To the Faithful Departed: Andre Iguodala

To the Faithful Departed: Andre Iguodala

This week, I'll be saying a proper goodbye to some longtime Sixers
players that won't be suiting up in the Red, White and Blue next season.
On Tuesday, we remembered Elton Brand. On Wednesday, Lou Williams. Today: Andre Iguodala, traded to Denver as part of the deal for Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson.

I
love Andre Iguodala. Always have, always will. He's a smart, talented,
exciting basketball player, who for a long time didn't get nearly the
league-wide respect that he deserved. He was the best guy on the Sixers
for a half-decade, and he got the Sixers to the playoffs in four of
those five years as their unofficial leader. I have an Iguodala jersey
that I wear proudly, even though the '00s Sixers jerseys were some of
the ugliest goddamn jerseys in basketball history. He was a great 76er,
and I will forever remember him as such.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I haven't been calling for him to
be traded for the last two-plus years. After the bitter disappointment
of the '09-'10 season, in which it became clear that 'Dre wasn't ever
going to be the first-option-type scorer that the Sixers wanted him to
be (and that they so badly needed), I concluded that neither Iguodala
nor the Sixers would ever reach their full potential with him at the
helm—a position I still hold today—and I figured it would be better for
both parties if they went their separate ways. (For what it's worth, the
Sixers seemed to agree with me, and he spent most of those two-plus
years on the trading block—though so many opportunities to deal him came
and went that it seemed like he might be on the trading block right
until the second his contract expired.)

Basketball can be a cruel sport when it comes to player evaluation.
As I talked about with Elton, it's a lot harder to be forgiving of
overpaid players in the NBA, because their contracts are always actively
prohibiting you from potentially making up for your lack of production
elsewhere. When Andre Iguodala was given his six-year, $80 million
contract in the summer of 2008, people expected him to be the Sixers'
do-everything kind of player, and that included being their most
skilled, most prolific scorer. When he wasn't able to do that, people
invariably pointed to that $80 million price tag, many of them declaring
his contract a failure as a result.

But here's the thing—unlike Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala wasn't ever
overpaid. In his four years as a Sixer post-contract extension, Andre
Iguodala was the team's best defender, one of the team's best passers,
one of the best rebounders, and easily the most durable player, playing
in every game from 2008-2010 and leading the league in minutes in
'08-'09. And for at least a couple of those years, he was also one of
their best scorers—it's easy to forget now, but he averaged nearly 19 a
game in '08-'09 on very respectable 47.3% shooting. Are you telling me
that that package wasn't worth the average of less than $12.5 mil a year
we paid him the last four seasons?

This is the other reason that basketball player evaluation can be
unfair. Let's say the Phillies had themselves a new 25-year-old center
fielder. He's a regular .300-.320 hitter who takes enough walks for a
regular OBP in the low .400s, he steals about 40-50 bases a year, he
always hustles and rarely misses a game, and he's one of the best
defensive center fielders in the game, as measured by both advanced
metrics and by highlight plays on MLB tonight. The only missing facet of
his game is that he doesn't have much of a power stroke—he shows
occasional flashes, but he generally only hits about 10-15 homers a
year.

If the Phillies signed him to a six-year, $80-million contract, and
he maintained all his previous skills but never hit more than 20 home
runs in a season, would you consider his contract a bust? Of course
not—you'd recognize that only a handful of players in a generation have
that set of skills AND can also hit for power, you'd be thrilled that
the Phils had themselves an ideal lead-off man and reliable
center-fielder, and you'd hope that they could get some other guys to
help drive him in a little further down the lineup. Even if they never
found those RBI guys, you wouldn't begrudge him for not developing that
power stroke—he does more than enough to justify that contract already,
and it's not his fault that management never found the guys to
complement him.

But because Iguodala's large contract was one of the reasons—though
not the biggest reason—that the Sixers were unable to go find themselves
that #1 scorer once it became clear that he wasn't going to be the guy,
he always took an unreasonable amount of criticism. Even as he
demonstrated day-in and day-out that he was the Sixers' best all-around
player, he would always have to answer for his lack of
scoring—especially in late-game situations, where he was regularly given
the ball, and very rarely came through with big buckets in big moments.
'Dre wasn't meant to be a closer, but without an obvious alternative,
basketball logic dictates that the ball should go to the team's best
player—which was Iguodala, but just not for those reasons.

It was tough to watch a lot of the time, especially because there was a moment—however brief—where it really seemed like 'Dre could
be that guy. In the team's first-round series against Orlando in 2009,
Iguodala's first season post-extension, the dude was brilliant,
averaging 21.5 points on 45% shooting (39% from deep), along with over
six rebounds and over six assists a game. And in the team's two Ws in
that series, he hit some absolutely huge shots, including a game-winning
jumper over Hedo Turkoglu's outstretched paw in Game One that ranks
only behind Sweet Lou's Miami-beater for my favorite Sixers shot of the
post-Iverson era. After struggling mightily against the Pistons the
playoffs before—just 13.2 points a game on miserable 33% shooting—it
seemed like 'Dre was about to make The Leap to an elite offensive, as
well as defensive player.

Needless to say, it didn't happen. 'Dre's scoring average and
field-goal percentage dropped the next season, and his late-game scoring
became particularly problematic. It seemed he had used up all his
clutchness in that Magic series, since he seemed physically unable to
hit a game-winning shot in the seasons that followed. Unfortunately for
'Dre, nobody else on the team stepped up to fill the closer role either,
so it kept defaulting to him, and he kept floundering. (Why NBA coaches
always insist that there be one guy playing iso ball at the end of
games, rather than running an actual play, remains beyond me, but Doug
Collins certainly wasn't going to be the guy to break that mold, and
Iguodala was the unfortunate victim of that basketball tradition.)

In the meantime, an odd thing happened—Iguodala's free-throw
shooting started to plummet. From '07-'10 he was a decent free-throw
shooter, converting at a clip in the low-mid 70s—not exactly Steve Nash,
but acceptable for a swingman. In 2010-'11, though, that slipped to
69%, and the next season, it fell all the way to 62%, unforgivably low
for a shooter. Of all the frustrating things about Andre Iguodala on
offense, this became the most irritating, and by the end of his tenure
as a Sixer, you just assumed that at best he was going to split his free
throws at the line, and just hoped he would at least hit the one.

That's what made Iguodala's ultimate moment of Sixers redemption, in
Game Six of the team's first-round series against the Bulls, so totally
perfect When he was fouled by Omer Asik in the final seconds of the
game, and went to the line with the Sixers down one and the chance to
(theoretically) make two and put them in the second round of the
playoffs, the possibility of him actually doing so seemed like maybe the
eight-most-likely outcome of that situation. Like always, I just hoped
he would make one, and force an overtime at home that we could maybe (maybe)
pull out. When he actually did make both, and then later acted like it
was no big deal and making clutch free throws was easy...I was too busy
laughing at the irony of the situation to even care that the team had
won their first post-season series in seven years. 

Of course, if any Sixers fans dared to dream that those FTs
represented some kind of turn-the-corner moment for Andre Iguodala, and
not some extremely well-timed fluke, they were brought back to reality
by the team's second-round series against Boston, in which 'Dre bricked
free throws with reckless abandon. He went a ridiculous 18-37 from the
line in that series, for a 49% rate even Shaq would be a little bit
humbled by, which included momentum swinging 0-2s in each of the team
final two losses. For better or worse—mostly better, but occasionally
worse—'Dre still was who he was.

And so, for the third straight off-season, 'Dre was rumored to be on
the trade market. But as the draft came and went, and then the team
made a host of off-season moves that appeared to settle their roster,
and Iguodala was still on the team, it looked inevitable that he would
once again start (and likely finish) the season as a Sixer. When I first
heard the rumor of the deal that would essentially trade Andre for
Andrew Bynum, I gave it about a 5% chance of actually happening. By that
point, all I really wanted for 'Dre was cap relief and a draft pick,
the idea of getting a possible franchise player for him was downright
inconceivable. The fact that we actually did get that kind of
return...well, it's a hell of a parting gift from a guy we didn't always
treat so well in Philadelphia.

One final note on 'Dre's tenure in Philadelphia: The team never got
that #1 scorer for 'Dre to play off of, but it's not like they didn't
have chances because of his prohibitively expensive contract. In fact,
they had two very legitimate shots at it—first in the same '08
off-season in which they extended 'Dre, when they still had max-type
money they were willing to spend on a big-time free agent, and then in
the 2010 draft, when they lucked into the #2 pick despite only having
the sixth-worst record. If they had landed the elite scorer they were
hoping to get either of those times around, then 'Dre could have settled
into the complementary role he was much better suited for, and who
knows—he might've been taken off the trade market, and could still be on
the team today.

Unfortunately for Iguodala, the team whiffed both times. The first
time around, they gave their big money to Elton Brand, who eventually
turned into a reliable offensive presence and veteran team leader, but
spent most of his first two years in Philly injured and/or ineffective,
and never lived up to his contract or fan expectation. And then in '10,
they took Evan Turner with the #2 pick, who struggled out of the
gate—and played the same position as Iguodala anyway, so even if he did
(or does) live up to his potential, it would probably spell doom for
'Dre on the Sixers just the same. Ultimately, it wasn't that Iguodala
failed the Sixers, it was that the Sixers failed Iguodala, by pushing
him into situations he wasn't equipped to handle and failing to surround
him with the players to best play off his considerable skill set.

It would've been nice to see Iguodala end up on a team like the
Lakers, an established group where the top scorers are already in place
and 'Dre can just focus on defense, passing and mop-up work, as he did
on Team USA in both the '10 World Championships and this summer's
Olympics. But it might be even more fun to see him on a team like the
Nuggets, which lacks that #1 guy but has a bunch of guys as skilled,
athletic and up-tempo as 'Dre—as well as his old running mate Andre
Miller, who should be grateful to have his like-named ex-teammate to
throw alley-oops to again.

Whether or not the Nuggets team ends up a contender, we hope 'Dre
enjoys playing somewhere where the weight of his contract and
performance expectation has finally be lifted, and he can just be a
great basketball player that helps you win ballgames. And hopefully in
retrospect, Sixers fans can recognize that that was always what Andre
Iguodala did for us, even when he was bricking free throws and clanging
fourth-quarter jumpers. He was miscast, but not overpaid or overrated.
And he will be missed.

Report: Sixers in California for NBA draft workouts

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Report: Sixers in California for NBA draft workouts

As the Western Conference Finals are taking place in Oakland, the Sixers are looking for new talent of their own in California.

This week, members of the Sixers' front office are attending pre-draft workouts organized through multiple agencies, including BDA Sports Management, CAA Sports, Landmark Sports Agency, Octagon and Wasserman Media Group.

While the Sixers hold the No. 1 pick, these workouts are opportunities for them to evaluate players that could be fits for their 24th and 26th selections.

On Thursday, the list of workout participants included projected first-rounders Deyonta Davis (Michigan State) and Cheik Diallo (Kansas), according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

The scouting process takes NBA teams coast to coast. Earlier this week, the Sixers reportedly attended a private workout with Excel Sports Management in New York City, in which Brandon Ingram and Jamal Murray participated.

The Sixers have held two workouts at their own practice facility, bringing in a total of 12 prospects thus far.

As the draft nears, 57 early-entry candidates withdrew their names from the 2016 draft.

NBA Playoffs: Stephen Curry, Warriors fight off elimination

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NBA Playoffs: Stephen Curry, Warriors fight off elimination

BOX SCORE

OAKLAND, Calif. -- "We ain't going home! We're not going home!" Stephen Curry screamed at the top of his lungs.

No, his Golden State Warriors are going back to Oklahoma City, after keeping their title reign and the winningest season in NBA history alive for at least one more game.

Curry scored 31 points, raising his arms in the early moments to fire up Golden State's raucous crowd, and the defending champions staved off elimination with a 120-111 victory over the Thunder on Thursday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

"We just did what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to win at home," Curry said. "We know what we still have to do going forward. ... We knew if we didn't win we were going home. There's no other motivation you need."

For all the speculation about the current state of Curry's beat-up body -- that troublesome ankle, sore knee or tender elbow -- he did it all.

"I thought he looked like 91 percent," coach Steve Kerr cracked. "He came out and played a really good game. That's all I can tell you. He's going to compete every night. He had an excellent night and helped us get it done."

Led by Curry, the Warriors looked like their old winning selves again.

The MVP made a snazzy layup late and dished out six assists, while Klay Thompson added 27 points as Golden State sent the best the best-of-seven series back to Oklahoma City for Game 6 on Saturday night. The Warriors trail 3-2 and are trying to become just the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 deficit.

"None of us want to go home," Thompson said. "We're having too much fun out there."

Kevin Durant scored 40 points and Russell Westbrook added 31 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and five steals for the Thunder, trying for the fifth NBA Finals appearance in franchise history and first championship since moving from Seattle.

The record-setting, 73-win Warriors, coming off their first back-to-back defeats all season, had been blown out in two losses at Oklahoma City by a combined 52 points.

"We have to take that game and travel," Curry said of keeping momentum.

Durant's 3-pointer with 4:34 left got the Thunder within 103-98, then Curry answered with a three-point play.

Curry scored seven points in a 58-second stretch of the second quarter and hit more big shots late, but the Thunder didn't go away easily.

"I liked our will, I liked our fight," Kerr said. "We were embarrassed in OKC the last couple games."

Trailing 58-50 at halftime, Oklahoma City came out of the break with a 9-2 run. Westbrook's 3-pointer with 6:06 left in the third put Oklahoma City ahead 68-67 for its first lead of the night. But Golden State led 81-77 going into the fourth and began the final period with an 8-0 burst.

"We didn't shoot a particularly good percentage when we got into the lane and got into the deep paint," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "We had our opportunities."

Curry shot 9 for 20 and also had five steals, while Thompson had his 11th 20-point game for the second straight postseason despite shooting 2 for 9 from 3-point range. After struggling the past two games, Draymond Green had 11 points and 13 rebounds a day after receiving some encouraging words from Kobe Bryant on the phone.

"We really relied on the entire team tonight, which is when we're at our best," Curry said.

Kerr figured his Warriors might have an edge against the percentages of teams having trailed 3-1 because they're the defending champs and were playing at home, where they have been nearly unbeatable.

He wasn't surprised to see this team respond so well.

"We played with great desperation," Kerr said. "I knew how we would play. This is a championship team."

Kerr called for center Andrew Bogut to do more and the 7-footer delivered with a playoff career-high 15 points and 14 rebounds for his second double-double this postseason and seventh of his career.

Marreese Speights had a pair of three-point plays on follow shots and a 3 in the second quarter to give Golden State a nice lift off the bench. He had nine points in four minutes during that stretch and 14 points overall for his fifth double-digit scoring game this postseason.

"Their bench came in and made shots, made plays for them," Durant said. "We know we're going home. We can't relax."

Golden State made 31 of 34 free throws.

With his 1,248th career postseason point in the third, Curry passed Wilt Chamberlain (1,246) for second place on the franchise's playoff scoring list.

"That's who he is, that's what he's done, and that's what's made him a very good player," Donovan said.

Tip-ins
Thunder: The franchise lost in the finals in 1977-78, 1995-96 to Kerr and the Chicago Bulls and in `12. ... Steven Adams sat down with his second foul at the 9:34 mark of the first quarter. The Thunder had seven fouls to Golden State's one after the first. ... Oklahoma City took Game 1 at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors have lost only three times all season. ... The Thunder started the game 3 for 14.

Warriors: Green picked up his fifth technical of the postseason. He also has at least one steal in 16 straight playoff games. ... Golden State missed six of its first seven 3s. ... The Warriors supported Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager with "Sager Strong" T-shirts for sale to support awareness and research for leukemia and lymphoma, both blood cancers.

NHL Playoffs: Penguins back in Cup Final for first time since 2009

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NHL Playoffs: Penguins back in Cup Final for first time since 2009

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- The hours before the biggest game of Bryan Rust's life were restless. The nap he tried to sneak in never materialized. The Pittsburgh Penguins forward's mind was simply too busy.

"I was just sitting up there looking at the ceiling," Rust said.

Yet even those daydreams didn't compare to the reality: the rookie forward who began training camp hoping just to make the team scored both of Pittsburgh's goals in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night.

Pittsburgh will host Western Conference champion San Jose in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

In a building littered with stars, it was the relentlessness of the 24-year-old Rust and the steadiness of 22-year-old goaltender Matt Murray who provided the difference as the Penguins reached the final for the first time since 2009.

"I'm in that mode where I'm getting the bounces and the breaks right now," Rust said.

Ones Rust and his teammates are earning. The Penguins rallied from a 3-2 deficit by controlling the final two games of the best-of-seven series, winning 5-2 in Tampa Bay in Game 6, then backing it up with what coach Mike Sullivan said "might have been the most complete 60-minute effort we had."

In disarray in December when Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston, the Penguins have sprinted through April and May and will head into June with a chance to win the franchise's fourth Cup, one that would serve as a bookend to its last triumph seven years when stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still in their early 20s.

They're older now. Wiser. And undaunted by a series of postseason failures that made it seem the window of their primes were closing. Yet here they are after dispatching the New York Rangers in five games, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six and the defending Eastern Conference champion Lightning in seven.

"They played better hockey than us the whole series," said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who lost a Game 7 for the first time after starting his career 7-0 when pushed to the limit.

Jonathan Drouin scored his fifth goal of the playoffs for the Lightning and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves, but it wasn't enough to send Tampa Bay back to the Cup Final for a second straight year. Captain Steven Stamkos had two shots in 11:55 in his from a two-month layoff while dealing with blood clots, his best chance coming on a breakaway in the second period that deflected off Murray and trickled wide. One of Murray's teammates deftly guided the puck out of harm's way, emblematic of Tampa Bay's inability to keep the puck in Pittsburgh's end with any sort of consistency.

"I thought I beat him," Stamkos said. "It just went through him and out the other side. It was close, but we didn't generate enough offensively in order to win a game."

Mostly because the Penguins didn't let them. It's part of what Sullivan calls "playing the right way," a way abetted by the influx of speed brought in by general manager Jim Rutherford. That group includes Rust, who forced his way onto the roster thanks to feverish skating and a self-confidence that belies his nondescript 5-foot-11 frame.

That effort -- or "desperation level" as Crosby calls it -- provided the Penguins with the boost they needed to overcome a bit of unfortunate history and the return of Stamkos. Pittsburgh had dropped five straight Game 7s at home, including a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in 2011 in a series in which both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin missed due to injury.

That loss had become symbolic of the franchise's postseason shortcomings following that gritty run to the Cup in 2009 that culminated with a Game 7 win in Detroit that was supposed to be the launching pad of a dynasty.

Seven long years later, with an entirely new cast around mainstays Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins have returned to the league's biggest stage.

"We've always believed in one another," Crosby said. "Trying to get back, it's not easy."

Not by a long shot.

Vasilevskiy, a revelation while filling in for injured Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, spent most of the night facing barrage after barrage as Pittsburgh controlled the puck and the pace of play for long stretches.

The Penguins finally broke through behind Rust, who managed all of five goals in 55 regular-season games, a total he's matched in just 17 games during the postseason. He gave the Penguins the lead 1:55 into the second when he raced down the slot, took a feed from Kunitz and beat Vasilevskiy over his glove.

Drouin's fourth goal of the series tied it at 9:36 of the second, a wicked wrist shot from the circle that zipped by Murray and seemed to blunt Pittsburgh's momentum.

Only it didn't.

All of 30 seconds later, the Penguins were back in front. Ben Lovejoy's slap shot from the point caromed off the end boards to the right of the net. Rust jabbed at it, squeezing it between Vasilevskiy's left arm and his body.

Their season on the brink, the Lightning recovered but Murray never wavered. His teammates in front of him kept Tampa Bay from getting in his way and when the final horn blared, Pittsburgh's metamorphosis was complete.

"The biggest challenge is ahead of us," Crosby said. "We have to finish it off the right way."

Notes
The Penguins went 0 for 5 on the power play. The Lightning were 0 for 1. ... The team that scores first is now 124-42 all-time in Game 7s, including 5-0 this year.