Allen Iverson: Best Pound-For-Pound Player In NBA History?

The official retirement of Allen Iverson has let loose the dogs of inevitable debate. Is he a Hall of Famer? Was he really even that good? How overrated is Allen Iverson, precisely? Is he the NBA’s version of Ecto Cooler, a pleasant memory from your childhood that tastes of bitter, toxic chemicals and rearview disappointment?

The answers, in kind: Yes. Yes. He’s rated. And please don’t remind me of that time a few years back that I tried Ecto Cooler for the first time in a decade and now my blood is a translucent green.

The most nonsensically enjoyable argument that comes up whenever a discussion turns to AI is whether or not he’s the “best pound-for-pound player” in NBA history. Now, to be honest, I’m not really sure what that means; it seems like those are readily mobile goalposts, easily shifted in the winds of an argument that goes against you. But if we’re going to have the discussion — and it’s August, after all, so we might as well — then it seems to be worth putting some data to the notion.

Given the roundabout nature of the parameters, it’s fair to note the innumerable flaws in the methodology below. First, production (that is, the measurement by which we’ll judge “best”) is measured in Win Shares, both cumulative and per 48 minutes, from Basketball-Reference. There’s no perfect catch-all stat, nor is there anything close, but B-R provides the most readily searchable and sortable database, so we’ll use that as our dividend.

The second major caveat is the listed weights of each player on their Basketball-Reference page. Heights and weights are a tricky matter for current players, let alone retired Hall of Famers whose playing weight may have varied greatly over the course of their careers. Par exemple, LeBron James’s listed weight on B-R is 240 pounds. If you believe that’s how much LeBron currently weighs, please, please seek some sort of rehab or detox facility immediately.

Lastly, the B-R database for combined player seasons is split into regular season and playoff accumulations, with no simple way of combining the two. With these caveats in mind, I present to you four different arguments for the Best Pound-For-Pound Player In NBA History: Regular season win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) per 100 pounds, regular season win share totals per pound, playoff WS/48 per 100 pounds and playoff WS per pound.*

*WS/48 statistics were multiplied by 100 just so the numbers weren’t as messy. Asterisk next to player’s name signifies current Hall of Famer.

Regular Season WS/48 per 100 pounds


In the regular season, Iverson really doesn’t fare that poorly — or that well — in the pound-for-pound conversation. When I set out to parse this data, I went in with the assumption that Michael Jordan would likely top these rankings across the board, but NBPA President-elect Chris Paul is our current per minute, per pound champion. And truly, it makes sense; he’s a more efficient, better passing, slightly larger version of Allen Iverson. If Russell Westbrook is the production model for which AI was the prototype, then CP3 is the stylized, idealized and self-realized design of the future. His health makes his continued status as the king turbulent, but for now, CP3 gets to wear the belt.

Naturally, these rankings hate really heavy bigs, as evidenced by the precipitous drop from Karl Malone to Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal. What’s interesting is the way that AI fits right in that gap; he’s essentially the missing link between the normal-sized humans who play basketball really, really well and the Leviathans of the deep post.

Regular Season Win Shares per pound


No real surprises at the top of the WS/pound leaderboard in the regular season, as the royal court is filled with the greats of the game who played a long, long time. Seeing John Stockton’s name tied with Kareem and atop Jordan might be a little shocking at first, but given the parameters for this argument — total win shares in a career, divided by a player’s weight — it makes perfect sense.

Postseason WS/48 per 100 pounds


Postseason Win Shares per pound


A-ha! Here we come to the conclusion that I’m sure many expected in the beginning. Michael Jordan. Flawless victory. Fatality. Unfortunately, Mr. Iverson doesn’t come out all that well on the pound-for-pound playoff leaderboard, In the aggregate, he simply didn’t have the number of postseason appearances to compete with the rest of the leaderboard, and his per 48 numbers dipped fairly significantly, likely a combination of stiffer competition and more focused defenses in the postseason.

So no, Allen Iverson probably isn’t the best pound-for-pound player in NBA history. But by at least some measures, he’s in the top 20 or so. And given the company he keeps, that’s nothing from which to shrink.

Photo by Michael Dunn~! via Flickr