On the surface, no two players were more polar opposites than Allen Iverson and Gary Payton. It was easy to fault AI for his low-efficiency shooting nights, his off-court habits and his disdain for practice just as it was simple to laud the Glove as the greatest defensive point guard ever. But honestly, the two players are more comparable than you think.
Today, we’re doing just that. With Iverson finally getting his jersey retired in Philly, he’s joining rare air, a place Payton already resides. And so we’re asking, who was better: Iverson or Payton? We argue. You decide.
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I had three players I loved growing up. They were Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. I loved MJ because, quite simply, he was MJ. I loved Vince for his aerial assaults and swagger he bought over to the cities of Toronto and Jersey. I loved Allen Iverson because he was the answer to every small kid who dared to drive in the paint and challenge every big body possible.
You see, with A.I., he gave hope to every kid who lacked the height or frame to compete. Allen Iverson exuded the gall and mental fortitude of three Goliaths when he pounced on his adversaries. The pugnacious kid from Virginia’s style of play reflected his upbringing. His grit powered him to the basket at will. Yes, his body was a walking canvas for his innumerable tattoos. Yes, his attitude led to a barrage of insults aimed at him. We could talk about Allen Iverson’s off-the-court issues all day. But, I guarantee you, it wouldn’t match his Hall of Fame status on the court.
Allen Iverson is arguably the best scoring guard EVER. At a meager 6-0, he defied the unthinkable every time he walked on to a basketball court. With infinite crossovers at his disposal, he duped his defenders with ease each possession. His defining moment came in his rookie year when he went toe-to-toe with MJ. Phil Jackson called on Mike to defend. What happened? Allen Iverson shook the basketball world with his shifty crossovers, which stunned Jordan, and then iced him with a straightaway jumper.
Iverson epitomized a die-hard scorer. He was a maestro with the ball. His poignant ballhandling skills enabled him to either slice and dice his defenders and go for the pull-up jimmy, or bob and weave his way to the cup.
I know what you’re thinking: “But Carl, that unconventional style of play shouldn’t be praised.” In actuality, Allen Iverson’s aberrant play is what led him to be the NBA Rookie of the Year in ’96-97, where he averaged 23.5 PPG. That style of play is what made him an 11-time All-Star. That style of play won him the scoring title four times. That style of play shifted the culture and gave smaller guards a certain confidence they didn’t possess back then.
Besides Isiah Thomas and Timmy Hardaway, Allen Iverson was the only other guard 6-0 or under capable of obliterating his competition on a regular basis. Should I remind you that he took a talent-depleted Sixers team to the Finals in ’01–the same year when he won the regular season MVP? In addition, he scorched the Lakers for a blistering 48 points in Game 1 of the Finals, while annihilating Tyronn Lue. If you’re the type enamored with numbers and stats, I’ll dish some out to you. Allen Iverson finished his career averaging 26.7 points a game and finished his career with 24,368 points. Allen Iverson averaged over 30 PPG five times in his career. If that’s not mind-boggling enough, A.I. averaged 29.7 points in the playoffs during his career. For you haters who ponder how many playoffs games he played, the number is 71.
I love GP with a passion, but he wasn’t as complete as A.I. Just like Gary, Iverson was scrappy as well. He led the league in steals for three consecutive seasons. Granted, Iverson was a shoot-first player, but he also was a great playmaker when he had to be. He dished over six dimes a game in his career with his career-high coming in ’04-05 when he averaged 7.9 assists a game.
I didn’t even mention the cultural impact Allen Iverson had on the game. From the cornrows, to the sleeves, to the commercials where he dabbled in rap, to throwback jerseys he wore during his press conferences, this man was one of the few game-changers in NBA history. The man dropped bars and buckets whenever, wherever. I doubt we’ll ever find another AI. Yet it’s good to dream.