In defense of Andre Iguodala

Andre Iguodala is one of the very best defenders in the NBA. But how many actually notice it? Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Remember how Stephen Curry scored 54 thrilling points last time he played at Madison Square Garden? The frequent replays of this game serve as commemorations for the day he became a star. Remember Andre Iguodala’s equivalent defensive performance? It probably happened, and you’ll probably never hear about it as long as you live.

Say Iguodala was on fire that night, stifling would-be drivers, helping with psychic anticipation, weaving through screens like a running back and closing out on shooters like he was magnetized to the ball. How many noticed? Much like defense itself, the answer to that question likely won’t be tangible to the point of satisfaction.

“Defense wins championships” is the aphoristic bone we throw to the art in lieu of actually paying attention to it. Defense is lauded in the general sense -- we recognize that quality teams had better play it -- but when it comes time for us to choose individual favorites, offense tends to determine All-Star selections, All-NBA selections, commercials and salary. Offense bias is so powerful that it probably even influences defense-specific awards, enabling Kobe Bryant to snag All-Defense plaudits when he was past his prime on that end of the court.

Andre Iguodala has but one All-Defense selection to his name, a second-team spot for the 2010-11 season. He’s been well-compensated, but such compensation was a source of derision in Philadelphia. His contract with Golden State (four years, $48 million) has also been the source of some local anxiety, which is understandable given that Iguodala averages 9.5 points per game.

Nearly $50 million for 9.5 points? What a bum! I suspect the Iguodala addition would be more popular if his offensive and defensive impact were reversed. If Golden State’s splashy signing was giving lukewarm production on D while producing an offensive tour de force of a season, would he rival Curry’s renown?

A few facts about Golden State’s defense and Iguodala. The Warriors were ranked fourth on D before he strained his hamstring on Nov. 22. During his 12-game absence earlier in the season, they tumbled to seventh. They’ve since recovered to become the third-best defensive team in the league, and tops in the West.

The Warriors have allowed opposing offenses 7.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the floor. Due in large part to Golden State’s defensive performance when he’s in, Iguodala has compiled the league’s top plus/minus while also grading out as the top player in adjusted plus/minus.

Single-season coincidence? There’s some history of Iguodala’s presence correlating with defensive success. Philadelphia slipped 12 spots in the defense rankings after Iguodala was traded to Denver. That same season, Denver leapt nine spots in the rankings. The Nuggets have slipped nine spots in the rankings this season, while Golden State has improved by 10 spots.

His positive impact doesn’t seem so coincidental when you watch the games closely. Here’s but one example of his effective, nuanced style. Iguodala haunts passing lanes without gambling, analogous to the way Pacers center Roy Hibbert threatens guards by standing in the right places and representing the prospect of a blocked shot. The Warriors swingman keeps his arms up and his stance wide, often leaping backward to obstruct entry passes. Offensive plans are dashed, decisions recalibrated, as seconds tick off the shot clock. The well-timed presentation of a threat tilts the odds in Golden State’s favor.

The box score is oblivious to such maneuvers, just as it’s oblivious to most of what comprises individual effort within a team-defense concept. Elite perimeter defenders are especially lacking for tangible rewards. Steals often result from the kind of gambling that can ruin a defensive possession. This is part of the reason why Defensive Player of the Year awards tend to go to big men. The last perimeter defender to win DPOY was Ron Artest, one decade ago.

Iguodala once said, “I don’t think I’ve gotten enough credit for what I bring to certain things.” He’s right, he hasn’t. The man who best shadows great offensive players is cursed to have his work obscured in those shadows.