ALLEN IVERSON has been a league MVP, averaged 27.7 points over his 13-year career and sold more than enough tickets and jerseys to offset his eight-figure salary. But can he lead a team to the championship? Following his stunning trade to the Pistons, we're about to find out.
One thing is sure: The Pistons didn't send Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb to the Nuggets on Nov. 3 simply to cash out Iverson's expiring contract. (He's due $20.8 million this season.) Yes, Detroit can realize almost $35 million in payroll relief when Iverson, 33, and forward Rasheed Wallace, 34, come off the books, making the franchise a major free-agent player next summer (or, if it so chooses, in 2010, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may be available). "The cap situation is a bonus," said team president Joe Dumars, standing outside the locker room before Iverson's Pistons debut last Friday in New Jersey. "I absolutely would have done the deal [even without the cap relief]. This is a basketball decision."
After losing in the Eastern Conference finals in each of the last three seasons, Detroit is desperate for the energy Iverson will bring. But how well will the league's most-beloved rogue fit in with his new running mates? "We've created a culture that you're going to play tough defense, share the ball, and you want to win more than anything else," says Dumars. "Those are things we stand on and don't deviate from."
The 6-foot Iverson will need some time to upgrade his defensive approach. Last Friday the Pistons blew a 14-point lead as the Nets' Devin Harris torched Iverson and backup Rodney Stuckey for a career-best 38 points in a 103--96 upset. Afterward Iverson was forlorn. "A couple of times on defense I ran into another guy," he said. "It's [about] going back to the drawing board, getting into practice and trying to create some chemistry at both ends."
On offense, however, Iverson was his usual self, finishing with a team-high 24 points and six assists. His explosiveness changes the dynamics of a team that had grown too comfortable since winning the 2004 title. By pushing the ball, he'll get easy baskets in transition and create scoring space for teammates. Moreover, his ability to put his team in the bonus is often overlooked: Iverson averaged 9.7 free throw attempts last year (Billups led Detroit with 5.6), and he was 11 for 13 from the line against the Nets.
One red flag raised by rivals is whether Iverson can curtail his excessive dribbling, but in his quest for a ring he should be inclined to give up the ball earlier in the shot clock. On his first half-court possession last Friday, Iverson hit guard Rip Hamilton flashing baseline for an easy turnaround jumper, and he entered the fourth quarter with five assists and just four field goal attempts.
Still, the Pistons don't need AI to be solely a distributor. "I want him doing what he's done his whole career," says Detroit coach Michael Curry. "It's tough [being] a franchise player when your teams are not great and you're still required to carry [them]. You're not going to win unless you have better talent, [and] I think this is the best talent Allen has had around him."
The Pistons' immediate goal is to reestablish themselves as the top challenger to the Celtics in the East, but on Sunday they saw how wide the gap is between the two clubs. Boston took a big lead in the second quarter of their matchup at The Palace of Auburn Hills—holding Detroit to 10 points—and coasted to an 88--76 victory. Iverson, Hamilton and Wallace shot a combined 8 for 36.
It's far too early, however, to gauge Iverson's ultimate impact. "I'm as interested to see it unfold as anybody else," says Dumars. "You're taking a player who has been what he's been for so long, and you're putting him into the ultimate team situation. It should be compelling to see how it turns out."
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On Kings rookie forward Jason Thompson, the 12th pick in the draft, from Rider, who averaged 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds off the bench in his first five NBA games:
"In high school he was only 6'6" [as a junior] and perimeter-oriented, and when he grew to his current size [6'11" and 250 pounds], he retained all of those skills. He still needs to improve his shooting and he isn't a great jumper, but he's as fast as any frontcourt player in the NBA and faster than a lot of guards. He has unbelievable hands, his basketball IQ is off the charts, and he is a great passer. There are very few forwards his size who can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break—I'm talking about eight dribbles and then making the right pass in transition. He looks like the kind of guy who is not going to back down from anybody."
LOU CAPOZZOLA (IVERSON)
CHANGE OF PACE Detroit can play at a faster tempo with Iverson at the point.
ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (THOMPSON)