|Is Andre Iguodala the best defender in the NBA? (Getty Images)|
Andre Iguodala doesn't scream. Neither does his defense. It is silent, precise and deadly.
He's not a menacing player who screams on every play, nor is he a hulking beast who intimidates. His traditional numbers aren't gaudy; no monster rebound or block numbers. He's not the first name out of people's mouths when they talk about the great defenders in this league, and against all logic, he has but a single All-Defensive Team award in his career.
(Nothing may show how terrible the voting for that award is better than that. Oh, wait, Serge Ibaka was second in voting last year. Nevermind.)
Defense isn't flashy; it doesn't earn contracts, sponsorships or sell T-shirts. It's what is most often attributed to winning in the NBA, yet few people really spend the time to look at what players do defensively.
It doesn't take long to see what Andre Iguodala does well defensively. It does take time to see how much of it he does. For that, you have to go a little deeper.
Iguodala is multi-tasking. On a Friday afternoon, following a Nuggets practice he describes as "solid," the 6-6 wing is simultaneously icing his knees, scarfing down a plate of grilled chicken and bowtie pasta in some sort of cream sauce that is making me insane with hunger, and breaking down a few of his greatest hits this season defensively.
Trying to describe how Iguodala regards his defense is complicated. On one hand, he'll be in the locker room after a win jokingly (but not totally jokingly) talking about how Denver's defense is improved because "they traded for this guy, Andre Iguodala." The next he'll speak as if defense isn't this monstrously complicated thing, it just takes effort and concentration. What's more, he says that his specific talents aren't unique. He says that he's not special.
"See, there's another me in the league," Iguodala says as he starts cutting off the ice wrap towards the end of our session. "They have the same things that I have. Maybe they don't put it to use, but they have long arms, quick feet, they can defend. They just don't do it. But you ain't gonna find no Dwight Howard. There's nobody else that can do that, or Tyson Chandler, who's really good at defense."
This is after Iguodala has broken down his ability to defend stars like James Harden, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James ably. It's a startling insight into the mental clockwork that goes on possession by possession, game by game, season by season, over and over, and for Iguodala, it's no big deal. "Just preparation," he says.
It doesn't feel like it.
I watched video of Iguodala's defense in preparation for this piece for roughly four hours. And the most important thing I can tell you is that Iguodala can do whatever he wants, play as well as he can, and guys are still going to score. Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, you can hit these guys with a 2X4 and they're still getting buckets.
Great offense will beat great defense, but if you make great offense work long enough, the impact will be felt. That's what great defenses do. That's what great defenders do. That's what Iguodala does.
And Iguodala certainly makes mistakes. A wrong step here, a poor decision there, and the possession is over. As he's commonly defending the best player on the other team, his margin of error is essentially zero, play by play.
And still, he's a monster to deal with defensively. Too big for the guards to get space, too fast for the bigs to maneuver around. He plays his defender into help, he challenges them for the positions they want, and when all else fails, he locks them up.
If watching Dwight Howard play defense is like watching a killer hippo flashdance, and if watching Tony Allen defend is like watching a lion track down caribou as it tries a futile effort at escape, watching Iguodala is watching an architect build a skyscraper in minutes. The angles, the accuracy and the careful blend of creativity and required pragmatics are stunning. And so much of it springs from what goes on in his head.
Iguodala has faced Carmelo Anthony 15 times in his career. Melo has averaged 26 points on 20 shots shooting 44 percent from the field. Iguodala knows how to defend Melo as well as anyone, there's just not much anyone can do. Iguodala makes it clear the objective is to get to him early and keep him away from the basket to feed into his worst instincts.
He bodies Melo as soon as Melo moves to catch and gradually pushes him further and further out. It's easy to argue on this play that Iguodala fouls Anthony on the drive, but what's more important to pay attention to is how he doesn't just concede the ground, and how he plays Anthony to the places he wants him. Iguodala doesn't want Anthony to drive. If Melo drives, Iguodala doesn't want him driving straight to the basket and he wants Anthony driving to help. It's a series of compromises. The rest is action, reaction, circumstance and fate.
You see the same approach here.
Iguodala talks about knowing tendencies, but at times it's more about being able to anticipate a player's decision-making based on deductive reasoning. Time and score. James Harden has an uncanny ability to pull up and hit three-pointers. He's deadly in that area, and it changes the complexion of a game. Just ask the Spurs. Here, Iguodala doesn't just contest the shot, he obliterates the possession.
These are big time plays against big time players, the kind of defense the Nuggets traded for Iguodala to obtain. It's what has been needed in Denver to take them to the next level.
|Defense (Getty Images)|
The Denver Nuggets knew that they were going to score. George Karl's teams have consistently ranked in the top five in offensive efficiency. If they were going to improve without a mega-star, though, they were going to need to be better at defense.
That's a trick with a fast-paced team like Karl designs. There are mixed results in the connection between pace and defensive efficiency, but a style of play that focuses on transition naturally puts a strain on players getting back constantly. And with more possessions, the margin of error becomes narrower. But the Nuggets with Iguodala this season have moved to the 13th-ranked defense in the league. That's all Karl wanted when the season began -- to be average-to-better-than-average.
And with Iguodala on the court? The Nuggets surrender just 100.1 points per 100 possessions, better than 8 points fewer than they do with him on the bench.
But wait, there's more! According to Synergy Sports, Iguodala is fifth among players (with 400 minimum possessions) in overall points per possession allowed, he causes the fifth-most turnovers of any player (with 100 possessions) guarding the pick and roll, and most important, he's the second best player in guarding players one on one, in isolation, minimum 50 possessions. He's the only wing player in the top five.
And yet those numbers don't do service to the intangibles or process of the work he does, guarding point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards. He switches from opponent to opponent, pressuring, contesting and making good possessions into bad.
Iguodala has a way of making something sound both complex and routine at the same time, which makes sense. He's one of about 10 people on earth who can defend the perimeter at the level he can, but he does it for 82 games a year plus playoffs. It's the same way an astronaut can talk casually about timing engine bursts or a surgeon talks about carving tissue. It's both extraordinary and mundane.
A play flashes on screen that shows Tony Parker in transition. I explain to Iguodala that I selected this play because Parker is notably slippery in transition. He has excellent hesitation moves. He'll get to the paint, and somehow seems to be moving forward and pausing at the same time. In that time, if you attack, he slips by you, and if you play back, he hits the floater or a jump shot. Parker accomplishes neither on the play.
That 30 percent physical part he speaks to shouldn't be downplayed. His acumen and intelligence wouldn't be as effective if he wasn't able to cover as much ground as quickly as he can. But even when he catches arguably the fastest player in the league, Russell Westbrook, at the rim, his approach is determined by the best way to counter-attack OKC's speedster at the rim.
Sometimes, it's not about how you play the opponent. It's how you don't play him. LeBron James is a monster, even more physically impressive than Iguodala for a small forward. When Iguodala helps down low after James clears Danilo Gallinari with a screen, he's got two choices. He can try to take the charge, take the full brunt of James' speed and muscle (basically willingly getting hit by a truck) and hope that the call will go against the reigning MVP, or he can adjust to try to deter and distract, opening up multiple, if lower probability opportunities for defensive success.
There are tricks to the trade, of course. Iguodala is far less secretive with them than I would expect. Tactics in the NBA are guarded like national security. Teams are uncomfortable with media showing pre-game strategy, despite the readily available number of means to know what teams do, the fact that scouts talk all the time like barflies and that little of the information is a shocker.
But Iguodala reveals one.
"I learned one move from Joe Johnson which is pretty funny," he says. "Sometimes when they're driving or want to get open and they're pushing off on me, they push off a lot, and they get away with it. So when they push off, I just lean back, but I grab their hand with me, so as they're pushing me, I grab them so they gotta come with me. When they're trying to come off and I'm holding that, that gives me a second to recover. That's them shooting the ball or catching and shooting the ball, right there is one second. So I'm back in front just by doing that."
Great offensive players are allowed to freelance as much as they want. If they feel like they can take their man, their coach will trust them to do just that (to a point). It's more complicated with defenders, and Iguodala says that's mostly on account of judging who he's playing with, or against.
"If I'm playing with Andre Miller, I can gamble a little bit more. Or if there's a certain point guard I'm going up against who's not really an attacker, then I really can gamble. I can gamble off non-shooters. It's just the personnel, who I'm playing with and who I'm playing against.
Right, if I'm playing Kevin Durant, I'm not really freelancing too much, I'm just making sure he doesn't get an easy look."
Much like Durant, defending Kobe Bryant is about trying to prevent an easy look. And given Bryant's penchant for nailing jumpers with the clock winding down (despite whatever the stats may indicate), the process becomes intensified. There, it's not about help, or physical attributes, it's about all the little things that happen before the ball even leaves Bryant's hand.
Russell Westbrook has averaged 34 points in two games vs. Denver this year. Carmelo Anthony dropped 34 in a win in December. Kevin Durant 29, Kobe Bryant 27, LeBron James 24. Not all, or even a majority of those points were scored on Iguodala but certainly some were. That's the nature of the business. But the key is to shave off possessions, to make it more difficult. To pressure and harass the defense. It's not about stopping them every possession, but making them work, and then focusing on the rest of the offense.
I feed Iguodala a softball, something to give me a nice sound bite and help out a wing like himself who is often overlooked in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting. Is it harder to guard the perimeter than down low? His answer, like most things, is even, considerate and complicated.
"I can agree. Coach was saying something the other day, he said, 'We want to drive and kick, and I want to play fast, because the defense can't keep the ball on the side of the court. It's easiest to guard a team when you keep them on the side of the court, so we want to play fast so we're not on the side. And we want to play fast because drive and kicks are the hardest things to guard in the game. When you hear coaches harp on things like that, you think, "I gotta guard that all the time, because that's what other teams are trying to do, too.
"Whereas the bigs, we don't have any dominant centers anymore. No low-post guys like Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, even Rik Smits. We still have Tim Duncan playing, but those guys, when they were playing, they could get 30 and 15 every night.
"That's when it was tough to guard in the post. And the big had to help on rotations. Bigs nowadays don't have to exert as much energy. Most of the time it's help-side, blocks, having to help on penetration and block a shot. Slide over two feet and get in help position.
"But at the same time, Tyson Chandler, it's hard to find a big who can do what he can do. Or Dwight, it's hard to find a big that can get up on the pick-and-roll, stop a guard from going around him, and they just disrupt everything. Dwight Howard changes the complexity of everything, every game. Like with me, if you've got two really good players on the team, and I'm guarding one of them, you can clear me out, keep me on one side, while the other one goes to work on the other side. But if you got a guy like Dwight Howard, he controls the paint. It doesn't matter if you've got four or five great perimeter players in the paint at once, none of them are going inside the paint.
"So I see both sides."
So much for the softball.
You might describe Iguodala as a skeptic. He's careful with saying how well the Nuggets are playing, how the team is coming together, how good his defense is. After he's finished the last of my queries on plays he's already seen, he removes the ice pack, dumps the food and heads back to the locker room. I ask him if the team is going to be better prepared for the Sacramento Kings, who they will play (and beat handily) on Saturday.
"Practice has been better, we'll see."
Appropriately, when it comes to revealing if he's feeling too good about anything, Andre Iguodala is well-guarded.