(We wrote this piece after Andre Iguodala's brilliant Game 4 performance stopping LeBron James in his first start of the season. Iguodala went on to win NBA Finals MVP after a 25-point performance in Game 6, becoming the first Finals MVP not to have started a single game during the regular season. We think the story of his road to success in a new role with the Warriors is worth another look, so here's the original story, published June 12:)
Andre Iguodala was the switch.
Through three games, the Warriors had failed to show why they entered the NBA Finals as the massive favorites. They'd played the Cavs more or less evenly -- two overtime games (one a win, one a loss) and a close loss in regulation -- while giving up enormous sums of points to LeBron James. Their tempo was well off the breakneck pace that made them one of the NBA's most fun teams to watch ever, and their offense was out of sorts.
For Game 4, Steve Kerr decided to make a rare lineup change, inserting Iguodala for Andrew Bogut, Iguodala's first start of the season. The impact was immediately obvious: The game was freer and faster for the Warriors, who hit 100 points in regulation for the first time in the series. Timofey Mozgov had 28 points without a center guarding him, but besides him, Cleveland's offense was labored. LeBron James was handcuffed, scoring just 20 points after averaging over 40 per game in the first three games. And Iguodala had his best scoring game of the season: he was perfect filling lanes in transition and drilled four threes, finishing with 22 points.
Iguodala had been playing spectacularly all series, but his phenomenal performances were highlighted by Kerr's decision to eschew the traditional center and put Iggy in the starting role. It's nice to see Iguodala catch some of that spotlight, because the truly wonderful thing that happened to Iguodala this season came as a result of his lowest profile ever.
The Warriors adjusted back to themselves
Golden State's success this season was built on radical change. Its survival in the finals hinged on another dramatic lineup shuffle.
For almost a decade, Andre Iguodala was asked to be a superstar. But he's now something quite different. Andre Iguodala has a very particular set of skills, skills he's acquired over a very long career, skills that make him a nightmare for people like LeBron James. The Warriors have given him the opportunity to use them, and he's taken it.
It's fitting that Iguodala's most meaningful role comes opposite LeBron James, If you were to coat LeBron James in wax and cast him, the resulting negative space formed by his absence would be remarkably similar to Andre Iguodala. They're so similar in form -- both offering height, both fiercely strong, both unnaturally quick for their size, an uncommon combination of physical traits that make them obvious basketball talents. But in substance, they're polar opposites.
James is built to be a superstar. He's at ease with the ball in his hands, a gifted scorer and passer, happy with the burden of making a team's offense work. In the role of a team's leading man, Iguodala isn't right: He's not the full package offensively like James is, not quite good enough at shooting to demand respect, not quite good enough at just bullying through opponents for points to make that an efficient source of offense. He's always preferred to just settle in defensively and make life hell for the other team's best player.
For the first eight years of Iguodala's career, the 76ers asked Iguodala to be like LeBron James instead of being his negative. After Allen Iverson left, Iguodala was "AI2." Iguodala and Iverson bore essentially nothing in common besides initials, but the implication was Iguodala was the team's new focal point after the longtime star's departure.
It worked alright. He averaged as many as 19.9 points per game, with five or six rebounds per game and five or six assists per game, too. But it didn't really amount to much. With Iguodala as star, the Sixers were mired in mediocrity, finishing in between seventh and ninth in six of his eight seasons. (One time they managed to finish sixth.) The team's most successful year with Iguodala was actually his last year, 2012, the first season since Iverson's departure when he didn't lead the team in scoring. Iguodala made his first NBA All-Star Game, and the team made it out of the first round for the first time, thanks to a Derrick Rose injury.
In Golden State, Iguodala wasn't asked to be the leading scorer. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were obviously there for that role. This season, after staring every single game he had played in for his entire career, Iguodala came off the bench.
The result was an Iguodala who produced less in a traditional sense -- he averaged career lows in points, minutes and usage rate -- but did significantly more of what Andre Iguodala was supposed to do: shut opponents down and cede the limelight to the scorers.
Against James, he's been nothing short of brilliant. According to ESPN, James is shooting 35.3 percent and the Cavs are -25 when Iguodala is on the floor. He hounds James, giving him no space, no love and no quarter. He dishes out physical brutality, banging bodies and arms with James just up to the borderline of what NBA officials won't call a foul, with a side of handsy peskiness, occasionally perfectly timing a swipe to knock the ball loose. Offensively, he doesn't try to do too much: just open shots and open lanes. As loosely as the Warriors play, that can be a lot.
Andre Iguodala is not a superstar. He's just an incredible talent who can thrive in an environment that lets him do what he's best at. On basketball's biggest stage, he's found that environment, a reminder that basketball's most important players aren't always the most obvious ones.