Commentary

Iverson no longer a solo act in Motown

Finding chemistry with Allen Iverson is difficult. Have the Pistons found The Answer?

Updated: January 8, 2009, 1:14 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Allen IversonStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAllen Iverson is doing what few thought was possible: He's taking a backseat in Detroit.
All you need to know about the essential and elusive nature of chemistry can be found in this clip of Paul McCartney and Jay-Z performing together at the 2006 Grammy Awards.

The performance starts off with Jay-Z and Linkin Park doing a mashup of their respective songs "Encore" and "Numb." That works pretty well. Then the music shifts to the Beatles classic "Yesterday," and when McCartney steps on stage at the 2:42 mark, everything gets as awkward as a blind date. Jay-Z seems like he desperately wants to impress McCartney. (He even wore a John Lennon T-shirt for the occasion.) But the rapper doesn't have the singing voice to lay down some harmony, so all he can do is say things like "Uh-huh, uh-huh" and "Yes, yes." Then he conducts an imaginary orchestra. McCartney spends most of his time ignoring him, but does shoot an occasional glance, trying to figure out what to make of Jay-Z while taking great pains not to offend him. Pairing icons of rap and rock seemed like a good idea at first. It failed because the chemistry didn't work.

The Detroit Pistons became the NBA's greatest chemistry experiment when they traded Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson in November. General manager Joe Dumars wanted to get with the trend of clearing salary cap space for the free-agent bonanza of 2010, only he couldn't sell a Knicks-like stripping of the roster to a fan base that has seen the Pistons reach the Eastern Conference finals for six consecutive years. It's not too often you can dump salary and get an eight-time All-Star and former MVP in return. Of course, there isn't a single player as difficult to incorporate into a new system as Iverson.

His most successful season in Philadelphia came after the Sixers got rid of Jerry Stackhouse, Derrick Coleman, Larry Hughes and Jim Jackson. They let Iverson have the offensive stage to himself, while everyone else played defense and grabbed rebounds. The experiment with Carmelo Anthony in Denver didn't work out. He dominated the ball too much, played at a speed no one else could keep up with, and didn't do enough to get everyone else involved.

[+] EnlargeRodney Stuckey
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesDealing Chauncey Billups for AI has opened the door for Rodney Stuckey to run point.
The Pistons lost their first two games with him and got off to a 7-9 start in the Iverson era. (It didn't help that the Nuggets took off with Billups and that George Karl was practically singing about how glad he was to have Iverson gone.) Rodney Stuckey wondered how he fit in the new scheme. Richard Hamilton saw his shots go from 18 per game at the start of the season to 14 per game in the next 13 after Iverson arrived.

"Yesterdayyyy, all my troubles seemed so far away …"

However, in mid-December, the Pistons' season became more like those lyrics and less like that disjointed Jay-Z-McCartney performance. Detroit won 10 out of 13. It won games even with Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace injured. Most surprising of all, the Pistons did it with Iverson sliding back to a secondary role, letting Stuckey and even Tayshaun Prince handle the ball more while Iverson shot at a lower frequency than at any point in his career.

"I feel like I understand my role a lot more than I did at first," Iverson said. "I understand that there's not going to be games that my team, night in and night out, needs me to score 30 points. It's a different adjustment for me. I averaged 30 points my whole career, and I'm under 20 points here. People think that's going to be something that's going to bother me. But I feel like the window of opportunity for me is still open. Especially being in this situation, I think it makes it that much more easier for me."

In short, Iverson is a Piston. That means no one stands above the rest, that everyone shares equally. Six players average in double figures. The go-to guy changes from game to game. And Iverson is just a part of the mix, off on the wing, waiting to get the ball, his game now much more side-to-side than straight to the basket. Coach Michael Curry's solution to the delicate guard issue is to use Iverson, Stuckey and Hamilton simultaneously. Iverson let Stuckey keep the No. 3 that had been part of Iverson's identity since high school, and he lets Stuckey handle the ball most of the time.

"I'm so happy that I don't have to run this team," Iverson said. "That's what the trade was made for, to get Rodney ready to go."

Well, it also was made because Iverson's contract expires at the end of this season, while Billups' goes through 2011. There is an outside hope that Iverson could help the Pistons get past the Celtics and Cavaliers, the last two teams to end their season. There's no indication yet that Detroit has surpassed them, but the Pistons did beat another top Eastern team, Orlando, during their seven-game winning streak that ended Wednesday in Portland. Boston's stumble created bigger headlines than Detroit's ascension over the past couple of weeks. Boston will be fine come playoff time. It's Detroit that warrants curiosity and scrutiny.

"AI, he's starting to get comfortable with us, we're starting to get comfortable with him," Stuckey said.

If Iverson is less spectacular, he's also more intriguing than he's been in a while. For a while he became so wrapped in controversy that we forgot about what he did right. He's the shortest player among the top 10 career scoring leaders. He was picking himself off the floor and signing up for more punishment long before Dwyane Wade made an ad campaign out of it.

[+] EnlargePistons
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesAllen Iverson is now just one of the guys.
His presence also makes the Pistons a more compelling story. They aren't just the same cast of characters we've been watching since 2004, give or take a Ben Wallace. And Iverson is trying to do what so many have said he could not: sacrifice for the good of the team. That presents a paradox: To get his place in history, he'll have to give up his place in history.

Coming into this season, Iverson had the third-highest scoring average of all time, 27.7 points per game, behind Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. If he keeps scoring at his current rate of 18 points per game, by the end of the season his career average will have dropped under 27, below Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and LeBron James.

It seems the older Iverson gets, the harder he is to define. His return to Denver on Friday isn't as easy to hype as his first game back in Philadelphia last season, when the crowd showered him with love and he kissed the 76ers logo at half court.

"So many years, so many memories," he said of the emotions that went into that night. "In Philly, I was so much younger and I had to grow. Being in Philly helped me to be the man that I am now, the ups and the downs, the learning experiences, the mistakes that I made, the things that I did right. After I left Philly I tried to carry all the good attributes that I had to the other places that I was going to end up being at. It's going to be a lot different than the Philly situation, but it's going to be special."

In retrospect, Denver was a good transition. He was asked to share the marquee with someone else, no longer the solo attraction. And now he's just another member of the cast, trying to see whether this mix will blend better than a Beatle and a rapper.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.