Iguodala NBA's no-stats Finals MVP?

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Andre Iguodala was his team's best player, yet he still heard boos.

They were coming from his mother.

"Ball hog!" Linda Shanklin howled from the stands. "Pass the ball!"

When the game ended, Iguodala, then a sixth-grader, pleaded with Shanklin's husband: "She's booing me! She's my mom!"

"Dude, you need to pass the ball!" she fired back. "You're not the only person on the team. You look really sad just scoring all of these points."

A ball hog? Even then, Iguodala thought of himself as a team player. Three years earlier, he had asked the coach of his local community center team to let him come off the bench just to keep the peace with the older players who hated that he started.

But he had fallen into a habit of doing what was easy. And what was easy for the most talented sixth grader in Springfield, Illinois, was to score.

"It was like, man, he just knew he was the s---," Shanklin said.

Iguodala has always looked the part of a prototypical superstar wing. Athletic and explosive, he was often shoehorned into the "go-to guy" role that players with similar size and attributes filled in the early-to-mid-2000s -- the Tracy McGradys, the Kobe Bryants.

But Iguodala's game and his approach have always been less straightforward than his mom's advice.

"He's unbelievable at seeing what the team needs and giving the team that on certain nights," said Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton, Iguodala's teammate at Arizona. "That's an uncommon ability in this league, because in this league, everybody wants their stats -- 'I want my stats, I want my points, I want my assists, I want my rebounds.' "

It's exactly what the Warriors needed.

Down 2-1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, the Warriors, the most dominant team in the NBA during the regular season, replaced 7-foot center Andrew Bogut, one of the league's premier rim protectors, with 6-foot-6 Iguodala in the starting lineup for Game 4 on June 11. The Warriors were going small, and Iguodala was the key.

The result: Golden State has turned the series around, and is just one victory away from its first championship in 40 years.

"He does everything for us," Warriors coach Steve Kerr gushed Sunday after Iguodala's 14-point, 8-rebound, 7-assist, 3-steal, zero-turnover performance in Game 5. "He's our best defender on LeBron. He's an incredible decision-maker. I mean, seven assists, no turnovers. He rebounds. He guards everybody."

But for most of his career, doing a little of everything wasn't enough.

Iguodala arrived at the University of Arizona in 2002 with a clear model for the player he aspired to be.

"I want to be just like Luke Walton," Iguodala told his coach, Lute Olson.

Wait. ... What?

Even Walton raises his eyebrows when he hears this so many years later.

"I did not know that," said Walton, who played 10 years in the NBA.

"[Walton] won't believe me," Iguodala said, "but he helped me out so much, because I was young and a raw athlete. I had all the intangibles, but I just didn't know how to get them out of myself.

"Then this slow, white dude is killing me every day in practice, getting position, making the right plays? I'm like ... dang. Just seeing that for the whole year, I kind of absorbed everything, and the next year, it helped me. I was getting triple-doubles."

Walton was a senior at Arizona in Iguodala's first season in Tucson, averaging a healthy 10.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The next season, Iguodala's numbers were in the same neighborhood: 12.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists.

But Iguodala admired Walton for more than just his game.

"He had a joy about playing basketball," Iguodala said. "He enjoyed everybody else being happy. That's the best way the game should be played."

When the 76ers drafted Iguodala ninth overall in 2004, many wanted him to be a me-first scorer and volume shooter just like the player who previously held the team's spotlight and bared the same initials: Allen Iverson.

But selfish play wasn't natural for Iguodala, who grew up admiring do-everything players such as Scottie Pippen, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill.

"Even though he was bigger than everyone else, he was sometimes content playing point guard and getting other people involved with the offense," said Craig Patton, Iguodala's high school coach in Springfield. "Then there were times where we were like, ' 'Dre, we need you to go inside because we've got to have you scoring.' Then he could go inside and score at will."

Walton saw the same happen at Arizona.

"We used to try to get him to be more unselfish," Walton said, "and even watching him in Philly, he was one of the best players in the world and he would constantly be passing up shots because other guys were more open than him."

Walton added: "We're in a league where if you're the best or second-best player on your team, you shoot it no matter what, even if other people are open. It's refreshing to have players like Andre in the league just being a basketball fan and then being able to coach him is great."

It's that very mindset that Olson brought up when he received a phone call from Kerr not too long after Kerr accepted the job last summer to become the Warriors' coach.

"He was very concerned that he was going to have to talk to Andre about coming off the bench," Olson said.

Iguodala had started all 808 of the games he had played in the NBA. He also had the third-highest salary on the team, and just two years prior had won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Taking his place would be Harrison Barnes, a 23-year-old who finished the previous season with a single-digit player efficiency rating.

Olson said not to worry.

"He's more about winning than he is about what he does," Olson explained.

Iguodala said he doesn't think about whether he should be starting. It's more about finding a rhythm, a way to make an impact however he can. But that isn't to say it was a seamless transition. "It's a lot harder than it looks," he said.

There were several discussions between Kerr and Iguodala that lasted throughout training camp, with Kerr not making up his mind until late in camp.

"I don't think he was thrilled, but he understood my reasoning," Kerr said. "I explained what I was thinking, and to his credit, he accepted it immediately. I thought it set a tone for our team from the beginning, a sacrifice."

In 2009, with analytics still a foreign language to most of the viewing public, Michael Lewis, of "Moneyball" fame, wrote a profile of Shane Battier for the New York Times Magazine detailing all the then-Houston Rockets forward did to help a team win, things that didn't register in a box score.

The headline dubbed Battier the "No-Stats All-Star."

But while the No-Stats All-Star was becoming something of a regular ol' star for his unseen contributions, Iguodala's own numberless exploits were still going unnoticed.

"Everybody thinks of Shane Battier as the 'No-Stats All-Star,' " said Aaron Barzilai, who ran the pioneering statistics website BasketballValue.com. "Iguodala is right up there with Battier."

Barzilai's site was one of the first to publish NBA adjusted plus-minus ratings, which track how well a team performed with a certain player on the court (i.e., raw plus-minus) and then adjusts those numbers to account for the relative quality of the other nine players on the court.

The usual cast of superstars would appear near the top of list: LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Chris Paul. ... And then there was Iguodala, who was largely viewed as an above-average swingman playing for middling Sixers teams.

"Iguodala was always the player people would question the site over," said Barzilai, who has since worked for teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers. "In 2008-09, he ranked seventh in one-year adjusted plus/minus, and 10th in two-year adjusted plus-minus.

"His PER was never over 20 [41 players did that this season, including Ed Davis], while by adjusted plus-minus you could make a case he was a top-10 player. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle."

When asked if he felt more appreciated in today's age of advanced statistics, with space-age cameras in the rafters of every NBA arena charting every player's move 25 times per second, a grin spreads across Iguodala's face.

"They say numbers don't lie, but sometimes numbers can lie," Iguodala said. "Because some guys put up big numbers, but it may not result in a winning culture or a winning player. So for me, it's just at this point in my career, it's just winning and having an impact on the floor. When you win, everything takes care of itself."

It has been hard to overlook Iguodala's impact on the NBA Finals, regardless of the measure.

Iguodala is averaging 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game this series and ranks second among all 2015 Finals participants in net rating (14.9).

James has scored at an astronomical rate (36.6 points per game, albeit on 40 percent shooting) in these Finals. But with Iguodala as his primary defender, James is shooting just 35.2 percent from the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. That's worse than James shot when guarded by Jimmy Butler, an NBA All-Defense second-team selection this season, in the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals (39.3 percent) and against Kawhi Leonard, this season's defensive player of the year, in the 2014 Finals (57.6 percent).

James is also shooting just 29 percent on shots contested by Iguodala. When contested by anyone else, James is shooting 43 percent.

In Game 1, James scored 44 points, but the Cavaliers lost.

"It's funny to say, when a guy gets 44 points, that a defender did a really good job," Kerr said, "but I thought Andre did extremely well."

Iguodala guarded James on 19 plays, holding him to 4-of-14 shooting, including 2-of-7 in the clinching overtime. Though James scored a ton of points, it took him a whopping 38 shots to get there.

Iguodala said that was the plan all along, and he credited Aaron McKie, his former 76ers teammate who was tasked with guarding Kobe Bryant in the 2001 Finals.

"At the end of the day, everybody is going to look at [James'] numbers and say, 'God, he had a monster game,' but for all the analytical geeks, you'll say, he took 34 shots to get 40," McKie said. "That's what we've been saying for years. That's what you want."

Iguodala also has the highest plus-minus (9.6) of any player in this year's Finals.

"He's one of the X factors," James said earlier in this series, "and he came to play."

Kerr says Iguodala is one of the smarter players he has ever been around.

"The guy is brilliant at both ends," Kerr said. "He sees the game. If he wants to coach someday, he'd be a great coach. Although he says he would be too impatient, so I don't know if he's got the patience, but he's got a great basketball mind."

Iguodala has been described as a cerebral player, one who interned with Bank of America Merrill Lynch during the 2011 lockout and who said he wants to follow in the venture capitalist footsteps of Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob.

But Shanklin, Iguodala's mother, said his mind can get in his way.

That seemed to be the case in Game 5, when Iguodala shot just 2-of-11 at the free throw line as the Cavaliers went to a hack-a-Iguodala strategy late. He missed nine straight free throws at one point.

"All mental," Iguodala said in an interview after the game with ESPN's Sage Steele.

As a child, Iguodala's competitive streak was fierce, leading him to challenge his brother in anything -- who could drink water the fastest, walk the fastest, use the bathroom the fastest.

"He was just so freaking competitive," Shanklin said. "It would drive him crazy with how competitive he is."

But, she adds, "he has mellowed out in the last couple years."

Late Sunday night, Iguodala seemed to reflect that feeling when asked how he'll keep his feet on the ground during the next 48 hours, knowing a championship is so very close.

"I don't think a trophy or a ring can really signify who you are as a person, but the work you put in kind of says it all," he said. "I've just been through a lot this year. A lot about what happened early in the year I think was blown out of proportion. I've just enjoyed my teammates, and they've been working really hard. We've got this goal in mind, and we've just been fighting trying to get it. And every opportunity we get here going forward, we're going to play hard."

As he toed the line in Game 5 for one of the those late free throw attempts, an MVP chant rang out around Oracle Arena.

"When I hear 'MVP,' I'm thinking they're talking about Steph," Iguodala said with a laugh.

From budding superstar to sixth man, Iguodala has gone through many labels in his 11 years in the NBA.

Finally, though, it seems the outside world has accepted the one that fits best is the one that doesn't exist at all.

"I don't think he ever wavered from who he is as a player," McKie said. "I think everybody wants to be great. I think everybody wants to be the superstar, but Andre, he's always been comfortable being in his own skin being the player that he is."

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