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Iguodala a uniquely valuable player for Warriors

Photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Andre Iguodala has helped the Warriors emerge as one of the NBA's best defensive teams.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Watch Warriors small forward Andre Iguodala in any given game these days and you may be inclined to think to yourself, Damn, what happened to that guy?

After all, Iguodala was once a triple-double threat, back in Philadelphia. Two years ago, he was an All-Star and won an Olympic gold medal. And now? Now he averages single digits (9.4 points per game), is tentative on offense and can appear, to the casual fan, to spend much of the game doing very little.

But watch a sequence of Warriors games, or better yet do so alongside a coach, scout or former player, and you'll see something different. You'll see in Iguodala, 30, a uniquely valuable player, a team-first, ball-handling wing who fundamentally alters the way the Warriors can defend, allowing them to switch more pick-and-rolls and double few, if any, elite scorers. You'll see a player who averages close to two steals while rarely gambling, who recovers with remarkable speed to shooters, who has at times guarded opposing point guards when Stephen Curry can't or is out of the game. You'll see the rare -- or is that the only? -- former All-Star still in his prime who's been willing to drastically sublimate his offensive game for the good of the team (Chris Bosh, for all his sacrifices in Miami, is still averaging 16.9 points).

The Iguodala Effect can be seen in the Warriors' record. They are 36-18 when he plays and 5-7 when he doesn't. It's also evident in his plus-minus rating, as he leads the league at plus-8.7, nearly a point higher than second-place Chris Paul and close to four points higher than LeBron James.

The end result is that Iguodala exists in a weird basketball limbo, simultaneously seen as both disappointing and integral, one of the Warriors' greatest strengths and one of their core weaknesses. In some respects, he represents a flash point in the shift between old and new valuations of NBA players.

It must be a strange space to inhabit.

*****

Iguodala learned long ago that there is little glory in defense.

During the worst days of his eight seasons with the Sixers, when the team missed the playoffs, Iguodala says he couldn't even walk from his City Center apartment to the Wawa down the street without hearing from the Philadelphia fans, who are famously encouraging and patient.

"Hey, Andre!" they'd shout.

Iguodala would turn and look, maybe wave.

"You f---ing suck!"

Sometimes Iguodala would hide behind a hoodie. Other times he just took it. When friends came to town, they were shocked. They really talk to you that way? Aren't you averaging 19, 5 and 5 and guarding the opponent's best player every night?

The experience hardened him. He was traded to Denver in August 2012 as part of the four-team deal involving Dwight Howard, then deemed a disappointment by some when he didn't score 20 points a game and lead the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals last season. By the time Iguodala came to the Bay Area, after signing a four-year, $48 million deal last summer, he'd become guarded, a bit cynical.

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"Being in Philly so long, you get used to fans being a certain way," he says. "You're kind of always waiting to be jabbed" -- and here he raises his hands up by his face -- "so you're waiting to counter."

In his first month with the Warriors, Iguodala could do little wrong. He threw lobs to streaking teammates, whipped behind-the-back passes on the break and soared for dunks. He hit a game-winner over the Thunder's Thabo Sefolosha in November. That month, he averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists.

Since then, however, his offensive numbers have slid dramatically -- 7.0 points in December, 8.3 in January and 8.6 the last two months. Part of the issue is a hamstring injury, which forced him to miss 12 games. For many players, it would have been a routine injury. But for Iguodala it was his first semi-serious basketball injury ever, which is nuts when you think about how long he's been playing. Then again, Iguodala's body does appear to consist of roughly 40 percent deltoid muscles. He attributes the phenomenon to "good genes" that have allowed him to be "put together like a specimen."

He returned from the injury in mid-December a different player. Hesitant to drive. Finishing less at the rim and passing up shots he should take, even as he's looked more spry over the last month or so. And here's the most flummoxing part: It's not because he's missing them. When he does shoot, Iguodala remains as effective as ever. Everything from his field-goal percentage to three-point percentage to true shooting percentage to effective field-goal percentage remain on par or above his career averages.

Photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Andre Iguodala is attempting only 7.5 shots per game, his lowest average since his rookie season of 2004-05.

Similarly, a spin through Synergy Sports, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com show that he rates as an "excellent" spot-up shooter this season (1.03 points per possession), is excellent on post-ups and cuts (1.054 and 1.389 PPP, respectively) and, surprisingly, ranks among the league elite in unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers (1.589 PPP, good for the 96th percentile). All of which makes Warriors fans wonder, in effect: Why the hell won't he shoot more? His 7.5 shot attempts per game are the lowest since his rookie season.

Sitting courtside after practice earlier this week, Iguodala offers a few explanations.

"I can and will score," he says. "But I think the one thing I learned playing this game, it comes to those who put in the work, who do it the right way. So if I were to go up there and force up shots, just because I felt like I should get more shots, it would throw off everything for the team."

Rather, Iguodala says, it's a situational matter.

"When the time comes, playoff time, that's when it starts to come," he says. "A team plays the percentages and says, 'He's not a guy who can score as much this year,' so they'll leave me open or I'll have more opportunities, and then it'll come. That's why I don't press. I know it'll come. I know the angle, I know where we're trying to get. I'm fine where I'm at, as long as we're continuing to win games."

Being this unselfish is not, he says, a sacrifice he could have made six or seven years ago, when he was playing for a contract and trying to set up his family for the future.

"Now I've done what I was supposed to do, contract-wise, and I can sacrifice," he says. "It's really hard for guys like Klay [Thompson, the Warriors' third-year shooting guard]. It'd be hard for me to say, 'Klay, don't go out there and try to get your money.' There have been many times I've been wide open and I pass it, because I say, 'This young guy's gotta eat! Klay, get your money!' You gotta take care of each other. Now I'm in a position where I can take care of my other guys."

*****

To focus on Iguodala's offense too much misses the point, though. It's the defense that sets him apart, even if it's sometimes hard to discern his impact from afar.

"He allows us to stay simple with our game plans," Curry says. "Historically here, we've always had to bring more attention to those wing guys that are great scorers, like [Kevin] Durant or James. Having a guy like Dre, you can let him play one-on-one and stick to your normal team defense. You don't have to do anything creative to put those guys under duress, because he can do it on his own."

As evidence, Curry cites Iguodala's length and versatility, his ability to guard multiple positions, his deflections and the value of making an opposing scorer hesitant.

"Obviously," Curry says, "none of that stuff shows up in the stat sheet, except for the occasional game where he gets a lot of steals."

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Andre Iguodala (right) helps the Warriors in ways that aren't showcased in the box score.

Iguodala says no one ever taught him defense, at least not apart from the drills and instruction at basketball camps. It was just one of those things he was good at it. Similarly, he says he had no defensive mentors, though he did have idols.

"I used to watch Scottie Pippen guarding Mark Jackson in the Eastern Conference finals and he kind of shut off the whole court on him," Iguodala says. "I've tried to do that before and people don't know how amazing that is. At a young age, that just stood out to me. I guess that formed the mold of the type of player I am."

Now, 10 years into his career, he feels like he knows as much as anybody.

"Especially coaches who've been coaching 7-8 years in the league and they didn't play, I joke with them all the time," Iguodala says. "I say, 'I've been in the NBA longer than you.' So when they give me an assignment or a scouting report and they say I did something wrong, I'm like, 'Who are you to say it was wrong?' "

With any opponent, Iguodala begins with research. He rarely relies on scouting reports anymore, though he always reads them as a "refresher," just as he watches film to pick up tendencies and look for any new plays a team has installed. Mainly, though, he says he reviews the clips he stores in his head, "kind of like a memory card." Then Iguodala will examine how a player has shot in the previous five games, so he'll know the mentality of his opponent. On Sunday, when the Warriors hosted the Suns, for example, this is where the danger light flashed. Phoenix's Gerald Green had been red hot, scoring 33 and 41 points in two of his three previous games. Furthermore, Iguodala knew that Green was the rare shooter who, when on, would take and hit bad shots, similar to the Lakers' Nick Young and the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, only more athletic.

"He's in that comfort level where you don't even want him to catch the ball," Iguodala says.

In cases like this, Iguodala might deviate from the team game plan.

"Deny might not be a principle that we're using that night, but I might use it because I know, 'Hey, if I can keep the ball out of this guy's hands, then it's one less possession he has to get comfortable come the fourth quarter,' " Iguodala says.

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Thompson was the first defender on Green, who once again got going early. Iguodala watched, and noticed how Green was getting his shots -- step-back, off-the-dribble three-pointers, often after three or four hard dribbles. Those were tough shots. In the second half, it was Iguodala's turn to take on Green. Immediately, he went into deny mode, even though Green had cooled off a bit. He didn't want him to see even one good look to get warmed back up.

When Green did get the ball, Iguodala focused on making him take a tough two-point shot. He pressured him, a calculated risk considering Green's quickness on a potential drive. Green's response was to create space by dribbling.

Iguodala recounts one play where he picked up Green in the corner: "He sized me up on the wing , dribble, I pressured him, dribble dribble, dribble, he drove hard left. I kind of cut him off and he had a nice step-back, shot a tough two, missed it." The most important thing to Iguodala in this case was that Green didn't take a three-pointer. "If he makes it, I'm fine with that. Tough shot, and two doesn't kill you from that far away. Three hurts you."

In the end, the Warriors won and Iguodala had a typical Iggy game: seven points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals. He felt good about how he played.

Such is not always the case. Sometimes Iguodala will go home and replay a single defensive possession over and over. For example, he's still pissed about one in a game against Houston, on Feb. 20. He was guarding James Harden and felt he did a "pretty solid job" overall. "But on one play I gambled, went for a steal, and gave him his left hand. He gets in, puts his body into me, steps back, gets a good look. I've played that back in my mind a few times."

So, to sum up: Iguodala cares about defense so much that he's still pissed about a single play from three weeks ago, in a game the Warriors won. Now tell me, as a basketball fan: Isn't that the type of guy you want on your team?

*****

Photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Andre Iguodala says it's easier for him to sacrifice on offense now that he's more established in the NBA.

The answer in the Bay Area so far has been a resounding "yes." The Warriors' announcers make a point to cite Iguodala's league-leading plus-minus stat on the air. Jackson, Golden State's coach, lauds his star defender. The top Warriors writers have noted Iguodala's value and his effect on the team's defense, which has improved from 13th in points allowed per possession last season to third.

The result is that, among a certain subset of the hoops community, Iguodala has become, in some respects, the opposite of teammate David Lee. The 30-year-old power forward piles up impressive popcorn stats, collecting double-doubles and making All-Star teams. But, a few years ago, basketball people started to focus on his (mainly defensive) deficiencies and, as result, there was a backlash. This led to a precipitous devaluing of Lee, one that has perhaps gone overboard at times.

If there has been a pendulum swing, Iguodala hasn't noticed it. He correctly notes that plus/minus is a flawed stat, one that depends on team rotations and other variables ("I take all of them with a grain of salt," he says of advanced stats). In a larger sense, he says he's tried to divest himself from public opinion.

"At this point, I really don't care," he says. "I don't care to do interviews anymore. I've done it all. I'm just trying to get wins. If we win, I'm in a good mood."

The good vibes keep coming from Warriors fans. To be honest, it's kind of weirding Iguodala out.

"Every interaction I've had with the fans, man, they've been awesome," he says. "I'll feel like I had an awful game and fans are like, 'You played great, glad to have you on the team, man, we wouldn't have wanted to have nobody else.' I'll be like, 'Man, what the hell?' "

He pauses. "Here, you can kind of let your hands down [unlike Philadelphia], but you kind of want to put them back up. I have to get used to it. I'm still on guard."

*****

Which leaves us with what looks like a nice moral to the story. Perhaps defense and the little things in basketball -- the vaunted "intangibles" -- are finally being valued, at least more than before. Surely this must be heartening to Iguodala, right?

Don't be so sure. While talking about his 6-year-old son, who's already "like a little basketball encyclopedia," Iguodala is asked if he's focusing on teaching his boy defense, so he can grow up to be like his old man. Iguodala doesn't hesitate.

"Nope, I'm telling him the opposite," he says. "I'm going to teach him to shoot every time. Never pass. I'm going to teach him to score."

He's joking, right?

Iguodala shakes his head.

"He's going to be a good defender because it's in his genes," Iguodala says. "I'm going to teach him the fundamentals, but just the way it's shaping up, you kind of have to have that scoring mentality. You don't get your credit if you're a good defender."

Iguodala notices a reporter's surprised expression.

"Hey," he says, "it's a scorers' league. I'm going to teach him to get 30 every night. That's the only way you'll get your just due."

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