— Ty Lawson (@TyLawson3) May 15, 2013
Iggy may think twice about leaving Denver after Ty’s very public and very ominous threat. As we all know, Denver is notorious for their hit men.
There are no men like me. There’s only me.
Iguodala’s career arc is a fascinating one by all accounts. He was drafted ninth overall by Philadelphia after spending two years at Arizona and quickly found his way into the starting lineup. His usage rate over the years could pretty much tell the story of his time as a 76er, jumping from 14.7 to 22.6 after Allen Iverson was traded in Iggy’s third year when the team was more or less turned over to him. He initially responded very well to this added responsibility, posting what would be the best numbers of his career in that three year stretch from ’06-’09, but as with Iverson, it never seemed to be enough.
From the very beginning Iguodala’s skill set, athleticism, and most of all his incredibly muscular physique worked against him as much as it helped him succeed. He was one of the many players doomed with expectations and player comps that they could just never live up to. If you turned your head and squinted just right you could perhaps see a little LeBron James in this similarly gifted “point forward” and yet he could never be the player James was and is, his offense would never become that refined, and it was an incredibly unfair standard to hold Iguodala to from the get-go. His improved play did little to quell these expectations, as for every improvement in his game the bar was raised a little higher on him, the desperate and perpetually disappointed Philly fan base seemed to never be satisfied with his status quo.
His contract did little to help matters as the 6 year, $80 million he signed for in the summer of 2008 paid him like the player the 76ers wanted him to be, not the player he was. Its hard to assign blame either way for this, Philly was in the unfortunate position both Atlanta and Memphis also found themselves in with Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay; players who were stars but could only take a team so far as number one options, yet whose presence on the team was better than the alternative (although that ironically changed for all three players as they have all since been traded away). This contract came to define Iggy as much as any of his accomplishments on the court, the money he was making only fueling the growing unrest with his inability to live up to this fictional standard that was created for him.
His time in Philly ended fittingly, doing just enough to drag the Sixers past the broken Bulls, but not enough to beat a superior Boston team and despite going well beyond expectations by getting to a game 7 in the second round, ultimately the season was marked as yet another failure. In the offseason, Philadelphia swung a deal to acquire new franchise centerpiece Andrew Bynum, shipping the old one to Denver.
Perhaps it was because there were only two years left on Iguodala’s exorbitant contract or perhaps it was because he was brought in not as an individual savior but rather a strong addition to a talented collective, but for whatever reason Iggy was far more embraced in Denver than he ever was in Philly. The baggage of multiple stunted playoff appearances and disappointing seasons were gone and Iggy thrived in his new role as a Nugget.
Like most of the Nuggets, Iggy had a rough first couple months, most likely born from both the brutal road schedule that plagued Denver until February and the adjustment to a new team. He eventually found his bearings and helped propel Denver to a borderline top ten defense, despite playing a breakneck pace. During the playoffs, Iguodala was a lone bright spot, one of the few Nuggets who actually played up to their regular season averages and even a bit beyond them. His future with Denver is currently up in the air, but we’ll get to that.
As you can see from the chart, Iguodala is responsible for a big chunk of Denver’s total assist (nearly 22% of them to be exact) and for an offense that is predicated on having at least two capable ball handlers with a premium on passing at all times, Iggy is invaluable. Iguodala also happens to be third among non-point guards in the league in assist rate and is one of the most gifted passers in the league. His court vision, his ability to to toe the baseline and make a nearly balletic move to get a bounce pass around a defender, and his cross-court passes in transition were among the biggest catalysts for his numerous comps to the king of the point forward, LeBron James.
Iggy excels as the primary ball handler both in the pick and roll and in isolation, beating his man off the dribble and charging into the teeth of the defense. As he charges, using his perpetually underrated handle, he sees the court splayed out before him like a chess board, with players on both teams pawns he can use in his never ending quest for an easy basket. He also happens to always be four or five moves ahead of these pawns, which helps.
One worrying trend throughout the season was a tendency to accumulate turnovers, and they tended to happen in disastrous bunches. Iggy’s turnover rate of 17.1% is not only the worst mark of his career since his third season, it comes in a year where his usage rate wasn’t nearly as high. More or less this means that he is turning the ball over more despite handling the ball less. Many of these turnovers come from the fatal mistake of jumping with the ball before knowing what to do with it, a flaw you frequently find in these hybrid passing forward types (LeBron and Paul Pierce come to mind as falling victim to this as well). Hopefully this is a blip and not a trend.
It doesn’t really matter how you present it, its pretty easy to see Iggy can’t shoot. He remains as efficient as ever at the rim, both in getting there and finishing. Like LeBron, a lot of his shots at the rim come from transition dunks but Iguodala has always been adept at scoring around the rim, in the open court or in traffic. Denver utilized Iggy’s touch around the rim by running sets where a big (usually Faried or Koufos) sets a pin down screen for a cutting Iguodala coming from the weak side.
Iguodala averaged a career high in three pointer attempts (3.7 a game) and it unfortunately came on 31.7% shooting. Taking nearly four threes a game for such a poor shooter can be dismissed partly as a system problem, Denver’s dribble drive system produced a ton of threes and Iggy was not the only poor shooting Nugget that took an unusually large number of threes. However Iguodala is not blameless here, many a times he took the always ill-advised PUJIT three or broke the offense for no particular reason to take a three the defense hardly ever bothered to defend (he shot a dismal 26.2% from three out of isolations per Synergy). When he was spotting up at the wings he was at least a passable shooter and thus not as much of a spacing liability. However defenses were soon wise to his inability to convert corner threes (the right one being an especially forlorn graveyard of bricked shots) and nearly stopped closing out on him altogether.
I’ve always found it interesting how maligned Josh Smith is for his poor shot selection and yet Iguodala usually gets by scott free. Both are excellent defenders and distributors and while Iggy’s shooting prowess is not exactly lauded he does not get hit with the type of venomous bile Smith does for every bricked jumper he takes. In fact the similarities between the two’s shot distributions are frighteningly similar:
24% of Iguodala’s shots come from the midrange, an area he shoots 31% in, while 28% of Josh Smith’s shots come from that same mid range spot, where he shoots 30%. The question becomes wether this means we are overrating Iguodala or underrating Smoove, my personal opinion is leaning to the latter. I guess the answer will come in the form of Smith’s next contract and how it stacks up to what Iggy got and will get after he opts out.
Alas the greatest part of Iguodala’s game is one that is extremely hard to evaluate in the form of the exact statistical measures that we can parse from his offensive game. Yet the rudimentary defensive stats we do have speak volumes to his immense impact. A quick gander at Iggy’s defensive splits will show that the Nuggets go from the 7th best defense in the league (tied with Miami) with him on the court to 23rd (just ahead of Detroit) with him off.
Individually, Synergy has him ranked as the 11th best isolation defender in the league (factoring in the contextless way Synergy logs these defensive stats Iggy is probably even higher on the list than that) and in 118 attempts he was only scored on 28% of the time all while forcing 26 turnovers. In summation, don’t get caught in an iso with Andre Cash Rules Everything Around Me C.R.E.A.M. Get The Money Iguodala Dala Bills Y’all guarding you.
Even taking a step back from the statistics, Iguodala’s fingerprints are all over Denver’s massive improvement defensively this season. The perpetuating defensive issues that plagued Denver for nearly a decade were threefold: a coach whose tended to forfeit defense in a quest for better offense, a roster that rarely had more than a couple above average defenders on it, and a play style that produced a pace that always found itself near the top of the league (usually a killer for good defense). Its hard to say that much changed from then to now, other than Iggy’s arrival. Karl (although perhaps not the defensive illiterate that many make him out to be) didn’t change the way he coached, outside of Iggy only three Nuggets consistently played above average defense (Brewer, a gambler even in the best of times, Chandler, gone for most of the year, and Gallo), and they still placed second in the league in pace. The difference was Iguodala, and his absolute evisceration of any type of penetration had just as much impact as any of the league’s top defensive centers did at guarding the paint.
There is not much more to say about his defense other than the man is a maestro. He sets his feet and locks eyes with his man, but he knows about every little movement, screen, and switch going on behind him. He laughs in the face of a simplistic pick and roll, blowing them up much like a hedging center would, except he does it by himself, slipping the screen he sees coming from a mile away and cutting off that little bit of daylight into the lane with all the vicious grace of a panther. His isolation defense has been described using such phrases like “defending like he is on bath salts” and “oh my god did he just eat Aaron Afflalo’s face????” (those two things may or may not have somethings to do with each other). He swallows dribbles and snips lanes, he implodes the explosive and impedes the careening. He is Andre Cash Rules Everything Around Me C.R.E.A.M. Get The Money Iguodala Dala Bills Y’all and he’ll defend the shit out of you.
What happens with Iguodala will really be the biggest tell for how the front office views this team and how they are going to move forward with it. By all accounts Iggy is likely to opt out of his deal, a move most aging players make when suddenly years and security becomes slightly more important than yearly salary. From a purely outsider’s perspective, it seems as if Iguodala enjoyed playing in Denver and would likely resign if the money is right. The question becomes, what is Iggy’s current market value and how much is too much for Denver to commit.
Iguodala is past his days as a max guy, with both that particular perception of him fading as well as his age making it all the more dangerous to hand a guy who so heavily relies on his athleticism five more years. But even with a down offensive year, Iguodala’s sheer defensive impact proved just how valuable he can still be and there are a bevy of teams willing to shell out for an elite wing defender.
The most ideal option for Denver is to remain as flexible as possible going into next year while still trying to see what they have, which more or less means Iggy playing out his final year. This may (and likely will) not be an option however and Denver’s decision to match or re-up Iguodala may be the beginnings of a locking in process that they have thus far avoided. Keeping Iggy means the front office feels like they are ready to commit to this team setup and the potential success that it can bring. Passing on him likely means the team is still in a state of flux, where roster flexibility is valued above all else.
Regardless of the decision this is a season that will that no future act can take away. Andre Iguodala played a total of 86 games this season. Most games were rife with bricked jumpers amid gloriously hounding defense and some were full of face-palming turnovers and earth shattering dunks. And then there were those games were everything clicked, the games that wowed you and made you think those unreachable heights of yesteryear were once again possible. After seeing enough of Iggy’s work to grow unadulteratedly awed by his efforts, I tried to go out of my way to turn my head just so and squint just right to see the player everyone once wanted him so desperately to be (myself included). But I couldn’t. All I saw was Iggy, for all his strengths and faults, and no one else. Maybe he’s been in the league long enough to have shed all player comps or maybe he just found his right role in Denver where people have finally accepted what and who he is.
Or maybe we were the ones at fault from the very start, trying to peg down an individual so undefinable. Because there are no men like Andre Iguodala, there is only him.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
Among the many collections of humans who cling to common interests in an attempt to escape the vast loneliness of the universe, sports fans may be the most susceptive to the plague of insanity. We go into each season with a certain set of restrained expectations and yet, despite ourselves, we let those expectations oscillate widely, overreacting to the most recent trends, sometimes even on a game by game basis. We set a goal for our teams, a motto to champion and stand by during the season: make it to the playoffs, make it to the second round, or even just get better (and sometimes “just get worse” when your tanking).
Inevitably that barometer for success that we promised ourselves we would adamantly stand by gets moved as the winds shift from favorable to otherwise. Failure to meet the expectations just breeds resigned disappointment and exceeding them just produces loftier goals. Thats the problem, its impossible to be satisfied with the status quo, even if it happens to be a far superior place then where the team was previously.
As I write this piece, the Celtics are just coming up short in what would have been a historic comeback in Game 6, and ended their season giving the Knicks a scare the likes of which only the Zombie Celtics could. And while, when this series was 3-0 in favor of New York, Celtic’s fans would have taken this scenario in a second, the pain of losing still cuts deep.
Because expectations were elevated after Game 5, the sacred 2004 Red Sox were invoked, and an irrational hope was taken up in Boston. Celtics fans should have known better, as after last year’s brush with potentially upsetting Miami crushed all the good vibes of having them go so much farther then anyone could have possibly imagined. As I say, insanity.
This brings us to the now posthumous 2012-13 Denver Nuggets and the expectations that ended up souring the season. Denver, from the front office to the fans, came into the season knowing this was a work in progress, a young team just entering their adolescence. And then the season happened. 57 wins happened. A three seed happened. Before the Gallinari injury, many had pegged Denver as a rising dark horse contender in the unfairly competitive West.
Expectations for the team skyrocketed and went from “make progress as the team grows” to “make waves in the playoffs”. The team got better, Ty Lawson played up to his contract extension, Faried made progress on defense, Brewer and Chandler had perhaps their best years as pros, and Andre Iguodala’s defensive campaign was one of the best in the league. The team finally showed signs of being able to defend at a near elite level while still playing at a fast pace and their crunch time issues seemed a thing of the past as their reliance on isolations fell by the wayside.
Then the playoffs began and Denver ended up playing the worst possible matchup for them out of maybe any team in the Western Conference. The Nuggets greatest weakness happened to be the Warriors greatest strength and just to add insult to injury everyone on Golden State decided to have the series of their lives.
Everything positive that helped win Game 1 came back to bite Denver; Andre Miller’s fantastic game served as a justification for Karl’s over reliance on him and Lee’s injury forced an otherwise unwilling Mark Jackson to go small. Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Jarrett Jack decided to go NOVA as Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer’s shooting hit the playoff wall with a fury not seen since the heyday of Matt Bonner’s notorious collapses.
Denver’s crunch time offense reverted to “the chicken with its head cut off” routine that plagued them so often last year and Stephen Curry took advantage of Lawson’s size, treating his contests like they weren’t even there (and honestly, they really weren’t a most of the time). Karl’s greatest coaching vice was on full display as Andre Miller proceeded to tank Denver’s chances of winning as his minutes grew and his defense on Curry was somehow even more egregious then Lawson’s.
After a furious comeback in Game 6, powered by some unlikely Iggy three pointers, the Nuggets eventually fell and shambled out of Oracle, wading their way through a swath of gold confetti as “Celebration” blasted all around them. This was the moment that 29 fan bases feel, the moment where their teams play their last game of the year and the law of ever increasing expectations forces them to not leave the season satisfied.
This moment hurt all the worse for Nuggets fans, as their history of premature first round exits is a painful one. Its these traumatic experiences that have more or less been the catalyst of the overreaction to the loss, the burn it to the ground mentality that would have George Karl fired and everyone on the team traded.
The Nuggets’ were a playoff disappointment, this is a fact hard to deny, but the extent to which some fans are slamming on the panic button is not alarming only due to the fact that it is a depressingly predictable response. The insanity of sports fans knows no bounds when it comes to their team and they, when left to their devices, would run roughshod over everything from the organization to the players.
In this time of vengeful bitterness, born from the melancholic daze of once again failing to advance, I implore perspective. Think about where this team was at the beginning of the year and where it is now, think about the expectations coming into the season, and the ultimate goal of starting the maturation process for a youthful team still in transition.
This past season is in ashes. The eventually unwieldy cathedral built upon ever loftier expectations was burnt to a crisp through lack of shooting, a shaky front court rotation, and (most importantly) Golden State’s otherworldly performance. And yet the preverbal phoenix of renewed hope has already begun to rise, as it does after the death of every season, and has already adeptly avoided the heaps of water aimed at giving it an early death.
And so it begins again. A promise of set and restrained expectations that will inevitably get broken and the hope for a better season than the last. The insanity that is the eternal infliction of all sports fans deem that this coming season will most likely again end in disappointingly familiar anguish, and yet even acknowledging this I cannot help but be excited for whats to come. The beautiful unknown with all its limitless potential that makes up every offseason is ahead of us, made even more intriguing by the transitional state of the team and the flexibility of the roster.
And thus this blog begins, rising from the Warriors induced ashes and into the uncertain future. We will mourn the great season that was, evaluate where the team is now (player by player), and where they are headed going into next season.
By definition, insanity means doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results and history tells us we are most likely going to end this coming season in a similar place as the last. But the ride to get there is what keeps us addicted, no matter the predictable sad ending. They say misery loves company, so with that extraordinarily depressing maiden voyage of a post into the NBA blogosphere, I welcome you to A Game of Nuggets.