NBA / Mar 7, 2014 / 2:15 pm

Who Was Better: Allen Iverson Or Gary Payton?

Allen Iverson

Allen Iverson (photo. Reebok)

On the surface, no two players were more polar opposites than Allen Iverson and Gary Payton. It was easy to fault AI for his low-efficiency shooting nights, his off-court habits and his disdain for practice just as it was simple to laud the Glove as the greatest defensive point guard ever. But honestly, the two players are more comparable than you think.

Today, we’re doing just that. With Iverson finally getting his jersey retired in Philly, he’s joining rare air, a place Payton already resides. And so we’re asking, who was better: Iverson or Payton? We argue. You decide.

*** *** ***

I had three players I loved growing up. They were Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. I loved MJ because, quite simply, he was MJ. I loved Vince for his aerial assaults and swagger he bought over to the cities of Toronto and Jersey. I loved Allen Iverson because he was the answer to every small kid who dared to drive in the paint and challenge every big body possible.

You see, with A.I., he gave hope to every kid who lacked the height or frame to compete. Allen Iverson exuded the gall and mental fortitude of three Goliaths when he pounced on his adversaries. The pugnacious kid from Virginia’s style of play reflected his upbringing. His grit powered him to the basket at will. Yes, his body was a walking canvas for his innumerable tattoos. Yes, his attitude led to a barrage of insults aimed at him. We could talk about Allen Iverson’s off-the-court issues all day. But, I guarantee you, it wouldn’t match his Hall of Fame status on the court.

Allen Iverson is arguably the best scoring guard EVER. At a meager 6-0, he defied the unthinkable every time he walked on to a basketball court. With infinite crossovers at his disposal, he duped his defenders with ease each possession. His defining moment came in his rookie year when he went toe-to-toe with MJ. Phil Jackson called on Mike to defend. What happened? Allen Iverson shook the basketball world with his shifty crossovers, which stunned Jordan, and then iced him with a straightaway jumper.

Iverson epitomized a die-hard scorer. He was a maestro with the ball. His poignant ballhandling skills enabled him to either slice and dice his defenders and go for the pull-up jimmy, or bob and weave his way to the cup.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Carl, that unconventional style of play shouldn’t be praised.” In actuality, Allen Iverson’s aberrant play is what led him to be the NBA Rookie of the Year in ’96-97, where he averaged 23.5 PPG. That style of play is what made him an 11-time All-Star. That style of play won him the scoring title four times. That style of play shifted the culture and gave smaller guards a certain confidence they didn’t possess back then.

Besides Isiah Thomas and Timmy Hardaway, Allen Iverson was the only other guard 6-0 or under capable of obliterating his competition on a regular basis. Should I remind you that he took a talent-depleted Sixers team to the Finals in ’01–the same year when he won the regular season MVP? In addition, he scorched the Lakers for a blistering 48 points in Game 1 of the Finals, while annihilating Tyronn Lue. If you’re the type enamored with numbers and stats, I’ll dish some out to you. Allen Iverson finished his career averaging 26.7 points a game and finished his career with 24,368 points. Allen Iverson averaged over 30 PPG five times in his career. If that’s not mind-boggling enough, A.I. averaged 29.7 points in the playoffs during his career. For you haters who ponder how many playoffs games he played, the number is 71.

I love GP with a passion, but he wasn’t as complete as A.I. Just like Gary, Iverson was scrappy as well. He led the league in steals for three consecutive seasons. Granted, Iverson was a shoot-first player, but he also was a great playmaker when he had to be. He dished over six dimes a game in his career with his career-high coming in ’04-05 when he averaged 7.9 assists a game.

I didn’t even mention the cultural impact Allen Iverson had on the game. From the cornrows, to the sleeves, to the commercials where he dabbled in rap, to throwback jerseys he wore during his press conferences, this man was one of the few game-changers in NBA history. The man dropped bars and buckets whenever, wherever. I doubt we’ll ever find another AI. Yet it’s good to dream.

Keep reading to hear the argument for the Glove…

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  • Onaje

    AI easy…Give AI Shawn Kemp (a true running mate) and he would have had an even better playoff record.

    AI is routinely under appreciated for his defense and play making. He had games where he easily put up double digit assist, but it was manly dependent on the open man (typically Eric Snow level shooters) knocking down shots consistently…

    If you look at AI with Denver, All-Star games, Exhibitions with talent he was a willing passer and did it very well.

    GP was Hall of Fame type player too, but AI was more impactful on the game to me. 2001 (fortunately and unfortunately) has so many pieces of AI’s greatness throughout.

  • 2cents

    This is an interesting proposition Dime. I would definitely agree with Onaje that Iverson’s impact on the game was bigger than Payton’s, but honestly, my money is with Payton on being the better all round player. He was nasty on defense, was a generous passer in games that mattered and genuinely made his team mates better.

  • Saleem Rainman

    Payton, although his impact was not as big as iversons, was a much better all around player.

    Impact isnt everything, its debatable David Beckham had the biggest impact of any soccer player, but u wudnt have anyone saying he was better than, say, zidane, or maradona, or pele, etc.

  • Jordan Mitchell

    I don’t see how Payton was a much better overall player. I feel that the two played different positions and are not so easy to compare. Iverson was a SG trapped in a little PG’s body. He is one of the greatest scorers of all time. He was a much better scorer than Payton. Payton was a great defender – and a lot better at defending than AI because of size and durability. However, AI was very good at perimeter defense and while Payton did have an insane 2.9 steals per game one season, Iverson’s career average in steals per game is actually higher than Payton’s (Paytons is 1.8 spg and Iverson is at 2.2). And in total rebounds for their careers, Payton’s and Iverson’s numbers are about the same. Payton had great assist numbers for a six year stretch (8 – 9 per game) but his career average is actually only 6.7 Considering his job was to distribute the ball whereas Iverson’s job was to score points, AI’s 6.2 assists per game was pretty good still. The only reason Payton has so many more total assists is because overall he played in a lot more games. Payton had insane durability, whereas Iverson’s body was constantly injured and he was extremely small. His style of play was not meant to preserve his body for long unfortunately, but for that time AI played during his prime, he was arguably the most exciting player to watch. And I do think he made his teammates better. When he didn’t play, the 76ers often lost (a lot of times their regular season record did not live up to the magical 2000-2001 season because AI got severely injured, had to miss a lot of games, and the 76ers lost those games). For example, the 76ers opened the 2001-2002 season with a 5 game losing streak because Iverson was sidelined with injury. When he came back, they won 7 straight. The season he had to sit out with a broken bone for half of the season (2004), the 76ers didn’t make the play-offs. The season he played all 82 games, they made it with a pretty good seed despite his crappy supporting cast. And of course, the magical 2000-2001 season – he was MVP because they had the best record in the East and when he did not play that season, they lost. Simple as that. AI also showed how well he can distribute the ball in the Olympics. Unfortunately nobody else showed up to play. So I would argue that it’s close, but I’d take AI over Payton.

  • Saleem Rainman

    Payton was more effecient, and a much better defender. Iversons steals were as high as they were because he played the passing lanes and gambled a lot, noone would call him a good defender, Steals per game are not a great indicator of what makes a good defender, Monta Ellis says whattup. Give me Payton every day of the week.

  • Jordan Mitchell

    There’s a difference between being a good overall defender and a good perimeter defender. Nobody would say AI was not a good perimeter defender. You can be a better shooter but not a better scorer. AI got to the free throw line a lot more than Payton. Also, I usually don’t care too much for modern stats, but just an FYI – if you look up Player Efficiency Rating, AI is ranked #46 all time and Payton is ranked in the 90s. Ray Allen was also better shooter than AI, but that doesn’t make him a better player than AI was and that logic also applies to Gary Payton, in my honest opinion. Point being, there were also several things that AI did better than Payton. I don’t see them as comparable. They are two different positions essentially and different types of players. It’s like comparing Magic Johnson (PG) with Michael Jordan (SG). You just don’t do it because they were both GOATS. Payton and AI are on a tier lower than Magic and Jordan, but it’s the same thing to me in terms of comparison. They were both great.

  • Rashidi

    PER overvalues Iverson’s ball-dominance/hogging (which is also what lead to all those FT attempts). His inability to improve those around him is why his team’s never saw success

    Iverson’s 2001 team is frequently referenced, yet this was easily the worst Eastern Conference in NBA history and the team would have lost in the 1st round out west. Jason Kidd left a first round west team and took a lottery-locked east team to back-to-back Finals in 02 and 03.
    Further, Iverson didn’t even deserve MVP over Shaq or Tim Duncan in 01 either. His “greatness” was media-created in a post-Jordan era. He had the talent and ability to be an all-time great PG (like a Chris Paul) but ended up a smaller Russell Westbrook on a Durant-less team.