Despite winning two Big East Defensive Player of the Year Awards at Georgetown, Allen Iverson was not very good on defense in the NBA. He could not guard players straight up so he gambled a lot and racked up a bunch of steals. Iverson was a problem for your defense whether he was on your team or the other one.
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Allen Iverson on Defense: Stats
Some people remember Allen Iverson as a dominant defender because they remember his Georgetown days when he stole everything that was not locked down and they saw a lot of NBA highlights where he was stealing the ball too.
Others remember the Allen Iverson of “we talkin’ about practice”. They insist he was no good at anything.
One way to cut through the haze of memories and conflicting stories about former players’ skills is to look to advanced statistics.
Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions.
When taken together, these statistics can give us a fair and unbiased look at Iverson’s career on defense. They are not perfect – advanced stats give us a much better look at offense than defense. But they are also completely unbiased and not beholden to memory.
Allen Iverson’s advanced statistics on defense show him to be fairly limited. They are not awful, but they are not great either.
Individual Skill defensive statisticsEmbed from Getty Images
Allen Iverson was too short to block shots or get many rebounds in the NBA. His stats support this obvious conclusion.
Iverson’s defensive rebounding percentage was 8.1% for his career. This is quite similar to other short guys I have looked at.
Iverson’s block percentage was low .3%. He could not block shots in the NBA.
What he could do was steal the ball. Iverson led the league in steals 3 times in his career. He finished his career with a 2.7% career steal percentage, good for 32nd all time. This is good and possibly great. I don’t think it is quite good enough to make up for some of AI’s other weaknesses however.
Also, some claim that many of Iverson’s steals were gotten with reckless gambling. I’ll mostly set that aside for now to focus on the stats only.
But it is worth considering if the one thing Iverson was great at on D was actually a liability for his teams. That would say something about his contributions on defense, and what it says is not good!
Overall advanced defensive statistics
While steal percentage, block percentage and defensive rebounding percentage all try to measure a player’s ability at one defensive skill, other stats try to measure a player’s overall contribution to his team on defense.
Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. A.I. finished with a 106 rating.
I like to add context so let me throw in some great guards from this era: Kobe finished with a 105, T-Mac had a 104 while Ray Allen finished with a 108. None of those is very good by the way. Allen was a bad defender while T-Mac may have been a bit underrated. Kobe was likely way overrated.
Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team.
Iverson’s number is not good here either: -.2 That means he was below average. I’ll do some more physically fair comparisons below, but a couple of similar time comparisons are Vince Carter at 0.0 and Tracy McGrady at .5.
Defensive wins shares is a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. Iverson does okay here: 38.1 DWS puts him 117th all time.
Defensive win shares can be a tricky stat to look at for careers. There is no doubt that the all-time top twenty players in NBA career DWS are considered great on defense: players like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were clearly dominant on D.
But the lower you go on the career DWS list, you start to run into poor defenders who piled up numbers with long careers with a lot of playing time.
So Iverson’s career defensive win shares don’t tell me too much. Easily the worst defender I’ve written about was Dominique Wilkins. His reputation was terrible and he has by far the worst career advanced defensive statistics of anyone I’ve researched.
But ‘Nique had 35.1 DWS finishing 141st all time – not that far behind A.I. So this does not bolster Iverson’s case on D as much as you’d think.
How do Allen Iverson’s defensive stats compare to other shorter players?
It would be easy to say that comparing Iverson to taller players like Vince Carter and T-Mac is unfair. Even if they have similarly poor stats, at least those guys could turn it on and guard players straight up in key moments or big games like the playoffs.
Iverson mostly could not do that because of his real size disadvantage. A.I. was 6’0’. In the table below I compare him to two other shorter players I’ve written about. John Stockton was 6’1” while Muggsy Bogues was the shortest player to ever play in the NBA at 5’3”.
As you can see, Iverson had nowhere near the career stats of John Stockton, a player I considered limited on defense in some ways but still an all-time great. I called him possibly the greatest short-guy defender in the history of the league.
Muggsy Bogues was a different story. His career was amazing but he had limits that kept him from ever being considered a truly great defender. It was incredible that he was in the league at all at his size.
You’ll notice that Iverson’s career stats are way closer to Muggsy Bogues than they were to John Stockton’s. Ultimately, Iverson was a flawed defender.
Like Muggsy, he could steal the ball. Both did so enough to make them at least playable on defense. But Bogues had a reputation as a warrior on defense and the ultimate pest. We’ll look into Iverson’s reputation on defense below, but suffice to say it was not quite the same as Muggsy’s.
Did people think Allen Iverson was a good defender while he was playing?Embed from Getty Images
Iverson, despite his own protests about it in retirement, never made any NBA All-Defensive teams.
I bring this up for a very important reason. It’s not because I trust the voters. Kobe made it 12 times and he was often not even the best defender on his team.
But that is my point. If you are good, or great, on offense and even pretty decent on D, you will often get voted on to one of the defensive teams. This makes sense because it can be really hard to easily quantify defense.
And the voters are media members from around the league who can’t watch every game -they see the games against “their” team and the ones on national tv.
A player who is great offensively and puts up the steals Allen Iverson did often get some misplaced recognition. The fact that he did not speaks volumes.
Iverson was viewed as a star player who rested on D regularly like other ball dominant stars of his day did. Iverson admitted on some post-career podcasts to coasting at times and relying on other players like Aaron McKie to play the defense.
When he was giving great effort on defense, it was jumping in passing lanes and even straight-up gambling for steals.
Iverson was not big enough to lock down players one-on-one. So when he was going all out on D, it was often in a way that actually hurt the team in some ways.
He did have a good feel for the game and could jump passing lanes well. But when he really got going on defense, he tended to overdue it and actually hurt the team by scrambling too much to get steals.
Iverson had similarities to Muggys Bogues in many ways. They were both great at stealing the ball but were too small for traditional defense.
A difference was that Muggsy had a reputation for hard-nosed defense and battling one-on-one even when outmatched while Iverson had a reputation for coasting a bit and chasing steals.
Even the steals point out a difference: players were afraid to dribble around Muggsy because he would get it from them with even one loose dribble while Iverson got most of his steals while swooping into passing lanes.
There is certainly something to be said for that type of defense, but, ultimately, most coaches will say defense is about position. All too often, Iverson gave that position up when he was doing what he did best.
And there were key elements of defense – one-on-one D, shot-blocking, rebounding – that he simply could not do.
Summary: Allen Iverson on Defense
Allen Iverson has fairly pedestrian career defensive statistics that show he was, at best, an average defender. Iverson gambled for steals and gave up good positioning often on defense. He was a high energy player, but he also had a reputation for coasting on defense like many stars who dominated the ball in his era.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.