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Allen Iverson and the Clippers - A Retrospective

Now that the Allen Iverson era in Memphis is officially over, I wanted to revisit the discussions surrounding Iverson and the Clippers this summer.

I was sitting courtside at a summer league game, a few yards from Mike Dunleavy and Neil Olshey, when the Iverson to the Clippers rumor first started making the rounds.  I sauntered over to ask the brain trust if there was any truth to it, and they responded with mock surprise, essentially saying "Don't believe everything you hear."

Of course, after Lisa Dillman's original 'very serious talks' article was published, MDsr fessed up that yes, they had an interest in AI, although his version of the discussions seemed much less serious.

When I first heard about it, I jumped to a conclusion: "It only makes sense on one level.... selling tickets."  It seemed that this idea was being driven by non-basketball reasons.

Well, it didn't take long for other reporters to jump to the same conclusion.  A piece by Adrian Wojnaroski probably summed up the general consensus best: this whole thing is so crazy and ill-conceived, it has to be Donald Sterling's idea.

Sterling is hell-bent on dysfunction. Everyone walked out of the Thomas & Mack Center late Monday so impressed with the Clippers’ young cornerstones, Griffin and Gordon. Yet, Sterling, sitting courtside, couldn’t see the truth unfolding before his eyes. Iverson is a bad investment for the Clippers. Iverson is a shell of himself now, and worst of all, he’s the last to know.

But for myself and Woj, it was all just speculation.  Although he quoted a 'rival GM', he did not purport to have any Clippers sources saying that signing Iverson was a mandate from Sterling to boost ticket sales.  It was just what seemed to him (and other GMs apparently) to be the logical explanation, and he didn't imply otherwise.

The same cannot be said for Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News.  He quoted a 'Clipper executive' on the Iverson situation saying "It's out of control.  This is owner-driven."  So there it was - the smoking guy.  Stupid, terrible, horrible Donald Sterling was the one to blame for the whole Iverson thing.

Except it turns out that was not the case at all.

MDsr told Bill Plaschke of the LA Times that the Clippers interest in Iverson was completely the coach's idea. "There was talk that Iverson was Sterling's idea, a way to juice ticket sales, but Dunleavy acknowledges that it was him.  'The guy is a great player, he's a warrior,' said Dunleavy."   I asked the coach myself point blank during training camp about the "owner-driven" quote, and he told me that it was completely untrue. 

In fact, anyone who assumed that Sterling was behind the idea has a poor understanding of DTS' particular dysfunctions.  Yes, he's a difficult owner who has in the past meddled in the running of the team without much understanding of the basketball situation.  But he's pretty consistently been a 'keep the payroll' low kind of guy as we're all aware.  He's made a lot of money with this basketball team, not by investing in it, but by keeping his costs down while the value of league-wide things like TV contracts and merchandise have increased.  The idea of him investing several million dollars in Allen Iverson, in hopes of getting a return on that investment at the box office is completely inconsistent with how he has run the team.  He'd much rather save the salary, and hope that the tickets sell anyway.  I made this point when some citizens were arguing for MDsr's ouster last summer based on a return on investment (ROI) business case - trying to convince DTS that he'd make more in increased ticket sales by firing Dunleavy (and eating his guaranteed salary) is a tough sale.  Sterling would rather control the things he can control - that means paying one coach at a time, and it doesn't mean signing an aging superstar to a multi-million dollar contract when the roster was already pretty full.

But rather than try to understand the situation, the national media tend to just adopt a simplistic "It's the Clippers" response to whatever happens.  If the behavior can be described in terms of mismanagement, regardless of whether it actually makes sense, that's what the media will do.  Heck, I did it myself in my immediate reaction to the rumor when I assumed it was all to sell tickets.  (In my defense, it was an off the cuff comment in a game thread and I pretty quickly backed off that position when I thought about it some more.)

There are a couple of ironies in the aftermath.  One is that study after study has shown that one and only one thing affects home attendance - winning basketball games.  So hypothetically which player should you sign to sell more tickets, Allen Iverson or Ramon Sessions?  Answer: the one that will help you win more basketball games.  It is in fact never a choice between basketball and ticket sales - making the team better is always the best way to sell tickets.

The other is that in retrospect, contrary to their reputation as a hapless organization, the Clippers handled the Iverson situation exactly correctly.  You can agree or disagree with having any interest in the first place, but MDsr felt like Iverson was an option backing up both guard spots for LA (remember, this is before Sebastian Telfair joined the team).  He wanted to know if Iverson would be willing to come off the bench, and asked him straight out during a phone conversation.  From that conversation, the coach knew that it wasn't going to work out, and the flirtation was over.  Iverson never even came to LA for a face-to-face meeting.

It's now pretty obvious that Memphis never had that conversation.  Iverson was complaining about being a sub after his first game as a Grizzly.  As Chris Herrington of the Memphis Flyer wrote a couple of weeks ago, "You know it's getting bad when your organization makes the Clippers look professional by comparison."

Now that Iverson is back on the market, and the Clippers starting shooting guard is injured, would LA consider bringing him in?  No.  Nothing has really changed.  Eric Gordon is going to be back in 3 games, and there will be 68 more to play.  If Allen Iverson was not a good idea in July when we suspected he would be a disruptive presence in a reserve role, he's a far worse idea now that the Memphis debacle has removed all doubt.