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Iverson rose to prominence in the post-Michael Jordan vacuum, an era loaded with one-on-one play, mid-range jumpers and a distinct style A.I. helped to promulgate.
“From in-game music to the way players present themselves, the remnants of Iverson’s influence can still be found today,” The Undefeated’s C. Isaiah Smalls II wrote.
Lillard, meanwhile, is entering his peak at the height of the pace-and-space era, when every player is expected to possess basketball’s most important skills regardless of which position they play.
But like Iverson, Lillard’s imprint goes beyond the game.
Slate’s Nick Greene called him the “coolest player in the NBA.” His rap career has gotten him on the Billboard charts. And his commitment to the small-market Portland Trail Blazers is a deviation from what feels like constant player movement.
Since their careers barely missed overlapping, Iverson and Lillard never had a chance to go head-to-head. And despite relatively close proximity in time, they played in significantly different eras.
That didn’t prevent a comparison, though.
First, a look at Iverson’s seven-year peak in comparison to Lillard’s seven-year career:
Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey
Player A is Allen Iverson’s seven-year peak. Player B is Damian Lillard’s seven-year career. https://t.co/4r9vXpxRBX
Now, here’s Iverson’s 2000-01 MVP campaign compared to Lillard’s 2017-18, when he posted a career-high box plus/minus:
Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey
Player A is Allen Iverson’s MVP campaign. Player B is Damian Lillard’s 2017-18. https://t.co/FSlj3fwtnb
Lillard walked away with two landslide victories. But a handful of stats devoid of context isn’t enough to make this call.
Instead, we’ll examine a few categories more in-depth—namely scoring, shooting, playmaking and defense—and then try to make an informed decision.
Since Lillard has played only seven seasons compared to Iverson’s 14, this will more or less be “peak vs. peak.” It’s too early to compare these two in terms of overall careers and places in NBA history.
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Most NBA rookies aren’t expected to lead a team right away these days, especially those picked outside of the top five. But Lillard, the No. 6 pick in 2012, was a scorer from the get-go.
He trailed only LaMarcus Aldridge among Trail Blazers in points per game in each of his first three seasons. And after LMA’s departure, he averaged 26.2 points per game across the next four years.
“When (Aldridge) left, I was pushed into a different role,” Lillard said after he passed his former teammate for the No. 2 spot on Portland’s all-time scoring leaderboard, per Casey Holdahl of the team website. “From a leadership standpoint, responsibility, production, everything had to go up.”
And go up, everything did.
Despite losing their leading scorer to the San Antonio Spurs, the Trail Blazers barely skipped a beat, gradually improving from that 2015 departure all the way to a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2019.
Lillard’s scoring, especially in big moments, has been a driving factor in the Blazers’ sustained success. As Kristian Winfield of SB Nation noted, Lillard’s resume of buzzer-beaters is far longer than most others’.
But if we go back to the seven-year samples used above, Lillard falls well short of A.I. in a few key metrics.
Relative scoring average is a player’s points per game minus the league-average points per game. Over his career, Lillard has a stellar relative scoring average of 12.3. But in the seven years pegged for Iverson, his relative scoring average was a whopping plus-18.4.
In his MVP campaign, Iverson’s relative scoring average was plus-21.0. Only 19 players had basic scoring averages above 21 points per game that season.
Iverson was arguably the game’s most relentless scorer during the first decade or so of his career. Over that seven-year peak, Iverson’s 29.1 points per game ranked first in the league. And it was a healthy 2.8 points better than second-place Shaquille O’Neal‘s 26.3.
Those two being back to back seems fitting when talking about Iverson’s career. He was listed at 6’0″ and 165 pounds. Shaq was 7’1″ and over 300 pounds for portions of his career.
“For his size, no one ever scored like Iverson,” Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale wrote. “Through 14 seasons, Iverson scored 24,368 points, making him one of only 39 players to eclipse the 20,000-point plateau. Quite predictably, he’s the only player under 6’2″ to accomplish that feat.”
Lillard, meanwhile, ranks eighth in the NBA in points per game over the course of his career. And though he’s been slightly more efficient, he’s playing in an era that knows more about how to score efficiently.
He’s never had to carry quite as big of a load as a scorer, either.
Over the first three seasons of his career, Lillard had Aldridge to command attention. CJ McCollum has done that for him since LMA’s departure.
The No. 2 scorers for the Philadelphia 76ers in each of the seven Iverson campaigns we’re looking at?
1998-99: Matt Geiger (13.5)
1999-2000: Toni Kukoc (12.4)
2000-01: Theo Ratliff (12.4)
2001-02: Derrick Coleman (15.1)
2002-03: Keith Van Horn (15.9)
2003-04: Glenn Robinson (16.6)
2004-05: Chris Webber (15.6)
Was Iverson partially responsible for his second options’ low averages? Perhaps in part, but that list doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, at least not in terms of where they were in their careers. Kukoc, Coleman, Robinson and Webber were at the tail end of or past their primes in the seasons listed.
Additionally, the Sixers scored 103.7 points per 100 possessions when Iverson was on the floor from 2000-01 to 2004-05 (the only seasons in the seven-year sample for which we have play-by-play data), according to PBP Stats. When he was off the floor, Philly scored only 97.8 points per 100 possessions.
Despite his slight frame, Iverson successfully carried a huge scoring responsibility on the way to the seventh-highest basic scoring average in NBA history. In case this point needs to be driven any further home, Lillard is 22nd on that list.
Lillard 0, Iverson 1
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Had Iverson arrived on the scene a decade later, he might have been more intent on developing reliable three-point range. The leaguewide emphasis on efficiency could have influenced his shot selection a bit.
But we aren’t dealing with that hypothetical. And in reality, Iverson’s shooting percentages have always been a fair target for criticism.
Over the course of his seven-year peak, Iverson had a minus-3.2 relative field-goal percentage, a minus-4.8 relative three-point percentage and a minus-1.6 relative true shooting percentage (thank goodness for his 9.6 free-throw attempts per game).
Again, Iverson was shouldering a huge scoring responsibility, which might have impacted his accuracy. And all of the misses didn’t keep him from having an overall positive impact on offense.
But in a straight-up comparison of shooting ability, Lillard is the clear winner.
For his career, Lillard has a minus-2.1 relative field goal percentage, a plus-1.1 relative three-point percentage and a plus-2.7 relative true shooting percentage (shout out to his 7.4 three-point attempts per game).
Lillard 1, Iverson 1
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Because he’s often considered more of a scorer, Lillard’s career passing numbers have largely flown under the radar. But over the course of his career, he’s 16th in assists per game and 31st in assist percentage.
Given how often he has the ball (career usage rate of 28.3 percent), his 2.8 turnovers per game is a relatively small number, too.
“The timing of his pitty-pat pocket passes to Jusuf Nurkic is exquisite,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote of Lillard’s distributing in 2017. “They flow so naturally from the typical rhythm of his dribble that you almost don’t see them coming; they kind of look like dribbles, until you realize Nurkic has the ball on his way to a rumbling layup.”
That sort of craftiness is a dangerous thing to pair with Lillard’s scoring ability. Defenders have to always be ready for him to stop and pop. And the more they commit to that, the more Lillard can draw them away from his eventual assist targets.
Iverson was no slouch as a passer himself, but a simple comparison of a few passing numbers clearly favors Lillard:
|Lillard vs. Iverson: Assists|
|Damian Lillard (2012-13 to 2018-19||6.3 (16th)||29.5 (31st)||+3.8||2.3:1|
|Allen Iverson (1998-99 to 2004-05)||5.7 (24th)||27.8 (39th)||+3.4||1.5:1|
Playmaking and passing is about more than just assists, but Lillard’s distinct advantages in those categories make it easy to tally this category for him.
Lillard 2, Iverson 1
DOUG SEHRES/Associated Press
Toward the end of the 2016-17 season, Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal conducted a statistical analysis using defensive real plus-minus, defensive points saved, field-goal percentage differential and on/off differential.
Those specific inputs combined to peg Lillard as the fifth-worst defender in the league among those at his position.
“The point guard is caught too far from his assignment on a regular basis, particularly when he’s asked to run through multiple screens in pursuit of an off-ball mark,” Fromal wrote.
Since then, Lillard has said that he’s “made [defense] an area of focus,” according to The Athletic’s Jason Quick. And he has improved a bit.
In each of his first five seasons, Portland allowed more points per 100 possessions when Lillard was on the floor. Over the last two, the Blazers have given up fewer points with Lillard on.
Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would describe Lillard as a lockdown defender. And he’s never been a threat to make an All-Defense team.
Iverson never made one of those, either, and his lack of size was problematic at times. But he was a ballhawk in his prime.
During his seven-year peak, Iverson averaged 2.5 steals per game, first by a wide margin in those years.
“Yes, this pretty much means a steal is ‘worth’ as much as nine points,” FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris wrote of a regression he ran to determine the predictive value of box score stats. “To put it more precisely: A marginal steal is weighted nine times more heavily when predicting a player’s impact than a marginal point.”
He explained further:
“For example, a player who averages 16 points and two steals per game is predicted (assuming all else is equal) to have a similar impact on his team’s success as one who averages 25 points but only one steal. If these players were on different teams and were both injured at the same time, we would expect their teams to have similar decreases in performance (on average).”
Ultimately, a few numbers suggest Iverson wasn’t a great defender, either. His defensive box plus/minus in the timeframe we’re working with was minus-0.4. And Philadelphia gave up 1.2 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
But all of those steals may be a big part of why he wasn’t quite as much of an issue on that end as Lillard has been at various times during his career.
Lillard 2, Iverson 2
Eric Gay/Associated Press
So, we’re tied based on those four categories. But there are a few ways to break this tie.
The first would be looking at a few more numbers.
Lillard’s edges in box plus/minus and net rating swing likely helped him win the blind polls. And if you combine points with points generated by assists, Iverson averaged 38.6 per 75 possessions, while Lillard averaged a combined 39.9 per 75 possessions.
Between those advantages and the difference in shooting efficiency, Lillard has a compelling argument over Iverson.
The other way to break the tie would be more subjective.
During the seven-year stretch we’re looking at for Iverson, he made six All-NBA teams (three first-team nods), six All-Star teams, won four scoring titles and one MVP.
Over the course of his career, Lillard has four All-NBA nods (one first-team appearance) and four All-Star selections.
Iverson has a big lead in the accolades, but again, that’s subjective. Plus, using Iverson’s peak and Lillard’s career put the latter at a bit of a disadvantage throughout the comparison.
Therefore, in this battle of superstar guards, Dame is the correct answer.