Updated: Thursday, 9:34 a.m.
When Allen Iverson was presented the All-Star Game MVP trophy in 2001, his eyes darted around in search of one face.
“Where’s my coach? Where’s Coach (Larry) Brown?” he asked.
If not for Matt Geiger, that memorable public display of affection likely never would have happened.
The summer before that season, the Sixers were close to being part of a four-team trade that would’ve sent Iverson and Geiger to the Pistons, ending Iverson’s tumultuous partnership with Brown. But Geiger decided he wanted to stay in Philadelphia and refused to waive his trade kicker, halting the deal.
“I looked at Detroit and didn’t think Allen and I would’ve been better off there,” Geiger told reporters. “So the decision was easy.”
In a 2001 piece for ESPN, Marc Stein reported the following details of the near-trade:
In its most well-known incarnation: Eddie Jones, Glen Rice, Jerome Williams and Dale Ellis were Philly-bound; Iverson and Geiger headed to Detroit; Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner and Travis Knight routed to Charlotte; and Anthony Mason, Toni Kukoc and Todd Fuller dispatched to the LA Lakers.
It’s fascinating to consider the ripple effects of Geiger accepting a move to Detroit. The first question that hypothetical raises is whether the Sixers still would’ve been the 2000-01 Eastern Conference champions without their 6-foot superstar.
In our estimation, here’s what the rotation might’ve looked like after the trade:
Glen Rice/George Lynch
Key bench players
That’s still a potential contender. Jones, a Temple product, was coming off an All-Star season in which he averaged 20.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and led the league in steals. Rice was beginning to decline, though he remained a three-point shooting threat. He might’ve competed for a starting spot with Lynch, a defensive-minded favorite of Brown’s. Williams, also known as the “Junk Yard Dog,” would’ve provided defense, hustle and rebounding, all qualities Brown adored.
The lack of depth behind Ratliff is a clear weakness, meaning the Sixers may have been compelled to search for another center. A Dikembe Mutombo trade still could have been on the table — especially in a world where Ratliff suffers the same mid-season wrist injury — although it’s also possible the team would’ve given more minutes to young big men MacCulloch and Nazr Mohammed.
Without Iverson, we’ll say the Sixers win 49 regular-season games and lose to the Bucks in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. While the trade would’ve upgraded an already strong defense and likely improved the team’s outside shooting, the 2000-01 Sixers constructed their identity around Iverson and his lovable, improbable brand of heroism. In their first season with him gone, an NBA Finals trip feels like it would’ve been too much to ask.
The other implications of Geiger consenting to the deal are a bit dizzying, but an interesting one to think about is how the Pistons’ future would’ve been altered. If the Pistons landed Iverson in July of 2000, what would have happened with Grant Hill, who got shipped to the Magic in an August sign-and-trade that brought Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins to Detroit? One imagines the Pistons would’ve felt better about the idea of letting Hill leave in free agency with Iverson on board. Perhaps they would never have acquired Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and core piece on their 2003-04 championship team.
Remember, too, that Brown coached the ’03-04 Pistons. He resigned after the Sixers’ second-round playoff loss to Detroit in 2003, then later accepted the Pistons job and immediately won his first NBA title. The four-team trade, however, might have shifted his path.
A team led by Jones may have been more stable and less stressful for Brown than one headlined by Iverson, even if it never managed to reach the same heights. Though Brown had a nomadic reputation, an extended stay with a Sixers team that prioritized defense and had a heap of low-maintenance, high-effort guys — and didn’t have a star who sometimes got on his nerves — might have been attractive.
Thanks to Geiger, we don’t need to contemplate any of these alternate universes. It’s enjoyable to do, but recalling Iverson’s MVP season and the Sixers’ only NBA Finals appearance in the past 37 years is also plenty of fun.
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