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The unharmonic convergence of Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson

03.01.09 at 5:23 pm ET

It was fitting that on a day when Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson would meet yet again under completely different circumstances that one of them wasn’t even in the building.

While Marbury was continuing his image rehab and on-court comeback, Iverson was back in Detroit resting an achy back. The injury coincided with the Pistons’ decision to move him to the bench and reassert Rip Hamilton into the starting lineup and that move coincided with a nine-game losing streak for the Pistons, which has since resulted in road wins over Orlando and the Celtics without Iverson (click here for a recap).

The irony of the situation hung heavily in the locker room as various members of the Celtics took great care not to diss A.I. but sounded wary of the Pistons getting back to being the Pistons, especially if they should meet in the first round of the playoffs.

“You can tell they’re playing the system they played before Iverson got there,” Paul Pierce said. “They run a lot of down screens with Rip. They run a lot of high pick and rolls with (Rodney) Stuckey. That’s what Chauncey (Billups) used to do and Stuckey has been there. Those guys that are out on the court, they’re comfortable with each other. You know when Iverson is out there they’re still trying to figure out how to use each other, how to all be successful.”

It’s not entirely Iverson’s fault that he has found himself at this particular crossroads in his career. After things went south in Philly and he was traded to Denver, the Sixers almost immediately became a better team, while the Nuggets never came close to realizing the sky-high expectations of the AI-Carmelo Anthony combination. He had played one way, his way, for so long and now it seems that it is the only way he can perform.

Once Iverson was traded to Detroit for Billups, the Nuggets emerged as one of the top second-tier contenders in the West (behind LA and San Antonio) and it was not lost on anyone there that better ball movement and better shot selection were the keys to the turnaround. It’s only been two games for the Pistons, but Stuckey has had an immediate transformation, going from a player who seemed lost to one who put together a tidy and efficient 10-point, five-assist performance against the Celtics.

Iverson now finds himself in exactly the same position that Marbury has battled for most of his career. For all the off the court stuff, the most damning evidence against Marbury the player has been the fact that every team he has left (Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix and even New York to some extent) has been better without him than they were with him.

Marbury either didn’t know what was up with Iverson, or didn’t care to get into it, brushing off pre-game questions about his long-time on-court nemesis. Since they came into the league together in 1996 they have always been rivals. When Iverson was on his way to winning Rookie of the Year with the Sixers, there was a late groundswell for Marbury’s candidacy based on Minnesota’s improved record with him at the controls.

But as Marbury began his long strange trip around the NBA, Iverson settled into becoming a Philadelphia legend and a beloved in some quarters, reviled in others, cultural touchstone. He won the MVP and led the Sixers to the Finals in 2001, but more than that Iverson represented something larger. He wasn’t the first of the so-called New Jack Jocks, but he was the lead M.C., breaking down Michael Jordan’s ankles one moment and force-feeding the 90’s hip-hop culture on a mostly unsuspecting populace.

It wasn’t just the corn rows and the tattoos, or even the shooting sleeve, that became ubiquitous sign posts of a changing NBA world, it was the forceful singular personality that alternately alienated and excited so many. If Marbury had any cultural significance on the rest of the league it was as one of the first group of players who signed long-term max deals that made he and his peers both franchise cornerstones and cumbersome anchors. As they advanced, Iverson became something of a respected elder statesman, while Marbury’s career disintegrated into vaudeville sideshow.

But now the two find themselves at the end of those long-term maximum contracts with uncertain futures ahead of them. Marbury has at his disposal an enviable proposition. If he can prove that he can fit in with the team-first Celtics and help them win another championship, it could prolong his career another few years (albeit not at a max level).

Iverson doesn’t seem to have that opportunity. Whether or not he’s to blame for what has happened to the Pistons, it was clear that Detroit’s run was coming to an end regardless. The best he can hope for now is to embrace his role as a bench player and try once more to transform his game, but that doesn’t seem likely.

“We just have to play the same way and he has to play that way,” Pistons coach Michael Curry said of Iverson. “I still like playing Tayshaun (Prince) and Walter (Hermann) a lot together at the two and three. Maybe Iverson can come in and spend some time in Will Bynum’s spot.”

In other words, Marbury and Iverson are essentially being asked to play the same role, albeit in entirely different circumstances, and Marbury has finally been dealt the better hand.

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