It’s weird to think that Andre Iguodala, who came off the bench and averaged 7.8 points per game in the regular season, is finally having his moment in the sun with the Golden State Warriors. But such is life inside the Warriors organization, the counterintuitive – and yes, for this first time since 1975 – NBA champions, with whom Iguodala just hoisted the greatest individual award of his career: the NBA Finals MVP trophy.
Iguodala owned his role as the second unit’s playmaking engine and defensive stopper until Game 4 of the Finals, when coach Steve Kerr took the advice of his youngest assistant and started Iguodala in place of Andrew Bogut, Golden State’s seven-foot rim protector and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Iguodala poured in 25 points in the Game 6 clincher, upping his Finals average to 16.3 points per game. Most importantly, he was the Warriors’ best (and really, only) LeBron stopper. LeBron James only shot 38.1 percent with Iguodala on the floor. He flipped the terror of “Leaving Defender X alone on an island against LeBron” into “Leaving LeBron alone on an island against Iguodala.”
“It’s really fitting that the award went to Andre, because he sacrificed his starting role from the first game of the season,” Kerr said of Iguodala’s Finals MVP. “He had never come off the bench once in his entire career. That set the tone for our entire season. An All-Star, an Olympian, saying ‘OK, I’ll come off the bench.’ It set the tone for everything we were able to accomplish, so it feels like full circle.”
With the Warriors in the Finals, articles on the Iguodala bench experiment took on a more seductive air. The formula behind Kerr convincing Iguodala to peacefully ride the pine felt instructive to those of us trying to unearth the quality that can shift the individual focus of the world’s most competitive athletes without dialing down their intensity. In that light, this is now an institution – and yes, that’s what the Warriors are under Kerr – bearing striking resemblance to the San Antonio Spurs, a team everyone tries to emulate. In doing this, the Warriors are teaching a lesson we learned about the Spurs years ago: You can painstakingly work to understand the ingredients, but you can’t replicate the formula. The question of how Iguodala ended up on the bench is paramount to understanding Golden State but the answer, of course, is more complex than “just be honest about it.”
The Warriors are a product of talent, sacrifice, professionalism and meticulous design. They’ve been engineered masterfully by Kerr and his brilliant coaching staff, but such combinations do not materialize in the absence of luck. Kerr inherited the best shooting backcourt in history and three of the best defenders in the league in Iguodala, Bogut and Draymond Green.
He also freed them. But skill informs the potency of freedom.
Defense, for example, is often referred an art of patience and discipline. But when you’ve logged the kind of hours that Iguodala has on that end, you can be left to your own devices. You can go rogue, as when he repeatedly slapped the ball out of the palms of the best player in the world and got the benefit of the doubt from referees, or when he occasionally abandoned LeBron to blitz Cleveland’s big men, trusting himself to deflect errant passes or at the least, recover. Flanked by the NBA’s best help defense, Iguodala also had more leeway to take risks. Stephen Curry, on the other hand, flung 28-footers and crosscourt passes all season on the promise that if things went awry, the Warriors could rest their laurels on defense.
Security, under Kerr, has bred freedom. The Warriors, secure in their purpose and ability, have never fell into the familiar trap of hinging their identity on a stubborn road map. If there is some grand secret to the Warriors’ success, maybe it’s this: When you’ve mastered the game – and the game plan – as well as they have, you’re better equipped to abandon it. En route to a championship, they didn’t make adjustments so much as they shape-shifted and dominated.
A few days ago in San Francisco, I walked by an Uber with a bumper sticker that read, “Sit back and watch the revolution.” The Warriors, as they’ve done so many times this season, closed out the Cavs with Green, a 6-foot-7 swingman, playing center. For an NBA season that hinged on an unending debate between the old guard and the new, the eye test and analytics, the pretty system vs. the individual superstar, the small-ball shooter vs. the brutish paint-pounder; in a series that somehow become a microcosm for the two forces colliding, it was, to borrow from Kerr, fitting.