team had sorely lacked.)
Moreover, having Billups as a trustworthy PG allowed George Karl to abandon the Anthony Carter spot and insert an actual shooter into the backcourt instead: J.R. Smith.
Smith had been on the roster the year prior and (in his 4th year) had already developed into a good shooter (40.3% from three.) The trouble is: Karl shelved him, with the idea that Iverson had to play those minutes at SG. That 07-08 season (with Iverson+Melo), J.R. Smith only got 19.2 minutes per game. The next year (with Billups), he ballooned up to 27.7 minutes a game. Anthony Carter still got minutes, but went from 67 starts down to 5.
Not only was J.R. Smith's deep shooting a sight for sore eyes, but he also offered more size and length. Suddenly, the Nuggets went from a mini-backcourt of Anthony Carter (6'1") and Allen Iverson (6'0") to a larger one with Billups (6'3") and Smith (6'5"-6'6"). As we know now, that type of length really does help out on defense and on the glass. So together, Billups+Smith gave the team a marked step up regarding spacing and length, two areas that hurt the previous years’ team.
That "what if" is the question of the day. What if the Nuggets had the benefit of our knowledge and realized the folly of playing 3 non-shooters at once? What if they surrounded their stars with spacing and good offensive talent (rather than forcing them to do it alone)?
Realistically, Iverson+Anthony was never going to be a title team no matter what. Their defense was still too inconsistent for that. Moreover, Iverson was over 30 years old, and on the verge of a steep decline.
Still, you wonder about how the team's fortunes (and moreover, those superstars' reputations as "losing players") would have changed with some more tweaks and some more Daryl Morey-ball. If only we knew then what we know now.
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Offseason Blueprint: it's time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to unleash the beast
For their sake, we wanted to look ahead with the next edition of the OFFSEASON BLUEPRINT series. In each, we'll preview some big decisions and make some recommendations for plans of attack along the way. Today, we're looking at the Minnesota Timberwolves.
After old school Tom Thibodeau flamed out as the coach/executive in Minnesota, the franchise went in a "new" direction. Literally. New school. Analytics. Moreyball. In fact, the team hired Daryl Morey's protege Gersson Rosas to be their new basketball chief, with the presumption that he'd remake the team in the image of the Houston Rockets organization.
Whether Rosas is the right man for the job or not is still up for debate -- whether the plan will work or not is still up for debate. But what I appreciate here is that there is a plan. Rosas believes in a certain brand of basketball, and he's gotten the coaching staff to buy in as well. This past season, the T-Wolves launched the 3rd most three pointers in the league. They shot the 3rd most free throw attempts. Their pace climbed into the top 5. They're acting the part of a modern, mathematically inclined franchise.
The ship is moving in a specific direction, but they may see a storm on the horizon in the form of a new ownership group. Mainstay Glen Taylor is reportedly selling the team, with Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf as a likely buyer. Wilf has a reputation as a smart owner, but we don't know whether or not he'll buy into Rosas and his vision for the team. The front office and coaching staff will need to sell themselves all over again.
Should a new owner trust Rosas? It's too soon to tell. No doubt, the analytical revolution is here to stay, and it's wise to stay on the right side of that curve. At the same time, the jury's still out on Rosas' ability to scout players as well as he surveys spreadsheets. In the last draft, the team traded up from # 11 to # 6 and ended up with Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver, a non-shooter. If they had stayed in place, Rosas could have taken better offensive players like Cam Johnson ( #11 pick), P.J. Washington (#12), or Tyler Herro (#13.)
Still, it's too reactionary to judge an executive based on one year's return from one year's pick. Overall, Rosas has the right mentality. He also managed to unload the massive Andrew Wiggins contract, and bring in scorers like D'Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. And at the end of the day, the team's bad 2019-20 worked out in their favor, as they landed the # 1 pick in the draft. I wouldn't say Rosas has earned my trust yet, but he's earned a fair chance.
By this point, Karl-Anthony Towns' strengths and weaknesses have been well documented. Offensively, he's one of the most gifted players in his generation. Hell, he's one of the best shooting big men of all time. He's shot 40% from three for three years running. He's scored at 62% true shooting for three years running. He has the type of talent and the type of statistics that give him true MVP potential presuming the team could somehow wind up among the top 3 seeds.
Defensively...? We have more issues than Julia Michaels. The effort isn't there. The understanding and angles aren't there. ESPN's RPM ranks his defensive impact as a -3.7 per 100 possessions, which ranks dead last among all 72 qualifiers at center. (To be fair, the other box plus/minus metric grades him about neutral on defense.) New teammate and BFF D'Angelo Russell is also better on offense than defense himself.
When your best players are great offensively and poor defensively, there's a tendency to try and "balance" the roster with defensive specialists. However, there's a risk in overcompensating.
This may be showing my age, but I'm reminded of the 2007-08 Denver Nuggets. The team had been built around a transcendent offensive talent in Carmelo Anthony, and decided to bring in another star in Allen Iverson. The pairing actually worked in regards to their efficiency. In fact, both AI and Melo achieved career highs in FG% that same season, in addition to hammering their way to 17.0 FTA per game between them. However, the team as a whole was worse offensively than defensively. Why? How? Because they figured AI and Melo could "handle" the offense, and surrounded them with defense-only players like Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, and Anthony Carter. Those other three starters combined for 93.3 minutes and 0.7 threes per game.
We're never going to see spacing issues like that again, but the T-Wolves need to be careful not to overcorrect in the same way. And unfortunately, they may have been doing that to some degree. Before and after Rosas, the team has made a point to surround Towns with defensive players like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver. Those guys aren't good offensive players though (at least, not yet), and that makes it an uphill battle to win games in a league where scoring is more efficient than ever. Consider this: despite a push to play "the right way" with more threes and FTA, Minnesota's offense has been in a nosedive. In 2017-18, the team finished 4th in offensive rating. In 2018-19, that fell to 11th. This past year, that plummeted to 24th. The fact that Towns missed time explains a lot of that, but not all of that.
Despite being built around 2 offensive players, the T-Wolves can't be content with their offensive attack right now. There's a lot more upside to tap into here. Having a stretch big like KAT gives the team a huge edge on the rest of the league (offensively), and they can be one of the few teams that can create a lineup with dynamic shooters/scorers 1-5.
While I may have been critical of a few personnel decisions, the Minnesota Timberwolves have tried to add offensive talent already. In addition to Russell, they also acquired Malik Beasley in midseason. Beasley took full advantage of his opportunity, exploding for 20.7 points per game over his 14 games with the team. Presuming the team retains him, they could have some serious weapons here: KAT, D'Angelo, Beasley...
And hell, let's add one more.
The NBA Draft Lottery gods finally shined on Minnesota, granting them the # 1 pick overall (albeit in a weak year.)
In an ideal world, the top of this class would feature an awesome 3+D power forward, or maybe a big wing. Alas, we are living in an imperfect world. It's more likely that they'll be debating between two scoring guards instead: SG Anthony Edwards and PG LaMelo Ball. (James Wiseman may have been an option for another team, but it's hard to envision them giving major minutes to two bigs.) The Wolves could attempt to trade down a few spots, a la Boston and Markelle Fultz, and still land a good forward like Deni Avdija (Israel), but that type of maneuver is easier said than done.
Between Edwards and Ball, I'd lean to Anthony Edwards. On paper, Edwards would have one of the least impressive resumes for any # 1 pick in history. As a freshman at Georgia, he averaged a solid 19.1 points per game, but that came on poor efficiency (40.2% from the field, 29.4% from three) and on a poor team (the Bulldogs finished 16-16.) Still, the traits and tape are kinder than the stats alone. Edwards has the explosion, strength, and length that could remind optimists of Dwyane Wade or Donovan Mitchell. If you're a half-glass empty-net kinda guy, you may say he's going to develop into an empty calorie scorer in the Dion Waiters mold. Personally, I'm more optimistic than most, and think Mitchell is a realistic comparison to make. Of course, Mitchell is a hard worker, so Edwards will need to be the same to reach his own potential.
While adding another shooting guard isn't ideal, it's best not to get too cute and overthink this. Besides, Rosas comes from a Houston team that doesn't get too caught up in traditional positions anyway. Edwards' body type and dimensions are similar to Eric Gordon, who splits his time about 60-40% between SG and SF for the Rockets. If Edwards can play 20-30% of his minutes at small forward, then the team wouldn't have too much of a problem squeezing in 25-30 minutes for Malik Beasley, either as a starter or as a 6th man. Presuming, of course, a contract can be reached between the two parties.
Prior to the Timberwolves landing the # 1 pick, it seemed like a no-brainer to re-sign Malik Beasley (a RFA.) It may have been a limited sample size, but he flashed enough scoring talent and shooting ability to justify around $15M a year.
The possible pick of Anthony Edwards (or LaMelo Ball) does complicate that math to some degree. As mentioned, they can squeeze in all three guards into their lineup and still give them 30+ minutes a game, but it may be harder to justify a huge financial commitment. Do you want to pay Beasley $15M+ a year if you're not certain that he's going to be locked into the starting lineup?
The argument for the pro-Beasley camp would be based on his offensive talent. He got red hot for Minnesota last season -- hitting 42.6% on 8.9 three point attempts a game. Presumably, that's bound to regress to some degree. However, Beasley's shooting is more "real" than not. For his career, he's averaged 17.0 points per 36 minutes, hitting 38.8% from beyond the arc. Beasley could act as a complementary spacer with the starting lineup, or operate as a primary option for the bench unit. He'd be in play for Sixth Man of the Year if he gets 25+ minutes a game.
If you're in the anti-Beasley camp, you could nitpick his worth. He's athletic, but he's not very big (6'4", 6'7" wingspan.) In terms of size, that lends itself to a pure SG. While we could play Edwards at SF, that would make the team relatively small. A bigger concern with Beasley's future as a scorer is the fact that rarely gets to the free throw line. In his big breakout for Minnesota, he only averaged 2.0 FTA. Over the course of his career, he's averaged 1.6 FTA per 36. That's an extremely low rate for a scorer, which in turn makes him more dependent on getting hot from the field. Beasley's still managed to score at a solid efficiency rate (56.6% true shooting for his career), but there's a "cap" on his ceiling unless he gets to the line more often.
If that's the case, then perhaps it's best for the T-Wolves to "sell high" on Beasley based on his stats in Minnesota. He's a free agent, but a restricted free agent, making a "sign and trade" a distinct possibility. The most obvious trade target would be Aaron Gordon. Gordon doesn't fit in like a glove right now in Orlando, but he'd be a great counterpart to Karl-Anthony Towns here in Minnesota. He's not a shooter, really, but he's an athletic and energetic kid who puts pressure on defenses anyway. Meanwhile, the Magic would also appreciate Beasley's more traditional shooting/scoring, as their offense continues to lag. They may have to inflate an offer to Beasley to match salaries (Gordon makes $18M + $16M) but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
If Minnesota can't find a good sign and trade for Beasley this offseason, then it makes sense to work out some sort of deal to bring him back to the team. At the end of the day, you don't want to let talent walk out the door for nothing. This isn't a team that should be talking steps backwards. They will likely lose their R1 pick next year (top 3 protected) via the Wiggins-Russell trade, so they should be making a point to stack the roster as much as possible. After all, you can always adjust the roster down the road if need be.
We've talked about the Minnesota Timberwolves having 4 potential building blocks here between Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and the # 1 pick. However, the depth chart behind those four spots looks murky right now.
"Forward" has continued to be a major issue for this team. It'd be great if either Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver could step up and grab the reins of the SF position, but it's no guarantee. PF is also a big concern. The team acquired Juan Hernangomez from Denver, and gave him a healthy audition as a starter. The 24 year old played 29.4 minutes a game, scoring 12.9 points and hitting 42% from three. Those raw stats look good, but the advanced numbers are not as kind. In fact, Hernangomez graded as a -6.6 impact per 100 possessions according to ESPN RPM, dead last among 98 qualifiers at PF. To be fair, the kid played most of his minutes in 14 wonky games at the end of a lost season, so it's difficult to read too much into any of his numbers. Still, I'd be a little shy about giving him a big money extension as he approaches his own restricted free agency. If another team wants to pay him like a proven starter, then I may let him go.
On the fringes of the rotation, there are some faint bright spots. Rookie C Naz Reid doesn't look the part of a modern big (he looks like a stocky 40-year-old dude shooting hoops at the Y), but he flashed some ability and stretch potential. Backup PG Jordan McLaughlin is a little underrated as well, and potentially is good enough to stick on the roster for the long term as a third PG. Still, this isn't an abundance of riches here. In an ideal world, we'd add some more reliable forwards to the mix, as well as a steady backup PG.
In order to re-stock those cupboards, the T-Wolves will have to get creative. They won't have cap space, but they do have some assets. In addition to the # 1 pick, they also have # 17 pick, and the # 33 pick. They also have some potential contract "filler" like James Johnson ($16M player option!) and Jake Layman ($4M + $4M). If they paired those together -- the # 17 pick and contract filler -- they could potentially add another solid veteran anywhere in the $5M-$20M range.
If the Wolves keep their picks, they need to make them count. This is a good class at PG, so the team could potentially snag a heady backup PG like Nico Mannion (Arizona), Tyrell Terry (Stanford), or Tre Jones (Duke). If they want a bigger forward, then you'd consider active athletes like Patrick Williams (Florida State), Precious Achiuwa (Memphis), or Paul Reed (DePaul). It's hard to expect a # 17 pick to be a starter, but a rotational player is a realistic goal.
That # 33 pick is also nothing to sneeze at, especially because you may be able to land a contributor on a dirt-cheap contract. One name to keep in mind may be Leandro Bolmaro (Argentina). He's a 6'7" guard with nice size and creativity; expecting him to be the next Manu Ginobili is a stretch, but I like his chances of being a long-time pro after a few more years of seasoning.
It may be counterintuitive, but I'd urge the Minnesota Timberwolves to their foot on the gas and keep surrounding their stars with more and more scoring punch. After all, Gersson Rosas' dream of recreating the Houston Rockets will only work if they can fill the court with 5 threats at once. The presence of Karl-Anthony Towns automatically gives the team that type of potential; now, it's time to double down on that and unleash the full beast.
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