As Bill Russell congratulated Andre Iguodala on winning perhaps the most improbable NBA Finals MVP award in more than 30 years, I recalled Iguodala’s lone season in Denver two years ago, when he was eliminated prematurely by the younger version of a team that, two years later, would transform his career.
The youngest iteration of the current Golden State Warriors ended the George Karl era in Denver, sending a 57-win Nuggets team packing in six games. Denver lost control of the series after getting run off the floor in Game 2, surrendering 131 points to Golden State as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 51 points and nine 3s. The Warriors shot 65 percent from the field that night while finishing plus-10 on the glass.
The pace of the game, something of a calling card historically for the Nuggets, was too much for the home team. The Warriors’ unique combination of offensive firepower and defensive competence was a nightmare for the Nuggets. Until that series, Denver had fancied itself a futuristic team, only unbeknownst to them it was Golden State whose destiny was to revolutionize the sport.
Iguodala was the best player, in a vacuum, on that Denver team — the 2012-’13 Nuggets essentially were a collection of bouncy athletes either drafted by Karl or acquired in the Carmelo Anthony trade. It was another mega-trade that landed Iguodala in Denver after eight seasons in Philadelphia: Iguodala was Denver’s prize for participating in the infamous Dwight Howard-Andrew Bynum deal.
Karl’s team was predicated on speed — forcing turnovers, pushing the pace at all costs, and driving at will to the basket. However, as San Antonio, Miami and Golden State have proven the past three years, the NBA was still drastically underutilizing the 3-point shot — a shot that, you know, is worth 50 percent more than all shots inside the arc. The Warriors proved to be a worthy market correction for the Nuggets, a team that simply couldn’t keep up behind the line, and too frequently outran its defensive responsibilities.
The San Antonio Spurs and LeBron James, fixtures in basketball legend that they are, can make us forget just how quickly the landscape of the NBA can shift. Then again, you can see it within their stories too — in the Spurs’ slow cook from bone-grinding post-up outfit to pace-and-space paterfamilias, and during the chosen one’s ascension in Cleveland, renaissance in Miami, and prodigal return home.
None of this is preordained. A draft-day deal, an Achilles Heel, a Decision — who wins and loses in this league comes down to the finest combination of talent, brain power, and dumb-freaking luck.
The disappointment of losing in round one for Iguodala in 2013 was coupled with the existential urgency of the ticking clock — he was 29 and entering unrestricted free agency for the final time as a star player. Watching Golden State up close, and vice-versa, opened Iguodala’s eyes to the future of the sport, and his potential fit on a team with lofty aspirations. It’s been reported Iguodala fell “in like” with the Warriors during that first round series, reportedly going as far as warning their players about Karl’s rough-him-up gameplan for Curry.
What if Denver and Golden State didn’t see each other that postseason? Would Iguodala have been so high on the Warriors’ minds? Would owner Joe Lacob and general manager Bob Myers have decided he was the missing piece, offering him a four-year, $48 million contract and unloading a pair of first round picks in order to open the necessary cap space to bring him in?
Perhaps, in an alternate basketball universe, Iguodala is currently vacationing in Cabo after another failed season with Houston or Dallas. It’s possible the Warriors never would have won 67 games and their first championship in 40 years without Iguodala. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, as Golden State fans cheer from Cleveland to Oakland and around the world, Iguodala has the hardware to show why he and the organization made the right decision two summers ago.
If there is one thing that stands out for me about the newly crowned Warriors, it’s the organization’s rapid ascension from no-man’s land to the promised land, aided by a series of great decisions and the benefit of uncanny timing. Drafting Curry in the lottery while others passed because of his size was a home run; Golden State deserves equal praise for purposefully sliding into the Harrison Barnes pick and turning an afterthought draft selection into Draymond Green the same year.
— Sean Deveney (@SeanDeveney) June 17, 2015
The Warriors turned Monta Ellis — an aging, overly sensitive, delusional talent — into Andrew Bogut. At the time, Bogut was something of a draft bust — an oft-injured former No. 1 overall selection who was a sound two-way player whenever he could stand up straight. Bogut missed the Clippers first-round playoff series in 2014, and many analysts snuck an asterisk next to Golden State on their preseason predictions this season because the team’s fate was seemingly tied to the health of its center.
Nine months later, the Warriors opted not to play Bogut in three consecutive NBA Finals games — all games they won. This after Bogut turned in perhaps the finest defensive campaign of his career, leading Golden State to the top defensive efficiency rating in the sport.
The greatest example of this organization’s unrivaled decision-making and favorable timing was the hiring of Steve Kerr. The Warriors had won 51 games in 2013-’14, blitzing basketball with its brand new starting lineup featuring Iguodala next to the Splash Brothers, David Lee and Andrew Bogut.
Their successes not withstanding, a first round exit to the Clippers — in addition to countless leaked reports of squabbling between the coaching staff and management — revealed several venerabilities of Mark Jackson’s team. They couldn’t score when Curry was on the bench; Golden State’s offensive philosophy was enshrouded in dust and isolation-crazed. For all the defensive growth the team had made under Jackson, a franchise led by Curry and Thompson should not be hurting for offensive efficiency.
From Day One with Golden State, Kerr made it clear he wasn’t overhauling all Jackson had accomplished, merely tweaking and fiddling to come up with a stronger product. Among his first decisions as head coach of the Warriors was moving Iguodala to the bench in favor of Barnes, who had struggled as a reserve under Jackson.
Kerr imagined Iguodala as the dynamo of the Warriors’ previously crippled bench units. New addition Shaun Livingston and Iguodala could come in and out of the lineup, wreaking havoc on opposing backcourts, guarding whoever they wanted wherever they pleased on the floor.
There was only one problem: Iguodala had never come off the bench before in his career. At $12.3 million per year, Iguodala makes more money than Curry; a few short years ago, he had competed for a gold medal against Spain in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Suddenly, after a banner season as the starting small forward on a rising contender in the West, a first-time head coach was asking Iguodala to embrace being a backup.
For many players, pride would get in the way of making this type of sacrifice. I can understand why! Iguodala had already accomplished more in his decade-long career than most players ever do. He could start seemingly anywhere else.
As we know, however, Iguodala bought in. Months later, after Golden State ran out to the quickest start in franchise history, and as the Warriors were preparing to defend home court in the crowded Western Conference playoffs, Iguodala had more than made peace with the decision.
“I don’t know if I should let this out of the bag,” Iguodala deadpanned to ESPN’s Hannah Storm in April, “but if we win the championship that will save me from having to kick Steve Kerr’s ass for bringing me off the bench. That will make me happy.”
I was as surprised as anyone when Adam Silver announced Iguodala as the 2015 NBA Finals MVP on Tuesday evening. On my Crossover Chronicles podcast appearance Monday with colleagues Sean Woodley and Joseph Nardone, I mentioned, as a joke, Iguodala’s name as a feel-good MVP story. It’s true that following his 22-point, eight-rebound performance in Game 4, Iguodala garnished some love as a possibility, but I determined it was wishful thinking — no way the media would vote somebody not named LeBron James or Stephen Curry as the winner.
Well, I was wrong. Only 11 media members voted after Game 6 — eight votes went to Iguodala, and only three votes went to LeBron — and the result reeks of a cooked book. (Really? Nobody voted for Curry — the MVP of basketball during the regular season; the greatest shooter of all-time; the man who sealed Game 5 with 37 points and had another 25 in Game 6?)
I had friends immediately bombarding me with text messages about the decision — some outraged, some smiling ear-to-ear. Hours later, I’m still wrapping my head around the idea that James somehow averaged 36 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in the Finals and (a) he didn’t win Finals MVP and (b) his team was run into the ground over three consecutive losses.
But after watching Iguodala shake hands with Bill Russell; hearing him carefully listen to Doris Burke’s questions and praise his God and Steph Curry; and seeing him play with his son in front of the entire world — Iguodala winning this award sits fine with me.
Andre Iguodala accepts the NBA Finals MVP award. WATCH http://t.co/YdZmGuGLkD
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 17, 2015
In a much different circumstance, his winning this award reminds me of how I felt watching Dirk Nowitzki take over the 2011 NBA postseason and seal his fate as an all-time great forward. Could you imagine if Nowitzki hadn’t won that title? Can you appreciate how differently he’d be remembered? He’s one of the greatest shooters and scorers we’ve ever seen, and he is possibly the greatest foreign player in NBA history — certainly one of them.
The diehards would have defended Nowitzki through it all, but there would have always been some skeptics — those who would have retroactively picked apart his accomplishments and claimed he was some sort of high-volume fraud. However, the 2011 title run is undeniable, bulletproof, indestructible. For one unbelievable stretch in 2011, Nowitzki was on top of the sport, and whenever I think of him, in a way, I think about his moment — taking down the West and then the early-period “Big Three” Miami Heat.
My apologies if this gets lost in the Nowitzki reference — Iguodala is not an all-time great. However, Iguodala is one of the most uniquely skilled players of his era: an all-world perimeter defender, a swiss-army knife, and a severely underrated athlete that always seemed to raise the temperature of any game he enters. Over six games, we got to see a master class on keeping up with LeBron James. No other Warrior stood a chance in that matchup game-in and game-out, and Iguodala made him work for everything he got.
If he had never won this title, however, how would we have remembered him? For a player of his ability, he was desperately missing a signature moment — the type of stage where Iguodala could solidify his legacy as a great stopper and dynamic playmaker.
When you think about all the tinkering that Kerr and David Blatt made during this series, no move had a greater consequence on the Finals than Kerr’s decision to insert Iguodala into the starting lineup of Game 4. A well-calculated chess move by Kerr, Iguodala spread the floor wide open, and Blatt had no choice but to remove Timofey Mozgov from his starting lineup in Game 5 as a result — something that weakened Cleveland’s already wrecked rotation.
The Cavaliers never truly recovered from it. Mozgov doesn’t have the leg speed to blitz Curry off the pick-and-roll and then get back to Iguodala, and when Cleveland ran the risk of leaving Mozgov out there to fend for himself, Iguodala made him pay with sure shooting on Sunday in Oakland:
Andre Iguodala already has 6 assists (1 shy of season-high), including this nifty behind-the-back pass to David Lee: http://t.co/SUkDJ3TCvT
— ESPN (@espn) June 15, 2015
Iguodala sealed his MVP on the offensive end. The Cavaliers forced Green, Barnes and Iguodala to make them pay for leaving them open — Curry and Thompson were going to have to work for everything they got. While Green and Barnes were inconsistent in making plays with the ball all series, Iguodala’s steady output (16.3 points and 4 assists on 52-percent shooting) turned things permanently in Golden State’s favor once he joined the starting lineup.
In Game 1 Iguodala hit two clutch 3s to help force OT. He forced James into 7-for-22 shooting in Game 4 and sank four 3s. Iguodala sank a 3 and fought through a foul to finish an and-1 layup to give Golden State a 91-84 lead in Game 5, breaking open what had been a razor-close game. He finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists on Sunday, and the Warriors were plus-16 with him on the floor.
Over six games, per NBA.com, the Warriors held Cleveland to 91.6 points per 100 possessions whenever Iguodala was on the floor, giving them a sensational net rating of 17.2.
The window for any title contender can shut anytime. While it’s possible Golden State could be back in the Finals next season and in many years to come, it’s just as likely the team goes another 40 years without winning a championship — there’s no way to predict these things.
This time around, Golden State was a juggernaut, posting an 83-20 record start-to-finish, and the Warriors still needed a career-defining performance from one of their reserves to put down one of the greatest players of all time.
From now on, when I think of Andre Iguodala, I’ll remember him going toe-to-toe with LeBron, winding up for corner 3s and pushing the ball on defensive rebounds. This was his moment, sealing the first championship for Golden State in 40 years. Let him have it.