Andre Iguodala, the NBA Finals MVP and What Good Basketball Looks Like
By a wonderful stroke of luck, I got to watch NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, in person, in my high school’s home gym about 13 years ago. It was transcendent. I don’t remember the final score (we lost by 30 at least), but I remember seeing him, a gazelle/octopus hybrid of a man, moving around the gym, with or without the ball, with unbelievable ease. In-game announcers like to describe good point guards as “able to get to any spot on the floor,” which is typically a BS pseudo-analysis that doesn’t mean anything. With Andre, it was literal. He could dribble around all five defenders and pass to any teammate at any time. It’s like he was seeing things from the view of the halfcourt scoreboard-mounted camera you see in video games. Oh, and that camera also showed him reality about 2 seconds into the future. I had never seen a player with Andre’s feel for the game. He was the epitome of smooth. So smooth I couldn’t even really notice what he was doing.
At that time, I was cheering against Andre. High school sports spectating is very tribal, and I was a Senator, dammit. I’d like to say there was a point where I stopped cheering and started appreciating what I was witnessing, but the truth is that it never happened. The actual truth is that if you grabbed 14-year-old me and told me that someone in that gym was going to be an NBA Finals MVP, I would have put my money on Andre’s teammate Richard McBride.
McBride could shoot. And not just get shots up, he never missed. Deep threes, off-balance runners, putbacks among the Bigs. He was the one that was destined for success. He scored and he scored and he scored a lot more and no one ever stopped him. Rich and Andre were the Jordan and Pippen of high school ball in Springfield, IL, and in that order. (Update: my hometown paper published a series of photos from Andre’s career)
Thirteen years after that game, I realize what I was seeing.
After six games of this year’s NBA Finals, seven of the 11 Finals MVP voters saw what I had been missing: the absolute best basketball players are ones that make the team’s overall pie bigger instead of adding to their individual slice. The absolute best players see what their team needs and add it. The absolute best players can be role players.
Stats measure points and assists and rebounds. Stats sort of measure how well someone defended someone. Nothing measures how much a player actually adds to a team except watching that player.
Of course, ESPN will probably talk all week about the series that LeBron had and how he deserves to be the MVP, but that conversation places an awful lot of importance on individual numbers and not whether or not he actually made the team better. Did James average 35, 13 and 8, yes? Did he do it by actually playing better basketball than other people or did he do it by just using an unprecedented amount of possessions? Did he play better quality basketball or just a higher quantity?
The scoring part of that equation isn’t even a question. He only scored so much because he shot so much. He scored 215 points on 196 shots. For the series, he shot below 40%. ESPN loves to talk about how he’s the “best basketball player in the known universe,” but that percentage is worse than the absolute worst team in the regular season. That’s right, LeBron James as a person, used almost 40% of his team’s possessions at a shooting rate worse than the 76ers this season, an awful team that was intentionally tanking.
But the rest of the team was awful, he HAD to use all those possessions to give them a chance, that’s how the story goes. Why is that the case? Per 40 minutes, the Cavs had both of the best post players in the series (Mosgov averaged 20 points and 10.6 rebounds on 55% shooting, the best of the series) (Thompson averaged 10 points and 12.7 rebounds on 50% shooting) and the Cavs team defense was better without Love and Irving, holding the Warriors, the top-rated offense in the league, to 10 points per game fewer than their regular-season average on .042% worse shooting than their average.
It’s a great story that this team is just LeBron and a bunch of scrubs, but it’s not nearly as true as it seems. Half the game is defense, and that Cavs scrub team was a monster on defense. Offensively, we’ll never know what that Cavs team was because they iso-d for LeBron too often for anyone else to actually get a real chance to score.
LeBron is a better scorer than anyone else on the Cavs, but that doesn’t mean he needs to take three times as many shots as anyone else. The average Lebron shot might be a better shot than the average Timofey Mosgov shot, but a 30% contested fallaway from James isn’t as good as a 70% restricted area shot from Mosgov against a small forward. Games happen one possession at a time and the Cavs chose to let LeBron shoot 200 shots at 40% instead of working the ball to the bigs, who both shot 50% or better.
When compared directly to each other, James and Iguodala’s total stats look like a blowout for LeBron. But when you watch the games, that wasn’t the case. When Lebron had the ball, Andre dominated him, forcing him to shoot 35% from the field. On the other end of the court, Iguodala shot 52% from the field and 40% from the 3-point line. One player added quality to his team’s offense, the other just took up a larger quantity of his team’s offense.
But what about how bad LeBron’s team was when he was off the floor? First off, what other players aren’t doing when you’re not playing is in no way a valid point to make about what a player does when he’s on the floor. Second, what about how bad LeBron’s team was when he was on the floor? James was -25 in six games (-3.6 per 40, a slight improvement on the -5.8 total team +/-), and Iguodala was +62 (+11.1 per 40, against a team total of 5.8). That’s where the difference lies: how much better the team is when a player is part of it.
The reason Iguodala won the MVP award was because anyone watching could see that he was the best at everything he did. His individual man-to-man defense was rivaled only by the Cavs guards, led by Iman Shumpert, holding Klay Thompson to 40% overall and 30% from the field. Andre led the fast break, he finished the fast break, he made steals, he passed to open players, he made dunks when he was open, he made jumpers when he was open, he shot 3-pointers at a higher percentage than Steph Curry, who just broke the NBA record for most 3-pointers in a season. He didn’t force anything, he just did what the team needed.
Andre didn’t need an isolation offense to score, he didn’t need help from a teammate to double when he’s on defense. He shot open shots when that’s what the offense got him and he passed when he wasn’t open. He averaged just one turnover per game in 37 minutes, playing plenty of possessions as the primary ballhandler.
Andre Iguodala in the Finals this year is exactly what good basketball looks like. His game isn’t just put into a team, his skills fit what the team doesn’t already have and adapts every possession. The team isn’t built around him, he builds his game around the team. In this case, the Warriors needed a one-man defensive stopper on defense and a guy who hit open shots when Steph got doubled on offense. He did both, and did both extremely well.
Good basketball is hard to appreciate because it flies under the radar. No one shows highlights of repeated defense stops, but forcing a bad shot is really close to forcing a turnover and swinging the possessions battle toward your team is an MVP-type skill. There’s a reason the Warriors went 1-2 in three games with Andre playing off the bench and 3-0 with him starting.
Going back to that high school game: what I saw was one player who looked dominant. What I missed was another player whose dominant skill was getting open shots for a teammate. Good shooting is a skill. Drawing defenses away and getting shooters open looks is an equally valuable skill, albeit one that is almost impossible to detect.
Iguodala had his share of highlights in the Finals, but his overall series was quietly dominant. Not quietly good, quietly DOMINANT. Championship teams are built out of guys like Andre Iguodala. He played a hell of a series and he made my Springfield proud.