When Mark Jackson was appointed as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors in June of 2011, he vowed to alter his team’s identity and introduce a seemingly foreign concept – defense. The Warriors had just finished the season 26th in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.7 points per 100 possessions. Jackson’s ambition, while admirable, was laughable considering the players he had at his disposal.
The team which Jackson took over would be best described as a medieval knight, equipped with nothing but a chain mail and a broadsword – capable of inflicting grievous wounds, but not without taking severe damage in return. To inoculate his team from the self-destructive approach, Jackson had to restructure the roster.
Trading away Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut was not only a firm commitment to Stephen Curry’s potential, but also an early manifestation of Jackson’s initial plan. Following an incandescent run in the playoffs, the Warriors were so encouraged and intrigued that they went all in order to add what they hoped would be the last piece to the puzzle in Andre Iguodala.
Iguodala was an unrestricted free agent but the Warriors, who were over the salary cap, had to pay a steep price to land him. They surrendered multiple first-round and second-round draft picks to get rid of their bad contracts. To create enough room, the Warriors also had to refrain from re-signing two of their most important bench players in Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack. In hindsight, the audacious investment is turning out to be worth it.
With statistical impact carrying a significant amount of weight in the NBA, intangibles are easy to neglect. Iguodala has a whole bunch of them. Calm and collected, methodical in his approach to basketball, he embodies the characteristics this team needed and partially lacked. In a variety of ways, he glues the Warriors together.
Veterans often show up in big moments and keep their younger teammates grounded. When Curry was double-teamed by the Atlanta Hawks with 3.2 seconds left on the clock and Golden State down by two points, Iguodala was there to knock down the game-winning three. When Curry made the game-winning jumper against the Boston Celtics, and the whole team broke out in preemptive euphoria, Iguodala walked up to Curry and reminded him, and the rest of the team, that there was still time on the clock and the game was not over.
Above everything else, Iguodala has been the defensive anchor on the perimeter that coach Jackson was looking for. When the 29-year-old injured his hamstring, the Warriors reverted back to their old ways. In his 12-game absence, the Warriors allowed 105 points per 100 possessions, which would rank them among the bottom 10 teams in defensive efficiency. Iguodala’s comeback sparked Golden State to a 10-game winning streak and the team went 12-2 in the first 14 games since his return, allowing just 94.9 points per 100 possessions along the way. That number would rank second only to the Indiana Pacers this year and would have ranked first in defensive efficiency last season.
But what makes him such a high-impact guy defensively?
Iguodala has the athletic ability to chase guys around screens and close out on shooters, but his greatest defensive proficiency is his intelligence. He guards every guy differently, because he does his homework. He knows that the toughest defensive assignment on any given night falls on his shoulders and he has always seemed to relish that.
Sometimes, often intentionally, Iguodala gives up a baseline drive to bait his opponent into a position where he knows he will have Bogut or another big man to help him. When guarding guys in the post, he forces them to catch the ball outside of their comfort spots. Whoever is the matchup – a sturdy forward or an expeditious guard – Iguodala generally knows how to restrict the guy in front of him.
Other than his stellar defense, Iguodala has seamlessly adapted to the Warriors’ offense, which continues to run through Curry, Klay Thompson and David Lee. Iguodala merely picks his spots as the fourth option, and is shooting 50% from the field and 42.5% from beyond the arc, both career-highs, as a result.
There are only a handful teams in the NBA that are considered serious title contenders. The teams in the tier below are often one or two players short. That is the group to which Golden State belonged to last season. Iguodala has undoubtedly made the team better and the ostensible objective is to contend for a championship. Whether or not we are witnessing a temporary mirage remains to be determined, but one thing is certain – the knight is now fully equipped and presents a nightmare matchup to most of the daunting Western Conference.