Dame versus AI (Part 2)

Isaac O'Neill
Apr 9, 2021 · 16 min read

In Part 1, we delved into the team success that Allen Iverson and Damian Lillard have contributed to their respective teams. To me, it’s a starting point to show how underrated Lillard is overall. I am hyper-aware of the fact that Iverson’s impact can not necessarily be captured by box score metrics. As a Kyle Lowry stan, I am familiar with the notion that no stat tells the whole story. I am also aware stats can be manipulative, both positively and negatively. Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant are two guys with very impressive statistics that will probably boost their historic stature in the long term, much as Wilt Chamberlain’s have.

Guys like Iverson, Westbrook, Lowry, etc. are the ones who move down lists as Karl, Kobe, and Wilt move up. I was a little too young to remember Iverson in his true prime, and so I’m not able to rhapsodize about him the way many do. I’m also not the type of person to immediately jump on the bandwagon of the next new fad, in any sense. I still have Michael Jordan #1 all time, I still have Kawhi outside the top 30, it took me a while to move Curry from the top 30 into top 25, and now top 20.

I am trying to come from an objective place in order to see the stats outside of the narratives. I think there is a lot to draw from our SRS article and our Part 1 examination, but there can still be a lot of noise surrounding team statistics, with player turnover vastly affecting chemistry and outcomes year to year. Here we will compare individual numbers to see if the disparity on our top 100 between the two undersized guards is accurate or overblown.

Iverson had a relatively short stint of greatness. Although Lillard has improved every year he’s been in the league, its hard to imagine given his size that he continues this upward trend for much longer. Dame has 6 All-Stars currently (5+the 2016 Kobe year), and 7 All-Star caliber seasons — conservatively — when balancing for conferences. Iverson has 11 All-Stars (all consecutive), and given the continued volatility of the West — with guards such as Booker, Morant, Fox, Mitchell, Murray, and others on the way up — I’d take the under on the 29 year old Lillard eclipsing that mark.

We’ll primarily refer to their 6 year peaks, a period of time long enough to etch out a Hall of Fame career, even without a championship or Finals run. Lillard’s stretch is obvious — we’ll use his last 6 years. For AI, we’ll use 1999-00 to 2004-05, the stretch where the Sixers found the most playoff success under his lead. It also happens to be both of their age 24–29 stretches, basically the traditional prime. You already know the level of consistent excellence Dame has managed these past 6 years.

If you’re having trouble remembering, Iverson made First Team All-NBA in the 1998–99 season in the 50-game lockout season, a season I was not keen on including. Over the time frame we are examining, AI made two First-Teams and three Second Teams. He missed out on All-NBA entirely in 2003–04, as he missed 34 games related to injuries, team suspensions, and a feud with Sixers coach Chris Ford. The Sixers even missed out on the playoffs entirely. So his numbers do take a hit from a poor season, but it is a prime season nonetheless, and should be factored in. Iverson made his final All-NBA appearance the next year, with a Third-Team spot, a season in which the Sixers again failed to make the playoffs.

Using this table showing statistics from Basketball Reference, there aren’t a lot of stats complimentary to AI. Over his 6 year peak, he average 1 more point per 100 possessions than Lillard (36.5 to 35.4). Yet Lillard’s offensive rating is 118 to Iverson’s 102, and Lillard’s offensive Offensive BPM is 6.3 (5th in the league over that stretch) to Iverson’s 3.8 (14th in the league).

Lillard’s efficiency is clearly better. We won’t hold the 3 point numbers against Iverson too much, since that was not his game, nor the style of the day. But his 3 point number were inefficient nonetheless. This is also reflected in Iverson’s True Shooting Percentage — a paltry 50% — landing him 51st in the league over that period, for players who played 60 games/season, averaged 25 MPG, and owned a usage rate of 22% (a reasonable bar for a solid starter). Lillard, on the other hand, has a TS% of 59% over the last 6 years, good enough for 13th in the league using the same criteria.

I’ll provide one more statistic. Win Shares/48 minutes (WS/48), is a stat that tries to estimate the number of wins a player contributes to their team, per 48 minutes (versus Win Shares, which is a volume stat summing up a players total impact over the course of a given season). The league average for WS/48 is 0.100. The average WS/48 among every All-Star season since 1980 is 0.173. Over his 6 year peak, AI averaged 0.130 Win Shares/48 minutes. That ranks as the 35th best average overall in those years (adjusting for MPG, GP, and USG%). In the last 6 years, Lillard has averaged 0.196 WS/48, ranking 13th in the league. Among the just over 1000+ All-Star nominations that have been awarded since 1980, 0.130 WS/48 stands at the 824th best. If you remove Iverson’s tumultuous 03–04 season from the average, it bumps up to 0.139, still only good for the 779th overall.

AI’s best WS/48 season is 0.190, in his 2001 MVP season. 0.190 is not an overwhelming score either. A flaw of Win Shares is that it can inflate lesser players on good teams, but for an MVP candidate in a historically bad conference, I’m unsure what excuse to look for. The average WS/48 for the top 500 All-Star seasons is 0.212. You’d expect a player of AI’s stature — an MVP widely considered to be a top 50 player of all time — to find his way in that list.

None of these stats in isolation are particularly helpful, but I think given the above table, provided with context relative to the rest of the league, a picture begins to crystallize.

It’s easy to make the case that because Iverson was carrying such a heavy load for his underwhelming 76ers squad, his efficiency numbers suffered. It’s true Iverson boasts some of the highest MPG and Usage Rates of all time. He owns 3 of the 20 highest usage rate seasons ever, as well as the highest rate over 2000–2005, beating the next highest player out by 4%. He owns 8 of the 20 highest MPG averages in single seasons since 1980. But anyone who’s watched the Blazers knows how reliant they are on Lillard as well. He has USG% of 29.9%, tied for 7th in the league. Usage percentage can be defined as estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. A more accurate metric might be BackPicks’ Load statistic.

Load, or Offensive Load, is an estimate of the number of a player a player is “directly involved” in on offense every 100 possessions. When comparing the loads of Iverson and Lillard, they are 53 and 49 respectively. 53 (out of 100 possessions) is a lot, no doubt. In Iverson’s MVP campaign, he averaged a load of 52. This was drastically more than the other four players that rounded out the top five of the MVP vote. In terms of loads among top five MVP candidates in 2001 — along with Iverson — there was Duncan (23), Shaq (28.5), Webber (25.5), and Garnett (21.8). Interestingly, Lillard’s load this past season was actually slightly higher than Iverson’s 2001 season, logging a 52.5. However, this was only good enough for 7th in the league, behind Doncic (63.5), Young (60.7), Harden (59.6), Giannis (57.6), LeBron (56.7), and Beal (53.4).

The game has evolved in many ways since Iverson’s heyday, but offenses that entirely revolve around a singular star are far more normal than they were in 2001. The differences in various usage numbers need to be taken with that grain of salt, of course, but it still does not excuse Iverson’s efficiency rates as much as his biggest fans would like.

As an aside, it’s an interesting conversation as to whether or not Iverson would be better in today’s game. Nowadays, an AI-centric team would stretch the floor and work around Iverson’s ferocious rim attacks. He would likely function very much like the Russell Westbrook we see today. We now know how efficient two (or three) free throws are, and given the low scoring of the league during Iverson’s prime, his 12 FT attempts per 100 are extremely impressive. But these heliocentric offenses that revolve around a sole player rely on very high-level passing, something that Iverson did not have. We’ve also seen Westbrook struggle due to poor outside shooting, a problem AI would likely share. Defensive liabilities as severe as Iverson are also fewer and farther between in today’s age. Offenses are better than ever at exploiting those matchups, not so coincidentally behind the emphasis in perimeter skills.

Using more advanced Backpicks numbers, not much changes. Next to Lillard, AI’s ScoreVal and Box Creation remain weaker, along with his PlayVal and Passer Rating. His Real True Shooting (rTS%), is also similarly rough next to Dame’s.

To play devil’s advocate, we’re not here to just cherry pick stats to favour Lillard. Box Creation is an estimate of the number of open shots created for teammates (per 100 possessions). It is a statistic I really like because if you’re on a good team, the goal of any system is to find open, efficient shots. In the post-Moreyball era, teams have become more reliant on their stars than ever before. With the advent of spacing and 3 point shooting, teams are finding more open shots than ever. So Box Creation is very useful within a year or era, but it does not work well across them, as the factors listed above have drastically changed what is a reasonable number of open shots per 100. Iverson’s 7.6 Box Creation during his 2001 season would rank 38th this past season. Yet, among top 5 MVP finishers and All-NBA guards, he ranks 2nd out of 9 in 2001 (that list includes Duncan, Shaq, Webber, Garnett, Kidd, Kobe, T-Mac, Allen, Payton). So again, certain metrics need to be taken with a grain of salt, but the point of this exercise is to see if the current historical disparity between the two guards is fitting or not.

If you want to narrow it down to say Iverson’s shorter term ceiling was higher, again not much changes to change the case of Lillard.

And though I hesitate to blaspheme such a hallowed season, dare I say that Lillard’s 2019–20 season is similarly impressive to Iverson’s ’01 MVP season in many ways.

That is looking at statistics alone, before you factor in the injuries suffered by the Blazers, as well as the Hobbesian climate of the West. The Blazers final standing undoubtedly hurt Lillard’s chances of cracking the top five. There’s no one I’m quick to replace him with in the top five, but his season was certainly worthy of a spot in it, even pre-bubble. He was even worthy of an analysis positing him as perhaps the most prolific offensive player in the NBA.

At the same time, I’m not sure there’s anybody that would have made the case for Lillard as the rightful MVP this past season. It’s such a tough line to tow, trying not to judge a player too much for the players surrounding him. Giannis and the Bucks had a historically good season. Harden’s numbers, even deflated to a regular team that isn’t entirely catered to him, are jaw dropping. LeBron and Davis were as reliable as ever as they rolled to a 60-win pace and excellent 6.28 SRS.

By the same token, Iverson’s case isn’t cut and dry, but I definitely see how voters got there. Shaq’s scoring numbers are otherworldly but he was coming off a title and MVP. That coupled with the obvious reality he wasn’t putting his best foot forward in the regular season, he was not a sexy narrative to win. The Spurs team-oriented style of play probably turned off certain voters from him, even with such a strong season. Webber and Garnett’s numbers hold up well, but it goes without saying Garnett had no chance toiling away in Minnesota.

The Sixers won 56 games and posted a legitimately solid 3.63 SRS, spearheaded by Iverson. Both Duncan and Shaq had solid cases as well as you can see. In terms of team performance, the Spurs had 58 wins but an extremely impressive 7.92 SRS. The Lakers won 56 games, but only logged a 3.74 SRS point differential. It also feels worth mentioning that the Kings, Jazz, Mavs, and Blazers all posted SRS’s of 4.5 or higher, indicating they would have strongly contended for first place in the East.

As emphasized in Part 1, the Blazers numbers are far more impressive over Dame’s prime in comparison to Iverson’s during his when adjusting for conference. But the 2020 Blazers this year, posted a -0.61 SRS, in part because of injuries to Nurkic, Collins, and Hood. The West was still deep this past year with many teams vying for the playoffs. But it was not quite as top heavy, or deep to bottom (like it will be next year), as in years past.

I am still of the opinion that stats don’t tell the whole story. Not everything Iverson did for his team is captured in these statistics. Even with the 1 year peaks being closer than I expected, Iverson deserves credit for taking the Sixers to the Finals. The Pyramid is not just a list on who was the best. We try and rank greatness, which is an encapsulation of achievement and accolades as well.

Regardless of the numbers and opponents, Lillard has never had a playoff performance results-wise comparable to Iverson’s ’01 campaign. There isn’t a great way to compare them in that respect. Instead, let’s take a look at the broader achievement of their best four playoff runs each.

For Iverson, these include numbers from 2000–2003. The Sixers lost in 2nd, 4th, 1st, and 2nd round. For Lillard we’re using ’16, ’17, ’19, and ’20 — avoiding the Blazers embarrassing performance versus the Pelicans in 2018. In these years, the Blazers lost in the 2nd round, 1st round, 3rd round, and 1st round (with the first three losses against the Warriors).

Comparing these statistics — even factoring weaker competition — show Iverson’s ability to elevate his game in the playoffs. As much as I’m inclined to give Iverson credit for the pure results of the 2001 run, I still feel obligated to mention the asterisks I feel surround it.

In Round 1 The 76ers took care of business and beat the 8th seed Pacers 3–1 in a best-of-five. In Round 2, they faced the Vince Carter led Toronto Raptors. Vince Carter missed a buzzer beating shot in Game 7 to advance — which allowed the Sixers to move on. The reality is, that Raptors team wasn’t all that good. Their starting roster including Chris Childs (33 — retired 2 years later), Alvin Williams (career average of 9/4), Vince Carter, Antonio Davis (in an All-Star season), and a washed up Charles Oakley (37). This is not a team that had any business being in a game seven with a 1-seed with the MVP winner, let alone having a shot to win the game.

The Sixers advanced to play the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks finished 52–30, four games back of the 76ers, and 2nd overall in the East. Ray Allen finished tied for 11th in MVP voting — putting up 22/5/5, shooting 43% on 5.7 3PA. He also had his best TS% season as a lead player, shooting 61%. Allen was flanked by Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, along with the big man Scott Williams and guard Lindsey Hunter. At a glance, they are the more well rounded team to me, even if the Sixers had the best player in the series in Iverson.

What must be noted is the reality this is considered to be one of the most suspect series in NBA history, behind the 2002 Lakers-Kings WCF, and the 2006 Mavs-Heat Finals. Few believed going in, and even fewer after, that the league preferred the reserved Ray Allen led Bucks in the Finals versus the electric nature of the Iverson led Sixers.

According to an old article from Bill Simmons himself, here’s what transpired;

To briefly recap, Philly’s wins in Games 1 and 4 swung on a controversial lane violation and two egregious no-calls. The Sixers finished with advantages of 186–120 in free throws, 12–3 in technicals and 5–0 in flagrant fouls. Glenn Robinson, one of Milwaukee’s top-two scorers, didn’t even attempt a free throw until Game 5. Bucks coach George Karl and star Ray Allen were fined a combined $85,000 after the series for claiming the NBA rigged it. In that game, Milwaukee’s best big man, Scott Williams, was charged with a flagrant foul but not thrown out, only to be suspended, improbably, for Game 7.

Philly stole a must-win Game 4 in Milwaukee despite an atrocious performance from Iverson (10-for-32 shooting), helped by a 2-to-1 free-throw advantage and a host of late calls. How one-sided was it? When an official called a harmless touch foul to send Sam Cassell to the line with two seconds left and the Bucks trailing by seven (maybe the all-time we-need-to-pad-the-free-throw-stats-so-they-don’t-seem-so-lopsided-afterward call)….The real loser was Allen, who exploded for 190 points in the series, including a record nine three pointers in do-or-die Game 6.

There is no doubt Iverson had an excellent Game 7 performance — scoring 44 points, and going 4/6 from deep. If you look at his stats from the series, they’re hard to read. He averaged 30/7 at 46 MPG. But AI’s TS% was 43%, on 38% usage. Many would argue that Iverson needed to play like that to even keep the Sixers relevant in the series, but I just can’t shake the feeling that sharing the ball in a smart manner would have been more efficient. Coaching can be blamed for a good portion of that, but it seems pretty clear the refs needed to do a little nudging in one direction to bolster Philly’s chances. And that is versus a Milwaukee team that is hardly worth of the “Conference Finals caliber team” moniker either.

The Sixers had relatively easy opponents, and probably underperformed as a team with a perennial MVP candidate. It’s clear, however, Iverson was still doing a lot for his team. His Game 7 performance was historic, but the numbers from the series are not astonishingly impressive to me. Many players could score 30 points on 43% True Shooting if given the opportunity.

Iverson’s claim to fame beating one of the greatest teams ever assembled in Game 1 of the NBA Finals is also noteworthy. But do I really want to hang my entire defense on a couple games? Or is it wiser to look at the broader resume, and context of the career,

The Blazers are no exception to asterisks, they made the Conference Finals in a weaker year, barely beating a stumbling Nuggets team. But they also didn’t have their second best player in the series, as Jusuf Nurkic was injured. That evens things out in my mind. Lillard was embarassed by Anthony Davis and the Pelicans squad in 2018. Iverson is the ultimate eye test guy, but I think Lillard is just as impressive in that respect. He’s probably the best pick-and-roll player in the league, and can take shots players of Iverson’s era hadn’t even conceived of. His poise and maturity guides the Blazers during every play he’s on the floor. He has gotten better every. single. year.

I do not have the BackPicks statistics from the playoffs to compare the greater impact on teammates year to year; I imagine the numbers between the guards are closer together, rather than leaning Lillard, given the difficult competition Lillard is tasked with facing on a yearly basis. We can hypothesize what Lillard would have done in Iverson’s place (in terms of conference, team, era, etc.), and we can lament the Blazers troubles versus other Western juggernauts. But Iverson’s accomplishments are what they are and deserve proper credit. I do think it will cause a slight re-evaluation of the two guards’ standing on our Pyramid, but Iverson stans need not worry about us picking him apart to the point we’re comparing him to Dennis Schroeder or Terry Rozier.

These articles are to explore and compare stats in a historical context, and make us think about how deserving players are of their general historical standing. Iverson and Lillard are two of the more exciting players of their eras, and I’m sure the well of conversations and debates surrounding their legacies will not run dry anytime soon. I tend to be quite conservative in throwing new players onto the pyramid, but it’s hard to prevent Lillard from continually climbing, even without deep playoff runs.

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The Bench Connection

The Bench Connection is about looking closely to see the big picture. We cut through the myths and deconstruct the narratives that affect how we look at the NBA, past and present. We leave no stone unturned and no brick untossed.

Isaac O'Neill

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The Bench Connection

The Bench Connection is about looking closely to see the big picture. We cut through the myths and deconstruct the narratives that affect how we look at the NBA, past and present. We leave no stone unturned and no brick untossed.