The uncertain future of Andre Iguodala

With the loss to the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2011 NBA playoffs well into our rear view mirror, the topic of conversation before the NBA draft rolls around is clearly on the future of Andre Iguodala.  

Coming off a disappointing playoff series with an escalating contract, an already aggravated fan base has grown increasingly weary of Iguodala, as a recent poll on Philly.com showed -- nearly 70% of votes wanted him traded.  

Is now the time to move Iguodala?  The answer's never cut and dry, but it very well may be.

I want to preface this by saying I'm an Iguodala fan, and in the past I cautioned fans to be careful what they wish for.  I think by and large the fans generally take Iguodala's contributions for granted, and listening to the radio hearing hosts say Iguodala "gave you nothing" on a night where LeBron James went 4-14 from the field and was held to 21 points was particularly frustrating, but increasingly common.  

I think he's taken for granted for a few reasons

No personality

The least meaningful reason Iguodala isn't properly appreciated is his personality.  Hardly embracing of fans and media, and perhaps even somewhat aloof, Iguodala's personality likely makes it hard for some to embrace him, particularly in a town that usually overrates "gritty" and "tough" defensive minded players.  This is likely the least impacting contributing factor for the general fans dislike of Iguodala, and of course related to the fact that many look at him to be more, which leads us to...

Unrealistic expectations

There ae so many subcategories and contributing factors with this I don't even know where to begin.

Part of it may be following Allen Iverson, an immensely talented, intriguing, and polarizing star, and a vastly different player than Andre Iguodala ever was or ever will be -- and a vastly different player than Andre Iguodala was drafted to be.  But, when the disgruntled Iverson was dealt somebody needed to be the face of the franchise and Iguodala was the only one who could even possibly fit the bill.

It's not Iguodala's fault he's been the teams best player for the past half decade, or that this team is undermanned talent wise .  He didn't make the decision to draft Thabo Sefolosha Rodney Carney over Rajon Rondo.  He didn't pick Marreese Speights over Serge Ibaka or Nicolas Batum.  And he didn't hand Elton Brand his contract, nor is his responsible for Brand's injury plagued start to his Sixers career.

This team isn't a middling team because of Andre Iguodala.  He's just the poster boy for one.

On top of the unrealistic expectations being the most visible player put in fans minds, it also put Iguodala in a role he wasn't best suited for, and this has created the expectation for Iguodala to be a player he's not capable of.  

Listening to Anthony Gargano -- a guy I generally find almost bearable to listen to, a rarity in Philadelphia sports talk radio these days -- go on and on about how Iguodala is a low basketball IQ athlete was nearly as frustrating as watching Iguodala struggle through the first 4 games of the Heat series offensively.  It's this sort of ignorance that has caused tensions between Iguodala and the fan base to rise exponentially, based on what I believe to be a mis-evaluation of Iguodala's skills.  I've said before I think Iguodala's ability as a slasher is overrated, and the basis of Gargano's (and many who share his sentiment) opinion that Iguodala's a low basketball IQ player is because he settles for jump shots, when a player with his athleticism and isolation ability should be driving to the hoop all game long.

Now, I do believe that Iguodala settles for the jump shot too often, but I believe that's mainly due to him being used incorrectly, not due to a lack of basketball IQ, hence why Iguodala was always his most effective -- and least jump shot happy -- when he was playing with a legitimate #1 offensive option.  

The truth is Andre Iguodala doesn't have the talent to be the half-court offensive player people expect him to be.  He has a mediocre first step (relative to his overall athleticism), his touch around the rim is shaky, and he doesn't have the ability to get to the rim going left, settling instead for pull-up jumpers.  People see his high flying transition dunks, length, and strong upper body and assume he's a great isolation player, but he's never been that kind of player, and expecting him to play that game is taking him out of his element.

Let's take a look at how Iguodala's shot distribution has changed since Iverson was traded and he became the main focal point of the half-court offense.  Iguodala went from a true shooting percentage of 59.8% his last full season with Iverson (terrific for a wing player) to 53% this past year.  During '05-'06, he was put in isolation sets for only 10% of the possessions he used up.  Not only was this behind transition opportunities (21.7%), spot-ups (19%), cuts without the ball (11.7%), but it was even behind post-ups (11%).  It's a very low number for a wing player, and even then he was well below average in those situations, shooting only 30.4% from the field on isolation situations.

He was allowed to be an extremely opportunistic offensive player, someone who could fit in with a superstar because he did the other things well.  He moved without the ball, took advantage of mismatches in the post, hit his spot-up jump shots (Iguodala's always been an underrated catch and shoot player), got out in transition, hit the open man, played defense, and rebounded.

Then his world changed, and expectations changed around him.  Despite the fact that Iguodala wasn't particularly adept at creating his own shots in isolation situations even when he's able to pick and chose his spots, he became the team leader almost by default.  He's usage rate went from 14.7% with Iverson to 23.8% the first year without him.  This lead to an increase in productivity (14.8 PER to 19, and from 0.116 WS/48 to 0.143), but a steep drop in efficiency (59.8% to 54.3% true shooting percentage).

The problem is, not only was Iguodala being asked to create more, but he also had less people who could create for him.  You're not going to get more offense from cuts when there isn't anyone else to attract attention.  You can't become a spot-up jump shooter when there's nobody to drive and kick.  The majority of the new shots almost had to be isolation attempts, and the expectation was that Iguodala would be able to get to the rim with ease.

But he can't.  He never could, in fact.  As shown above, even with Iverson in the lineup when he was selectively isolating, he wasn't converting.  As Iguodala became the focal point offensively, the percentage of his offense that was derived from isolation situations jumped, from 10% of his offense the last year with Iverson to 26.1% the following year.  Over the last 4 years Iguodala has been in the bottom half in the NBA in terms of efficiency in isolation situations, just like he was with Iverson on the court.

So is it that Iguodala is a low basketball IQ player who doesn't know his limitations, or a player who is a bad fit with his personnel and asked to fulfill a role he's not suited for?  I happen to think B.  It's hard for "an athlete" who "doesn't know the game" to be as studious and as effective of a defender as Iguodala has developed into without being a smart basketball player.  There are dozens of players in the NBA who have the athletic makeup to be an elite defender, but only a few who have the mental makeup to go with it.  

It's also hard for a low basketball IQ player to have a 3/1 assist-to-turnover ratio from the wing position while generating 6.3 assists per game.  There are 7 (seven) players in the history of the NBA over 6'4" tall who have averaged more than 6 assists and less than 2.5 turnovers in a season.  That kind of ball security by a wing who creates that much is at an absurd level.  Considering where Iguodala was in that regard immediately when Iverson was traded, his improvement in that aspect of the game has been drastic.  

I also tend to believe it's skill holding back his shot selection more than basketball IQ because, well, I've seen how Iguodala plays next to a star.  We saw it first hand.  I have no doubt that if you put Iguodala next to another player, particularly one whose style of scoring fits with Iguodala, such as Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Durant, that Iguodala will be a highly efficient player who takes quality shots.

He thinks he's Paul Pierce

This mainly comes when he misses a fade away jump shot at the end of the game, and touches into the fact that people have unrealistic expectations of who he is and what kind of half-court offensive player he should (in their opinion) be.  I'm not really sure how you can get on a guy for being a ball hog who thinks he's a great scorer when he's averaging a measley 11.3 field goal attempts per game.

If it's solely for the end of game shots, how many times does Doug Collins have to say that "the ball will be in Andre's hands" before we realize it's Doug Collins putting Iguodala in that role ?  Whether or not it's the correct decision is beside the point.  It's not being decided by Iguodala, and it again falls into putting a guy into a role he's incapable of filling.

He's overpaid

His contract may be an issue (I'll discuss below), but he's not really overpaid.  There were 39 players in the NBA paid more than Andre Iguodala last season with another 10 or so within a million dollars of his paycheck.  On championship contenders, he'd be the 3rd (San Antonio, Boston, Dallas) or 4th (Lakers, Miami) highest paid player on the team, right in line with his talent level.  

Even so, how can you fault Iguodala ?  Ed Stefanski offered him that contract, and every Iguodala critic would have accepted the deal with more money.  Signing that contract wasn't going to make Iguodala a great half-court offensive player, so why can't we still appreciate what he brings to the team?

(Note: appreciating what he brings to the team and making a rational argument that it would be in the Sixers best interest to move him are not mutually exclusive).

This may be the biggest reason fans have soured on Iguodala. 

With all that said, it:

May be time to part ways with Iguodala

If you haven't noticed by now, I'm an Iguodala fan.  I like his all-around game and think it would be immensely valuable on a contender.  There are a few reasons that has even me thinking it may be time to part ways.

Poor fit with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner

If I've come to the conclusion it's time to move on from Iguodala, it's more because of the faith I have in my young players than in the talent I expect to get back in a trade, or the player I may sign with future cap space.  You're not going to get fair value for a 27 year old wing player with 20,000 minutes, a long term contract and potentially chronic arthritis.

But between Iguodala, Holiday, Turner, and Williams the Sixers have 4 guys in their rotation who are better working with the ball in their hands.  It's not that any of them are directly responsible for holding any guys back, it's the collective whole isn't as large as the sum of their parts.  Neither complement each other particularly well, and Jrue Holiday may have the most long term offensive potential.

With Iguodala out, Holiday becomes the focal point of the offense at the young age of 21, gaining him valuable experience as the focal point that should aid him immensely as he matures into his prime years.  Holiday's averages in games Iguodala didn't play -- 17.1 points, 8.7 assists, 48.5% from the field, 36.4% from three -- are very good, and a big jump from the 13.3 points, 5.9 assists, 43.7% from the field he averaged with Iguodala in the lineup.  While not the greatest of sample sizes at 15 games, this is enough to give Sixers fans hope.

That's not to say Collins' increasing penchant to use Iguodala as a point forward didn't have merit, and clearly contributed to the teams improved play down the stretch as the Sixers were amongst the league leaders in taking care of the ball.  But in 2 years Jrue Holiday is likely going to be the best player currently on the roster, and should be more of a focal point for the Sixers going forward, a role he's unlikely to fully have while Iguodala's still initiating a good chunk of the half-court offense.

Salary

Wait, didn't I just say Iguodala wasn't over paid ?

He's not.  That doesn't mean moving his salary isn't of value. 

Iguodala's salary is commensurate with his value, if he were on a team with an established superstar looking to add the right complementary pieces.  But with the Sixers looking to add that superstar, his contract becomes more of an issue.  If the Sixers could get Iguodala's contract off the books on or before Brand's contract ends, they would be in a similar position to when they signed Brand: Jrue Holiday would be a restricted free agent with a cap hold* while the Sixers have money to spend.

(* assuming all these things still exist when the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is agreed upon)

If done right, the Sixers would have the next two years to determine whether Jrue Holiday or Evan Turner are complementary pieces or focal points, then have cap room to pursue the right pieces after they've made that determination.  With Andre Iguodala on the roster the Sixers would have a hard time being significantly under the cap for that summer and would have to wait until Iguodala's salary comes off the books, which by that time Holiday will be inked to a new deal and Evan Turner will have a substantial cap hold.

Age, injuries, minutes

Perhaps this is an overreaction, and in a few years I can look back and say how foolish I was.  But Iguodala's 27, and an older 27, with 20,000 minutes on his legs and a chronic repetitive stress injury.  It's not that Iguodala won't be a contributor next season that I'm questioning, it's can he be at his current level at age 30 ?  If not, and if we're not likely to compete for a championship before then, would it be best to get young talent at a position of need for him now ?  Or to get cap space that can be used for a better fit ?  Or to get your long term cogs experience ?

In the end, this is the point that makes the entire argument.  If Iguodala was 23 with 10,000 NBA minutes and no injury history, looking forward at the prime of his career, we're not having this discussion.  Even if he's not a great fit with Holiday and Turner, you have time to wait it out.  Even if his salary is a hindrance on free agency, you're not likely to get a better player through free agency anyway.  But if his time as a borderline all-star caliber player is measured in a 2-3 year window, all of a sudden the argument becomes more compelling.

If you trade Iguodala, it should be for the right reasons.  Not because you think an aging wing player who fits better with Turner and Holiday can vault the Sixers into a 45 win team, and not for an aging overrated stop gap center (*cough*Chris Kaman*cough*).  You do it because you believe this team is capped as a "solid but not contender" (RE: 45-48 wins) team during Iguodala's life span as a borderline all-star caliber player, and because you have confidence that Holiday and Turner can thrive in increased roles, and you can use the increased flexibility in a trade (either cap space or draft picks acquired with Iguodala) to continue to add pieces that fit.  

Trading Iguodala is a gamble.  But, with a capped out team with a low ceiling and an aging front court player, keeping a wing player who will be 28 years old next year with a hefty salary and aching knees presents a gamble as well.

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