*Photo via Getty Images
How does a team go from good to great?
On the surface, the correlation is simple: the more talented basketball players you have, the better your team should be. This simple equation, however, fails to factor in coaching, player health, salary caps, team chemistry and other intangibles. Despite these variables, many experts will argue that in a player-driven league like the NBA, pure talent will ultimately trump any collateral weaknesses. Take the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, for example. That group was so much more talented than their opponents, Jacque Vaughn could have coached them to the gold. However, I’m not here to debate the importance of coaching or luck or any other factors that may play a vital role in a team’s success. In fact, I’m going to predominantly ignore everything else and focus exclusively on player talent as if we lived in a Pleasantville-like utopia where injuries, money and officiating are not an issue.
Even a team entirely stacked with talent, still faces the overarching issue of scarcity. You could have 12 Hall of Famers on your roster, but the reality is only five players are allowed on the court at a time for 48 minutes per game. How those 240 total minutes are allocated amongst the players truly matters to everyone involved and not all minutes are created equal. Since Dr. Naismith somehow procured those infamous peach baskets and nailed them to a wall, there has been a clear delineation between those who start a basketball game on the floor, and those who start it on the bench. The stigma of beginning the game sitting on hard wood vs. competing on hardwood is learned at an early age, and permeates the psyche of players even at the highest level.
In direct opposition to this concept of scarcity is another ubiquitous force that plagues the NBA: man’s ego. Famed author and lesser-known basketball enthusiast Ayn Rand once said:
“The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men.”
Needless to say, Rand was not the “distributor” in her local novelist recreation league. If alive today I’m certain she would be the sitting president of the Dion Waiters Fan Club; however, she does bring up an interesting dilemma. Nearly every single NBA player, since his childhood, has grown up being “the guy” on his team. From elementary school pick-up games, to AAU, through college, NBA players have always been the best on their respective teams, and treated accordingly. In order to play at an NBA level, a player must have an extraordinary amount of confidence in himself and his abilities. In order to be a star at the NBA level, a player must be his own hero, à la Matthew McConaughey.
Just watch as an over-the-hill Allen Iverson bristles at the very notion of coming off the bench:
As usual, Iverson speaks in the third person to verbalize the general feeling of the population. It is this Iversonian attitude that makes it so special when a proven player in this league swallows his pride and agrees to the duties of a sixth man. Take a look throughout league history at the various dynasties and the sixth men that helped proliferate and sustain their team’s success:
Bird’s Celtics had Hall of Famers Kevin McHale and Bill Walton
Jordan’s Bulls had Toni Kukoc (who was criminally underrated)
The Shaq / Kobe Lakers had one of the most clutch shooters of all time in Robert Horry
Duncan’s Spurs have future Hall of Famer, Manu Ginobili
The team in today’s NBA that is benefiting most from setting its collective ego aside is the Golden State Warriors. Most of the Warriors’ second unit, including Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston, Maurice Speights, Festus Ezeli and even David Lee, could start on most NBA teams. Hell, their 15th man Ognjen Kuzmic, could probably start for the Knicks. The most glaring example of this kind of sacrifice, however, is embodied by Warriors sixth man and star reserve, Andre Iguodala.
Although both former 76ers All Stars share the same initials, Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala have little else in common when it comes to their approach to the game. After being selected by Philadelphia with the 9th overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft, Iguodala has spent much of his career being miscast as a primary scoring option. Iguodala did manage to achieve some success in this role by dragging a few overachieving Sixers teams to the playoffs and making the 2012 All Star team, but there was always a mismatch between Iggy’s play-making, pass-first mindset and the Sixers’ need for an alpha dog scorer. Iguodala’s skill-set was so highly valued that he was asked to represent the U.S. as a member of the gold medal winning 2012 Olympic team. His versatility and unselfish playing style was immediately embraced and lauded by teammates and coaches alike. LeBron said of Iggy, “He’s great for our team, he can do everything. We need a guy who’s not afraid to do the little things. He’s going to be huge for us.”
Fast-forward to last season (2013-2014) when Iggy made his debut for the Golden State Warriors joining Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup with reserves Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green coming off the bench. The team had a strong regular season finishing with 51 wins, good enough for second place in the Pacific Division. The team faltered in the playoffs, however, losing a 7 game series in the first round to a talented Los Angeles Clippers team, prompting the termination of head coach Mark Jackson. Despite the disappointing finish, Iguodala proved to be a huge addition for the Warriors, earning NBA All Defensive First Team honors.
When Steve Kerr took the reigns as head coach, it would have been easy to preserve the status quo and run back another 50 win season based solely on talent. Instead, Kerr saw an opportunity to simultaneously empower the struggling Harrison Barnes and improve the team’s bench unit by swapping the two players in the starting line-up. This move would require 100% buy-in from a former franchise player, All Star and Olympic gold medalist who had started in every single one of his previous 758 career games.
At first Iguodala was understandably skeptical about the demotion, but he handled his business like a true professional. In terms of statistical production, according to NBA.com, Iguodala finished this past season with the following rankings among bench players who played in at 2/3 of regular season games:
1st in Plus / Minus (Point differential in the score while player is on the floor)
1st in Steals Per Game
1st in Minutes Per Game
9th in Assists Per Game
8th in Offensive Rating (Points scored per 100 possessions while player is on the floor)
6th in Defensive Rating (Points allowed per 100 possessions while player is on the floor)
1st in Net Rating (Difference between Offensive and Defensive Ratings)
What resulted was a historically good 67-win season that ranked as the third greatest regular season of all time according to FiveThirtyEight Sports’ Elo Ratings:
If Sixth Man of the Year were anything more than a scoring contest, Iguodala would have run away with the award. However, regular season wins and trivial end of year recognition were not the reasons Iguodala made this sacrifice. When a team experiences this level of success, its championship or bust from the media and general public’s perspective.
Iguodala has been equally spectacular this postseason in helping this Warriors team march through a loaded Western Conference. As usual, his per game averages of 9.7 points / 4.5 rebounds / 3.5 assists / 1.2 steals fail to tell the story of Iggy’s value. In the last series Iguodala was often tasked with defending MVP runner-up / human Woody Woodpecker, James Harden. Watch as our hero helps hound Harden into a playoff record 13 turnovers:
Iggy uses his length, strength, quickness, instincts and preparation to make life difficult for opposing teams’ best perimeter players. Andre’s true value did not become overtly apparent until Game 1 of these NBA Finals when he proved to be the only Warrior who could slow LeBron. Take a look at LeBron’s stats against Iggy compared to his numbers against the rest of the Warriors defenders per ESPN’s Micah Adams:
18-of-54 (33%) when guarded by Iguodala in this series
47-of-109 (43%) when guarded by anyone else
24% from the field on contested shots against Iguodala
41% on contested shots vs. anyone else
85% of his shots when guarded by Iguodala have been contested
78% of his shots guarded by anyone else have been contested
Micah sums it up saying, “So in short, Iguodala is contesting James' shots more often and having more success when contesting those shots.” Sounds like defense to me. And if those numbers don’t convince you, take a look for yourself at these Game 1 highlights:
Combine that defense with plays like this and the Warriors figure to be in good shape to win their first title since 1975, saving Kerr from getting his ass kicked by Iggy for making him come off the bench. If the rest of this Golden State team can learn from Iguodala’s selfless attitude and embrace their roles, forget winning just one championship. The Warriors may have a dynasty of their own when it’s all said and done.