A meditation on Philly’s most overpaid/underrated/surly/selfish/inscrutable/cowardly/polarizing athlete. Ever.
For 8 years, Philadelphia fans have been trying to form a relationship with 76ers forward Andre Iguodala. For the most part, it’s been like trying to grab a fistful of water.”—Bob Cooney, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 8, 2012
In recent weeks, as public opinion has tipped tentatively in his favor, TV color men have fallen into the habit of sharing this biographical nugget about Andre Iguodala: as a Bulls fan growing up in Springfield, Illinois, his favorite player wasn’t Michael Jordan but Scottie Pippen.
This is meant to be an instructive detail about Iguodala. The guy he idolized wasn’t the gravity-defying superstar, but his enabler; a blue-collar grinder who operated in the (comparative) trenches and relished not the big stage or the bright lights, but the thankless task. His hero, the player he patterned himself after, was a man who celebrated his greatest moments in the shadows of others.
It’s a window-into-the-soul type anecdote. A glimpse of something essential to a man who’s defied deconstruction. It explains everything.
Except it isn’t true.
Andre Iguodala’s favorite player was Michael Jordan.
“Can he be The Man in Philly? He doesn’t have a choice.”—Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson had a brilliant career in Philadelphia. Not necessarily a good one, but a brilliant one. He always took the last shot, and the first one, and most of the shots in between. He had heart. Grit. Gumption. Character. Drive. A will to win.
He almost never showed up on time for practice. He shot 40 percent from the floor. He once kicked his naked wife out of their home and hunted her down with a gun.
He was the NBA’s leading scorer four times.
Andre Iguodala signed a six-year $80 million deal in August of 2008—20 months after Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets. The idea at the time was that Iguodala would become the standard bearer of the franchise. The standard being Allen Iverson.
“Iguodala was a 27 percent shooter from the college three-point line. He’s not going to be able to play.”—Dick Vitale
Andre Iguodala is a well-rounded basketball player. Insofar as he can be said to have a genius for the sport, this versatility is it. He’s a stalwart defender, an efficient scorer, he accumulates assists, rebounds, and steals at rates higher than his positional average and even does—considering his active defense—an unusually impressive job of avoiding fouls. So in almost every facet of the game, he helps his team.
Iguodala, for all his many talents, is not a great shooter. Over his past five full seasons, he’s shot 33.2, 35.9, 33.4, 34.5, and 33.9 percent on field goal attempts that haven’t come at the rim. For his career, he’s a sub-average shooter from each discrete location on the floor, save those attempts that come at point blank range.
Without wading any more deeply into the numbers, let’s leave it at this: if someone wanted to charge him with being a flawed offensive player, they would have plenty of evidence to prosecute the case.
“We don’t have a so-called superstar. I think we do, but you know, [critics] say we don’t have a so-called superstar.”—Andre Iguodala, Feb. 6, 2012
Teams follow their best player. If you’re a rookie, the guy you look up to, you emulate, is usually the one who’s regarded as the top player on your team. That’s uncontroversial. “It makes my job a heck of a lot easier when my best player is my hardest worker,” is a line approximately 97 percent of coaches have tossed off at some point. But while players follow their leader, it’s often to a place they were headed anyway—like the basket.
Every player wants numbers, and most nearly all of them play with sufficient offensive hustle to collect the points, assists, o-boards, and various statistical goodies that ensure they’ll be paid well enough to never have another cousin go without a Droid. But a player isn’t necessarily inclined to play rabid defense. Despite the enormous impact it has on who wins and losses, we can’t measure individual D with any reliability and so can’t incentivize it in the traditional way—with money.
There’s a solution, though, to the defense problem, a way to encourage players to expend effort on an aspect of the game that won’t get them paid but will help their team win: employ as your top player, your object of emulation, someone who defends his man like it’s life and death.
The Sixers are the top defensive team in the NBA.
“When he signed that deal, he should have rolled up the paper it was printed on and let everyone in the area whack him over the head with it.”—John Gonzales, CSNPhilly, Feb. 14, 2012
Imagine this: you’re an employee of a major corporation, and you do well, and are paid handsomely, and, prima facie, everything about your professional situation looks fine. The problem though is this: most of your company’s shareholders believe you’re wildly overpaid when you are in fact, despite your sizable paychecks, underpaid relative to the value you provide.
So everyday, or near it, you hear criticism in the media about your pay and are more or less roundly lambasted by everyone with an opinion on the subject. All parties agree that you are, on balance, at least a competent employee, but the consensus is that you’re nevertheless paid much more than you are worth to the company, and so are to blame for any failures the firm has recently suffered—i.e. the “problem” with the company is that it’s spending a huge sum of money on you that could be spent, smarter, elsewhere.
How would you feel about this? How would you feel about your critics?
“When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do things besides comedy. They say, ‘OK, you’re a stand-up comedian—can you act? Can you write? Write us a script?’ It’s as though if I were a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, they said, ‘All right, you’re a cook—can you farm?’”—Mitch Hedberg
Andre Iguodala didn’t really figure it out until he went to Turkey.
After a few post-Iverson seasons of forced shots, the metaphoric jamming of a square peg into a round hole, and the literal jamming of a small round thing into a distant round hole, in that 2010 FIBA tournament, he had a sort of epiphany: rather than squander his energy on the areas of the game that he was least likely to impact, why not narrow his focus to those that he could?
And so he did. Offense de-emphasized, he was suddenly freed to race around the court wreaking havoc defensively and in transition, demonstrating his excellence by denying opponents theirs. Krzyzewski, it turns out, had given Iguodala permission to be Iguodala. It worked, both as basketball and philosophy. The team won nine straight on their way to the gold and Iguodala was, in some circles, the talk of the tournament.
That following season, when Doug Collins took over the Sixers, he pulled his best player aside and asked him to continue playing the way he had that summer. The player obliged him. And so this old/new approach to the game—taking scoring opportunities as they come, not forcing them when they don’t, the wisdom to know the difference, became fully his. In ‘10’-’11, Iguodala attempted only 11.3 shots a game after averaging 14.4 the previous three seasons. He had the lowest usage rate of his career. He attempted 2.7 three-pointers a game after firing 3.7 the year before.
And a season after winning 27 games, Philadelphia closed 38-28.
“He may be the most overpaid player in the NBA. He takes dumb shots, he thinks he is great and he needs to just leave this team. I’m so sick and tired of this guy.”—Philly Sports Central, Dec. 19, 2010
50 wins is the generally accepted threshold for NBA legitimacy. It’s the minimum regular season success rate a team needs to achieve to convince its fans it can contend, that it’s deserving of their scarcest resource: attention.
At the end of this season, the 76ers will have won more than 50 games once in the past 22 years.
In the four full seasons they’ve played since trading Allen Iverson and making Iguodala the de facto franchise player, they’ve won 40, 41, 27, and 41.
Philadelphia’s four professional sports franchises have won one championship in the last 29 years.
“It certainly wasn’t Iguodala’s fault the Sixers decided to wildly overpay him.”—Bob Ford, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 26, 2012
The approximate cost of a win in the NBA is something a clever ten-year-old with a pencil and some patience can calculate. You take the total dollars that all of the league’s teams paid out that season in player salaries, and divide that figure by the total number of victories the teams accumulated in that season. Wins are more valuable for teams on the cusp of contention, and less so for lottery teams, but this arithmetic provides a solid baseline measure. It tells us the cost of a win in the NBA swung from $1.347 million in 2005 to $1.755 million in 2008, before falling back to $1.711 million last season.
The amount of wins an individual player produces is also a calculable, but controversial, statistic, and coupled with the cost of a win, it can give us a picture of an individual player’s value to an average team.
Iguodala is now into the fourth season of a six-year $80 million dollar contract. Entering 2012, he’d been paid $35.8 million of the deal. In that time he’s produced $66.5 million worth of wins for the Sixers.
This season, by measure of wins produced, he’s been the fourth best player in the NBA.
“I think when we win, he will get more respect.”—Tony Dileo, April 21, 2009
Following a one-point loss to the Clippers in February, I asked Evan Turner, a rising player with a skill-set broadly similar to Iguodala’s, for his take on his teammate’s inclusion in the All-Star Game.
Did he read it as an affirmation that the way he played the game, the way Iguodala played the game, was every bit as valuable as the brand of basketball a Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, or Dwayne Wade played—did he feel vindicated?
“You’re a guy who doesn’t necessarily score a lot of points,” I offered, “but you do a lot of the other less celebrated things well. You rebound, you take pride in your defense, you’ve got a solid handle and good floor vision and…”
The second-year guard cut me off.
“I can score,” Turner insisted. “Who said I couldn’t score?”