I had the privilege of working with NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond over the weekend, and we got to talking about Allen Iverson, which figures because Iverson is the talk of the league these days.
We chatted about how good Iverson is and where he might end up now that the Philadelphia 76ers have decided to trade him. Then, Thurmond said something that struck me.
“If you look at smaller players who have played in the NBA,” Thurmond said, “you’ll find that they don’t tend to play very long. There’s a lot of wear and tear on small guys.”
So, I started to take a look at some of the league’s best smallish players over the years, such as Nate Archibald, Kevin Johnson, Bob Cousy, Guy Rodgers, Tim Hardaway, Mookie Blaylock, Mark Price … even Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb.
Turns out, Thurmond was on the money. There is nuance to this, but by and large, most of the league’s little guys tend to play between 800 and a thousand NBA games, and their careers seem to decline rather quickly in later years. Injuries were a factor for most of these players.
Former Jazz point guard John Stockton is the exception, having played more than 1,500 games. But as nails as Stockton was, he was bigger and stronger than Iverson, and coach Jerry Sloan always was careful about his minutes.
Point is this: Unless Iverson defies history and odds, he likely can play at his current level for only another year or two. And don’t forget, Iverson is slighter than almost all of these guys and probably plays more recklessly than any of them did.
The team that acquires Iverson should count on him only through the length of his contract, which expires at the end of the 2008-09 season. At that time, Iverson’s main worth to a team will be less his game and more his ability to give salary cap relief.
Any team considering trading one or more of its youngish players and/or a draft pick for Iverson better allow for the possibility that two or three years from now it is left with a hobbling Iverson while one of its own is flourishing on some other coast or on some other team.
Then again, Iverson has defied the odds already. He hasn’t quite been an iron man, but he’s awfully durable for 10 NBA seasons. He plays with a fearlessness that few can match, and aches and pains rarely sideline him.
He will likely change the mentality and image of the team he goes to. He might even be able to transform a mentally fragile team into a strong one.
But he’s played almost 700 games, not including another 62 playoff games. How many more big-time performances does he have left? It’s not his heart we worry about. It’s history.
Matt Steinmetz is the NBA insider for Warriors telecasts on Fox Sports Net.