AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - You can say you love him or you can say you hate him. Allen Iverson always says there are about a million of you on each side.
You can say you miss him or you can say you're glad he's gone. But most of you will have this much in common: At 8 o'clock tonight, you'll tune in the 76ers-Detroit Pistons game. One way or another, you want another dose of A.I.
Allen Iverson is still a magnet. He can change uniforms; he's done that twice in 2 years, going from the Sixers to the Denver Nuggets to the Pistons. He can change jerseys; No. 3 with the Sixers and the Nuggets, No. 1 with the Pistons. But he remains an attraction. That might never change.
In a curious way, tonight's attractions include Iverson and what will almost certainly be an on-the-fly version of last season's running Sixers. That is because Elton Brand, the power forward brought in to be the low-post threat they hadn't had, remained at home with a strained right hamstring suffered in Wednesday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
And it is, after all, all about adjusting.
While Brand has struggled to find his way with a Sixers team unaccustomed to having a low-post player, at least Brand had a training camp with his new teammates. Iverson joined the Pistons in an in-season trade with the Nuggets for Chauncey Billups, a deal Larry Brown - who coached both players - described as "Marilyn Monroe for Jane Russell." (OK, OK, the rest of the NBA would have understood better had he said "Beyoncé Knowles for Penelope Cruz," but that's another story.)
Brand came to a young team that had just made it back to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, a team that seemed to need his specific skills around the basket; they need to adjust to him and, to this point, have had a difficult time doing that. Iverson came to a team that has reached the Eastern Conference finals the last six seasons, and in that stretch has been to the NBA Finals twice and won a championship; the Pistons are asking a four-time scoring champion, the player with the third-best career scoring average in history behind Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, to just fit in.
"I guess the burden to score is not as much as it used to be, but I'm the same guy on the basketball court; I play the same style," Iverson said after yesterday's practice, which finished with him tossing a football with young guard Rodney Stuckey, alternating between firing bullets, lofting long, perfect spirals across the spacious facility and snatching one return pass lefthanded, in a classic football pose.
His numbers are down, but that is by design. First-year coach Michael Curry let his veterans know in camp that they would be playing less, that some of the younger guys - Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson - would be playing more, and that they would all be better for it down the stretch and into the postseason. Iverson, who has prided himself on leading the league in minutes, is averaging 36.5 minutes, just 17.7 points (still a team high) and shooting a weak 39.8 percent from the floor.
He seems fine with a reduced (revised?) role, although Curry has made it clear there will be games when he will ask Iverson to resume being a dominant force.
"I've just got a lot better players around me, and that's not taking anything away from the guys I played with before," Iverson said. "It's just the chemistry is a lot better and the players are a lot better."
Later, he said: "I want to be the guy with the ball. I want to be the guy making the decisions, but that's not the case anymore. I have to adjust. I don't have a problem with it. I think the bigger picture is winning a championship."
In his 13th season, Iverson has been to the Finals once, leading the 2000-01 Sixers. He wouldn't be the first star to finish without a ring, but, at 33, time is running out.
"It's a time for him to look at how he fills his resume," said Sixers senior adviser Sonny Hill. "He has to be able to come up with a championship or be put in a category with Elgin Baylor, [Charles] Barkley, Karl Malone, to name a few. In the twilight of his career - and that's what's going on now - he needs to come to grips with that fact."
Iverson said the in-season adjustment has been more difficult for his family than for him. (He has five children and insisted yesterday that "I'm done.") But it's not that easy, either.
Curry wants his new guard to help create more opportunities in the paint and in transition and increase the number of free throw attempts.
"As good as we've been in the past, when you look at playoff games we've had a huge deficit in those areas," Curry said. "We've still been able to be good in the playoffs, but maybe not great. We want to be better when the games get tighter and you have to manufacture offense."
Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars made the trade because he believed that the team had gone as far as it could as it was constructed, that it needed something fresh. Despite giving up Billups, the risk is minimal. Iverson is making $20 million in the final season of his contract. If both Iverson and Rasheed Wallace become free agents, the Pistons can be $21 million under the salary cap, making them major players in the summer search for talent.
The Pistons are 7-6 with Iverson. Curry has at times used Tayshaun Prince as a point forward with some combination of Iverson, Rip Hamilton and Stuckey on the wings; other times, he has used Stuckey at the point, with Iverson or Hamilton at shooting guard and Prince at either small forward or power forward.
"Any time you add a dominant scorer that's a little different than how you play, it takes some adjustment," Curry said. "[Brand] is a guy who goes to the low block, demands the ball and is very effective doing that. Allen is a guy that demands the ball on the perimeter a lot; he scores more in a freelance-type setting. But when we have to play a halfcourt set, we have to be disciplined enough to do it. You're not bringing Elton Brand in to get him to adjust to playing up and down. We're not bringing Allen in to adjust to playing halfcourt basketball."
Iverson seems content with his situation. There appears to be none of the tension or negativity that smoldered during his final days with the Sixers; he seems to fit with this group better than he did with the Nuggets. Yes, Iverson skipped practice on Thanksgiving, but that didn't seem to have nearly the impact it almost certainly would have had in Philadelphia.
"There are probably four, five guys who would say, 'You know what, [on Thanksgiving], I ain't coming, I ain't coming,' " said the Chicago Bulls' Larry Hughes, a teammate of Iverson with the Sixers. "But if there's one guy who would say he's not coming and doesn't come, it's him."
If you're a teammate, Hughes said, "You understand. There are just some things he's going to do. That's just one of them. They kind of know [his] history, too. They move on."
"It wasn't anything, really," Curry said. "It was no different than when other guys have missed a workout or been late for something. We fine him, we talk about it and we move on."
Sixers guard Willie Green, who has seen similar episodes, said, "I take the positives with Allen."
"He's left a great legacy as a hard-working player," Green said. "Sometimes he's just him, though. I think that's why Philly embraced him the way they did. He's a strong-minded person; the thing we can say about him is, every game he gives you his all. A guy like that, you've got to love him. He reminds me of Charles Barkley a little bit, just outspoken and things of that nature. That's A.I. He's going to be A.I."
Make no mistake, there are games in which Curry is going to want the A.I. who is in the record books.
"The hardest part is incorporating him into a really good team," Curry said. "There are certain things he brings to the table we really need. There are certain things he's done in the past we don't really need him to do here. It's definitely an adjustment for him. It's an adjustment for our guys."
The adjustment, Sixers backup center Theo Ratliff said, goes beyond that. Ratliff was a teammate of the younger, even more headstrong version of Iverson and finished last season with the Pistons.
"A lot of people don't understand that when you change teams you change the whole atmosphere of what you're used to," Ratliff said. "When you get traded in midseason, it's like another life. You're used to having your life a certain way, in a certain place. You have your whole routine and all of a sudden you've got to try to figure it out all over again."
But at whatever point Iverson is asked to go out and dominate, he firmly believes he can step seamlessly into that role.
"I'm a scorer," he said. "Simple as that. That's what I can do. Whenever I'm needed, that's what I'll do."
You never know. Could be tonight. *
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