ALLEN IVERSON is on the verge of becoming the player he said he never wanted to be - the aging veteran whose declining skills are making him a shell of the great player he used to be.

On Sunday, the Detroit Pistons beat the Celtics, 105-95, in Boston for their first victory of the season over the NBA champions.

That might not be so significant, had the Pistons not done it without Iverson, who was suffering from back spasms.

To make matters worse, or better, depending on your viewpoint, the Pistons ended an eight-game losing streak on Friday by winning at Orlando, with Iverson returning to Detroit for treatment on his injured back.

For the Pistons, that's consecutive victories on the homecourt of two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference without Iverson, who will miss tonight's game against Denver as he has his back examined in Washington, D.C.

"We've played our best ball when we've had guys out," Pistons coach Michael Curry told reporters after the Boston game. "When we have all our components, we still have got to find a way to play the exact way we played this game - the way we focused on what we were doing defensively, the way we shared the ball on the offensive end.

"We were good. We didn't stay on one side of floor. A lot of times, the secondary guys got the shot. Guys were moving the ball, they were willing passers. We took care of the basketball and gave ourselves a good chance on the offensive end."

If you close your eyes, can't you picture Larry Brown mouthing Curry's words?

The only thing Curry didn't do was invoke Brown's catch phrase of "playing the right way."

The Pistons are a better "team" without Iverson. Their style without him is much closer to the type that took them to six consecutive Eastern Conference finals.

I understand why Detroit general manager Joe Dumars sent All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups to Denver for Iverson only four games into the season. The Pistons were run over by the Celtics in the conference finals and, as configured, didn't look as if they would fare much better this season.

The move for Iverson was a double-down play.

Short term, the dynamic Iverson might provide the superstar burst that would put the Pistons on par with Boston. If not, then Iverson's expiring contract would provide relief to a salary cap that otherwise would have been tied up by the remaining years of Billups' contract.

Depending on what the Pistons can do with that freed-up money this summer, the long-range option might have greater success than the short range did.

When the Pistons acquired Iverson, they were 4-0, but lost their first two games with him. Detroit is 22-28 in the 50 games Iverson started. The Pistons are 3-1 when he doesn't start and now 6-0 in games he hasn't played.

After last night's Sixers loss, the Pistons (29-29) are sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. Their decline just adds to the long-held belief that Brown was the only coach who could succeed with Iverson, because he was the only one willing to build a complete team that catered to Iverson's unique individual talents.

Iverson's experiences in Denver and Detroit also debunk the notion that the only reason he didn't win a championship in Philadelphia is because the Sixers never surrounded him with enough talent.

Maybe the Sixers' lack of a title had as much to do with Iverson as it did with guys such as Jerry Stackhouse, Toni Kukoc, Matt Harpring, Keith Van Horn, Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber, who all seemingly forgot how to play basketball when teamed with Iverson.

Iverson has been traded twice in the past three seasons, and, in both cases, the teams getting rid of him got the better of the deal.

After acquiring Andre Miller for Iverson in December 2006, the Sixers turned their season around and made the playoffs.

Despite teaming Iverson with Camelo Anthony, the Nuggets never became a legitimate contender in the West. Since acquiring Billups for Iverson this season, Denver has improved from middle-of-the-pack to third-best record in the West.

Iverson is on pace to average below 20 points for the first time and finish nearly 10 points off his career average of 27.1. His shooting percentage of .419 is one of the lowest of his career and his 5.1 assists are his lowest average since the 1999-2000 season.

When Iverson returns to health, he likely will come off the bench, and might be further down it than anyone expects. This summer, when Iverson becomes an unrestricted free agent, he is unlikely to command more than the veteran's exception for a contract. Allen Iverson isn't yet a journeyman player, but he's moving in that direction.

Once, a long time ago, he said he would rather retire than become just another player in the NBA. *

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