To the Faithful Departed: Andre Iguodala

To the Faithful Departed: Andre Iguodala
August 16, 2012, 6:54 am

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.

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