TrueHoop: Andre Iguodala

Clips, Warriors at odds with foul judgments

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
9:58
PM ET
Shelburne By Ramona Shelburne
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The narrative leading into this first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors was that some sort of MMA fight was liable to break out at any time.

These teams really don’t like each other!

No really, there’s bad blood!

Bad things could happen!

Beware!

So, naturally, the first game was refereed with extreme caution, and the end result had two of the best players in the series -- Blake Griffin and Andre Iguodala -- sitting on the bench at the end of the Warriors' thrilling 109-105 win.

"I thought all the hype absolutely had an impact on how the game was called," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "There’s no doubt about that. A lot of tight, touch fouls. I thought Blake, of the six [fouls], three of them were probably touch fouls. Same thing with [Chris Paul, who had five fouls].

"But the way I look at is, both teams have to play under the same rules. They did a better job of playing under the same rules that we had to play under."

In all, the referees in Saturday’s game called 51 fouls, 29 in the first half, in which Iguodala collected four fouls in 11 minutes and Griffin was limited to less than four minutes with three fouls.

The 51 fouls is not an obscene number -- the four regular-season games between the teams averaged 47 fouls -- but it did seem to affect both the flow and outcome of the game.

"It's frustrating," said Iguodala, the Warriors' best perimeter defender. "Because you put in so much work for these moments. To have a few things not go your way and you know you're not wrong, it can be tough."

For his part, Griffin thought it actually took the expected physicality of this series out of the game.

"To be honest, it felt like just a regular-season game as far as the physicality goes," Griffin said. "I know the series we played last year [against the Memphis Grizzlies] and the years before that were way, way, way more physical. So it’s kind of hard to know what you can get away with and what you can’t.

"But I just I have to be smarter in that area and not put us in that situation."

Or maybe things will just loosen up and Griffin and Iguodala will be able to influence the series, like one would’ve expected.

Defensive value becoming harder to ignore

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
9:35
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Andre IguodalaRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesAndre Iguodala is used to being overlooked, but new metrics will make it tough to do so any longer.
What will happen when defense finally matters to basketball fans as much as offense does?

If we’re ever getting there, real plus-minus (RPM) and its defensive component (DRPM) make for a step in that direction. ESPN’s latest tool seeks to isolate a team’s performance when a player is in the game, placing equal value on offense and defense. This approach can lead to results that challenge what is “known” about a league that most view with an offensive gaze.

Andrew Bogut was once asked about SportVU’s player tracking technology, specifically how the defensive metrics showed Bogut to be a great rim protector. "I don't need to check that to know that," he joked. We might want to celebrate great defensive players with numbers that reflect their skill, but it’s hard to tell a great defensive player anything about his defense. Top defenders boast perceptive court awareness -- the ones I’ve talked to largely assume they have it all figured out anyway. You have a new stat? Cool. I see where everyone’s going on the floor like a casino camera.

Defensive specialists like Bogut have been long resigned to how much of their work gets ignored. It’s not about the credit. It’s about doing the job, helping the team and making a handsome living off the teams that value stopping the opposition. Credit and validation do not come with this gig. To quote “Mad Men,” “That’s what the money is for.”

So you’ll excuse wry, crusty Andre Iguodala if he views his impressive RPM with some suspicion. Asked about his top ranking among wing defenders, Iguodala replied, “They say numbers never lie. I’m the opposite of that; I think numbers always lie.”

Iguodala has, on occasion, mentioned the lack of credit he’s gotten for a career so focused on the defensive end. His contract in Philadelphia was the source of derision, despite his immense impact on defense.

Fans and even the stats themselves tend to obsess over who has the rock. "The stat sheet is geared more toward the ball and where the ball's at,” Iguodala says. “I'm more how the ball's being defended or how the ball's being impacted on the defensive end." Apparently we sports fans aren’t so different from the dogs we own: Show us a bouncing ball and we’ll be transfixed into noticing little else.

Iguodala, like Bogut, has expressed resignation when speaking of what gets ignored. He’s been in this game a long time, and ignoring being ignored has become almost a badge of honor.

He tells people not to call him “Iggy,” even if it’s an easy nickname that plays well in 140 characters. On that particular medium, Iguodala is cryptically vague. He intentionally cuts out the context when tweeting, becoming inscrutable to a vast majority of his followers. Sometimes it’s a Vine or a funny story that inspires Iguodala to broadcast unexplained phrases. “A word pops up in my head, and then I tweet it. No one has a clue what I’m talking about,” he says while laughing. “Some people figure it out though. Some people are pretty good.”

[+] EnlargeIguodala/Green
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesReal plus-minus is a big fan of impact defenders like the Dubs' Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
"I'm not really an attention whore. I don't always like doing media," Iguodala says while smirking to attendant media. "When you're younger, you're in the league first five or six years, you want the attention. You want to be known as this or that."

Draymond Green, Golden State’s young defensive ace, was more receptive to the new stat. He is second in defense among wings in RPM, behind Iguodala. Golden State’s video guys showed the stat to Draymond. Then he checked Twitter and saw a lot of fans praising him on his high ranking.

“I’m definitely happy to see it,” Green says. “A lot of times, [defense is] overlooked.”

New defensive stats are coming at just the right time for guys like Green. Building a defensive reputation isn’t easy. It’s nice to have stats on your side at the beginning of a career. It’s ammo in the arsenal of the agent, fan or TV pundit who wishes to defend your honor.

Iguodala lacked that kind of tangible defense early in his career. In 2012, Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “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.”

While Iguodala is suspicious of the numbers, he sees the value in what they might accomplish. “As a player, the whole analytics thing, you take the analytical side and the player's side, and there's that fence. And there's kind of a rift between the two. And I think for the game to evolve to become what everybody wants it to become, there has to be some kind of resolve between the two."

If the stats credit winning basketball, they just might help fans understand an NBA player’s job. If the stats credit winning basketball, they might just help people appreciate what they’re seeing.

In defense of Andre Iguodala

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
1:48
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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JamesRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesAndre Iguodala is one of the very best defenders in the NBA. But how many actually notice it?
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.

[+] EnlargeStephen Curry
AP Photo/Ben MargotSteph Curry's sweet stroke draws a lot of praise. Andre Iguodala's crafty ball denials? Not so much.
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.

Killer Lineup: The Warriors' #FullSquad

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
11:19
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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"Killer Lineup" is a recurring feature that highlights the workings of one of the NBA's most efficient five-man units. Today, we look at the Golden State Warriors' starters.

Lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut
Minutes Played: 612
Offensive Rating: 113.5 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.0 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively

This is the league’s most prolific five-man unit offensively (among the top 30 in minutes played), but the Warriors’ starting lineup doesn't seem like a natural offensive machine when examined on the surface.

Andre Iguodala hasn't historically stretched the floor, though he’s shooting the 3 at a 42.9 percent clip this season. David Lee will launch out to the arc, but is a 36.7 percent shooter from midrange. And Andrew Bogut has taken fewer than two dozen shots outside the restricted area this season. Meanwhile, both Iguodala and his counterpart on the wing, Klay Thompson, sport a player efficiency rating below the league average. Thompson shoots well from beyond the arc and is a decent finisher, but he misses a lot of midrange shots and isn't inclined to move the ball all that often.

Yet, here’s the Warriors’ primary unit racking up 113.5 points for every 100 possessions.

This is a testimony to a few things. First, to Stephen Curry and Lee, both of whom can manufacture a shot out of table scraps. Has there ever been a shooter with a better nose than Curry for finding space along the arc in transition or getting a shot off against a tight close-out?

Curry is also among the league’s master hiders on the pick-and-roll. He doesn't require a whole lot of room to cross over and then step back into an open spot behind Bogut or Lee, and the bigs do a nice job of putting the down payment on that space with crafty picks and drag screens. The Curry-Lee drag screen is a linchpin of Golden State's offense. It’s both the simplest and most reliable way for the Warriors to get an early look.

Curry almost always prefers firing a 3-pointer to putting the ball on the floor. He doesn't take it to the cup all that often, and isn't especially efficient when he does. He’ll hit Lee on the roll if the path is there, but the bomb still takes precedent, and you can’t fault him for it.
[+] EnlargeStephen Curry
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesSteph Curry's sharp stroke opens up a lot for the Warriors' starters.

Lee is one of the best catch-and-go big men in the league, and in set situations, the Warriors orchestrate a few different ways to get Lee the ball close to the hoop. There’s a fun high-low in which Bogut flashes high and Lee dives low after setting a side pick for Curry. The ball goes from Curry to Bogut at the foul line, where Bogut instantly hits Lee at the rim.

The ball often ultimately lands in Lee’s hands on the left block late in the clock. He can spin into that lefty hook beautifully, or just bully his way into the paint with some space. He’s also a heady decision-maker who can find shooters and cutters.

Then there’s the playmaking. Counting Lee, there are four guys who move the ball exceptionally well. The fifth, Thompson, isn't someone you want making plays off the dribble (though he’s better than he was a year ago). To capitalize, the Warriors run the Spurs’ classic "motion weak" stuff, wherein the ball pings around the court with Curry on the move and can end up in any number of places off the read -- often Curry up top after curling around a couple of baseline screens, or Lee in the Duncan spot or in a two-man game left side as a second-side action.

Iguodala is a calming force on what can be a frenetic offense. He commandeers many of the sets from the left wing or up top. This is a primary portal of entry into Lee on the left block. All the while, Curry will hold down the weak side, which pretty much hamstrings any defensive rotation because the help can’t come from the strong side (Lee can find Bogut with a blindfold on) and it can’t come from the top (Thompson). Sometimes, Curry will shuttle the ball to Iguodala, then curl around a single-single for the catch. If Curry is denied, Iguodala quickly delivers the ball to Lee in the post. This is another place where Iguodala lubricates the offense, and he's also a master of the advance pass in transition -- and almost guides the leakers to the optimal spot.

When five guys on the floor can execute properly, they can run clever stuff. The Warriors’ playbook works because the unit has smarts. The term “high IQ” is always a little problematic because there’s many different kinds of intelligence on the basketball court. Let’s just call it wherewithal. Either way, you can see the long menu in action on a set called “52”:

Curry dribbles from the wing to the top of the floor past a screen from Bogut, who dives off the screen. Meanwhile, Thompson vacates the left side and runs around a stagger screen along the right side of the lane, then curls to the top of the floor on the far side. So Curry has three very nice options:

  • Shoot from the top of the arc.
  • Pass off to Thompson, if he gets separation.
  • Hit a diving Bogut with an alley-oop.

What’s most impressive when the starters run this kind of set is that most of the options are available. Other teams run the famed “elevator doors,” but few as flawlessly as Bogut and Lee for Curry and Thompson. The corner splits -- with Iguodala cutting back door -- are nifty. This group plays well with pace, because it has two big men who can ignite the break and everyone has confidence in what the unit is doing.

Because Curry and Thompson can screen competently for the bigs, this lineup will frequently draw mismatches. Because it has so many effective pick-and-roll combinations, it can scramble a defense with multiple actions. And because Curry can shoot the lights out and draws the Prussian army, the other four guys on the floor -- all with multiple offensive skills -- get the chance to work in advantageous situations.

That’s how you count to 113.5 in more than 600 minutes together.


How it works defensively

Not unlike the offense, the Warriors’ defensive personnel doesn't necessarily look like a standout unit. Iguodala and Bogut are elite defenders at their respective positions, and there’s no doubt a lockdown wing and an interior rim protector who can handle both the pick-and-roll and help responsibilities provide a bedrock foundation for a defense. But Lee, Curry and Thompson have all carried a reputation as sieves at one time or another (in Lee’s case, the past, present and future). Defensive stoppers are indispensable, but it’s challenging for a five-man unit to post a decent defensive rating if there are liabilities all over the floor.

It’s no longer useful to identify a team’s overriding defensive strategy as forcing long 2s because every coach in the league, whether he’s steeped in analytics or an old-timey ball coach, has bought into this as an organizing principle. The Warriors’ starters certainly do. This group gives up shots in the restricted area at well below the league average rate, and opponents are finishing those shots at a below-average clip. This holds true across the board: The starters surrender fewer 3-point attempts and those they do are converted at a lousy rate. Opponents are more likely to take a midrange shot against this group, and fewer than 38 percent of those shots fall.

It starts with Bogut, who is a vigilante, both in temperament and in practice. He commits early to the attacker on the pick-and-roll, but he’s a big defender who seems to devote as much attention on establishing the demarcation line between ball and paint as he is on the guy who’s actually handling the ball.

The schemes usually call for Bogut to fall back into the lane against the pick-and-roll, but he’s not exclusively a drop guy. Bogut will get out on big men, especially those who can shoot, and coach Mark Jackson trusts Bogut with defensive audibles. If he sees an opportunity to disrupt without giving away too much behind him, by all means. Bogut is well aware that he’s the rim protector, but he’s deft at balancing out his responsibilities.

When the action is on the strong side -- and it frequently is because teams don’t want any part of trying to ram the ball inside against a 7-foot Australian underneath -- Bogut is deceptive. He likes to stay in the paint for virtually the entire three seconds allotted, but he’s just as likely to stick close to his man on the weakside baseline then dart into the path of the attacker to meet him vertically. Bogut's the thinking man’s gambler, a center who will account for risk on the weak side and the glass before committing. Yet despite the careful calculation, he rarely seems to be late on help.

The pick-and-roll coverage up top makes things easier for Curry in particular. By playing it “weak” -- influencing the ball handler to his weak hand -- the Warriors turn the task of guarding against the screen into something other than a test of physical strength. It’s no longer about fighting through the pick; it’s about anticipating the action before it happens. Curry may not have raw muscle, but he does have sharp instincts. So with a quick reaction, he can be in a position to reroute the ball handler irrespective of where and how the screen will be set. Credit Curry for catching on quickly and credit the staff for its creative thinking.

Curry has grown into a better defender than he was largely projected to be. He’s not easily tempted to leave his guy up top to lurch at the ball. When guarding a shooter, he’s a disciplined homebody. Bigger guards in the league still love to go at Curry -- posting up at the elbow, power dribbles with the intent of contact, etc. But he knows how Bogut likes to operate and can redirect his attacker, even if he can’t stop him.
[+] EnlargeArron Afflalo
AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.Andre Iguodala's tight D helps cover up the mistakes from some of his teammates.

Thompson has improved in this capacity, too, though he’s still prone to distraction off the ball. Still, there’s measurable growth there, the kind of improvement that accompanies big guards who realize that their size can bother, especially if they move their feet.

There isn’t a defensive task Iguodala hasn't mastered as a perimeter stopper. We generally see defenders work when they’re matched up in isolation against the big dog. When eyes aren't on Iguodala and he’s chasing a guy around a couple of screens or playing for the angle, the list of offensive options evaporates with the clock.

Nobody denies like Iguodala, and scorers who have Iguodala’s attention can go possessions without seeing the ball. When Iguodala does relent, it’s only after the timing of the offense has been disrupted and the offense has stopped and can’t figure out its next move. The offensive players are no longer synced to the primary action -- thanks to Iguodala, nobody could get the damn ball to the guy who needed it. Iguodala’s size and reach also allow for a switch on any action (high ball screens, curls, pindowns), a luxury the Warriors exploit.

Any discussion of the Warriors’ defense inevitably leads to Lee, often to the point of ridicule. Whether Lee was tired of hoop junkies cutting his defensive lowlights to a laugh track or if this unit started to understand its collective strengths and weaknesses, his performance this season has been markedly better; there are far fewer cringe moments. For the first time since he arrived in Oakland, Lee’s individual defensive rating is lower than the team’s overall number.

While Lee’s deficiencies are very much present, so is the help from Bogut and Iguodala. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to assemble a blooper reel with Lee as the foil. In this respect, Lee is the embodiment of the starters’ defensive approach: high-quality workarounds for problems that once seemed unsolvable.

Warriors need better bench approach

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
5:15
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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On the face of it, the Golden State Warriors got a great deal. They traded the underperforming Toney Douglas for a more offensively talented player in Jordan Crawford and whatever remains of MarShon Brooks’ potential. They’re no longer held back by a bench with zero guys who can dribble at an above-average NBA level.

But the process they used to get here is troubling. The word on Douglas was that he can help a team with defense and 3-point shooting, but not as a primary playmaker. The natural fit was for the 27-year-old to play off the ball alongside Andre Iguodala, who could serve as a bench playmaker in the way Lance Stephenson does for the Indiana Pacers.

Instead, Mark Jackson tapped Douglas to run a bench unit deprived of helpful offensive players. He was set up to fail and did so spectacularly. Those who watched Douglas on the New York Knicks could have confidently predicted this. To summarize, the Warriors used their new acquisition wrong, then traded his diminished value before the All-Star break.

The miserable bench is the flipside of Golden State’s awesome "full squad" starting lineup of Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala. Jackson’s use of a full bench all at once has made little sense, given the skill sets of players involved.

Golden State’s fourth most commonly employed lineup is an awful mix of Marreese Speights, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore and Douglas. This crew didn't have a chance, yet got plenty of chances. Four of these players claim defensive skill, but that matters only so much when Speights is the guy tasked with rim protection. None of these guys could dribble or create for the others. Their offensive possessions really just qualified as pre-defense.

What were the Warriors doing? Why did they use this lineup so often when there was no conceivable way it could succeed? Why did Douglas end up sharing more than twice as much floor time with Bazemore as he did with Iguodala?

To truly contend, the Warriors need to manage this better. While it’s true that starting lineups have an augmented impact on the postseason, it will be difficult for the Warriors to win a title while other elite West teams reap so much more from their reserves.

The Warriors should blend reserves with starting players, mixing and matching according to which starter is in at that moment. That means cutting down on the Speights-Lee combination (82 minutes), a tandem that provides little offensive spacing while turning the defense into “observe layup line.” The Warriors have had some success with Lee at center, surrounded by shooters. Such lineups aren’t defensively ideal, but the D’Antoni Knicks flashback at least brings offensive punch.

The Warriors should also look to their success against the Nuggets last postseason and attack lineups vulnerable to small-ball sniping. They scarcely use the Bogut plus shooters approach that won them a playoff series.

It’s possible Crawford just solves Golden State’s bench woes with his passing and volume shooting, but the Warriors shouldn't rely on Crawford, of all players, to be their savior. To beat the best out West, Golden State must make a “full squad” of their entire rotation.

The Warriors are right on course

December, 25, 2013
12/25/13
5:45
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Stephen CurryAP Photo/David ZalubowskiThe Warriors are just 16-13 heading into Christmas Day, but is it more bad luck than bad basketball?

Fan backlash often smacks teams that haven’t even been around long enough for people to truly despise them. It’s an accusation of fraudulence: You weren’t what you were sold as. You’re an NBA interloper, not a true contender. You’re getting all this attention through a devious ruse.

There’s a prosecutorial bent to the weekly debate about sports teams, as though these players and coaches are joined in a vast conspiracy to win our approval before intentionally screwing up. A nouveau riche team with a gaudy offense easily attracts such negative sentiments. “Fun” becomes a burden when the novelty wears off. Notice how the Clippers get blasted by TV pundits. Notice how the Rockets are starting to invite similar indictments.

And of course, notice how people are turning on the Warriors after a slow start. Can you blame fans and writers for wondering, “Is this all there is”?

Sports Illustrated heralded them as “The New Showtime.” As in, Magic Johnson’s Showtime. That headline practically begs you to scream, “IMPOSTER!” at the grocery magazine stand as passersby gawk at the crazy man in Aisle 11.

Is this what Showtime looks like? A 13th ranking in offensive efficiency? A 19th ranking in the month of December? Though Curry has played the best basketball of his career, the Warriors have underwhelmed predictions. The New Showtime is 8th among teams out West right now.
[+] EnlargeAndre Iguodala
AP Photo/Rick BowmerThe Warriors took a spill without Andre Igudoala, going 5-7 when he was shelved with an injury.

So, are they frauds? Are they nothing close to title contention?

Not exactly. The Warriors are by many indications fine, save for their injuries and early schedule. “If healthy” is always the qualifier, but if healthy, they are as they were sold to us.

The Warriors lived up to the hype in the initial rollout. Eleven games into the season, they were second league-wide in net rating, with one of their three losses coming in a game Curry missed. Bogut and Iguodala comprised a respectable defense by themselves, and the combination of four good passers made for beautiful ball movement on offense. That Bogut-Lee-Iguodala-Thompson-Curry starting lineup demolished all comers, and remains a powerful plus-15.5 points per 100 possessions on the season.

The ugly detour began on Nov. 18. During a blowout of the Utah Jazz, Curry slipped and crumbled beneath the shadow of a belly-flopping Marvin Williams. It looked as though Williams fell on Curry’s head with most of Marvin’s 237 pounds and the weight of every single expectation the former No. 2 pick had ever carried. The sickening thud left Curry with a concussion, and left the Warriors without Curry for two games.

That such a brief injury could unravel the Warriors says something about the construction of this team. Curry and Iguodala are the only two perimeter guys capable of making plays for teammates off the dribble. Lose one of them, and the team teeters. For all the buzz about Klay Thompson’s 3-point shooting or Harrison Barnes’ upside, it’s rarely noted that neither can really handle or create for others. There’s no such player on the bench who does this either. When Curry and Iguodala are out, the other Warriors players stand helplessly, waiting to be fed like a nest of baby birds.

With Curry sidelined, Iguodala played 48 minutes in an overtime loss to Memphis. In his next game, Iguodala strained his hamstring. The Warriors lost and went on to lose the following night against Portland, sans Iguodala. In games where the Warriors lack Curry or Iguodala, they're 5-10.

This particular weakness sounds like a reason to sell Golden State stock, but I’d counter by saying all teams have weaknesses -- the Warriors were just unfortunate enough to have theirs exposed early. The Trail Blazers, for example, are quite reliant on every player in their awesome starting lineup. They just haven’t been tested by injuries yet.

Consider this, too. After Dec. 27, the Warriors will have more games left against East teams than West teams. That’s how West-heavy their early schedule has been in a season when the East is far inferior. Of their first 31 games, 27 came against the mighty West. As of today, they’ve also played three more road games than home games. They should strengthen as the schedule weakens. So much of how we perceive teams is determined by whom they play and when.

It’s difficult to sell Warriors optimism when the team’s lived down to the hype. This particular fanbase has an understandable aversion to the sugarcoating of criticism. This franchise and its employees are notorious for hyping (and later excusing) failures. Any attempt to make excuses for Mark Jackson’s “no excuse basketball team” goes over worse than suggesting they bring back Andris Biedrins. Pollyanna just plays terribly on the local level.

But a squad that maintained a plus-3.4 point differential through trying times warrants an allowance. These Warriors currently grade out at a respectable 8th in a Hollinger Rankings formula that knows nothing about Iguodala missing nearly half the early season.

Until Golden State’s killer starting lineup falters, they should be taken seriously. A starting unit plays more in the postseason, lessening the impact of a weak bench. It’s how last year’s 5-deep 49-win Indiana Pacers surprised people in the playoffs.

This remains an “if healthy” West contender, and the open question is whether they can stay healthy. The early season hasn’t diminished such an opinion -- in many ways, it’s validated it.

Iguodala's return leaves Nuggets at a loss

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
2:51
AM ET
By David Walker
ESPN.com
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Andre IguodalaBart Young/NBAE/Getty ImagesFormer Nuggets star Andre Iguodala returned to Denver to a chorus of boos, but left with a win.
DENVER -- Attrition takes its toll during a long NBA season. Winning streaks can end as abruptly as losing skids begin, and for teams hoping to stop the bleeding, a win in the right place at the right time can be a salve for all wounds.

Golden State and Denver met on Monday night as two teams in a similar state of hemorrhage. The Warriors came in with the point differential of a playoff team without the record to support it. A blazing start that inspired legitimate hopes of contending in a cutthroat Western Conference couldn’t be sustained after Andre Iguodala strained his left hamstring on Nov. 22. Though the Warriors had won two of three since Iguodala’s return last week, they arrived in Denver buried in the No. 9 spot in the conference standings.

Denver entered Monday night as a team reflective of its offseason turmoil. Losses to Oklahoma City, Phoenix and the L.A. Clippers exposed a wobbly bench and an offense that seemed to have short-circuited.

The Warriors' and Nuggets' paths, once so divergent after last season’s playoff series, now seemed to run parallel, with both teams in a lull as a familiar face in Iguodala took the floor. The usually apathetic arena showered the former Nugget with boos at player introductions, then at every moment he touched the ball in the first half -- an honor usually reserved solely for Carmelo Anthony.

“It’s just part of sports now," Iguodala said following the game. "I played in Philly, and I was booed while I was on the home team so, I heard it before and it won’t be the last time.”

The game itself served as a nice delineation of each team’s greatest foibles. Denver began the game slow, as it often tends to do, and surrendered a sizable lead to the Dubs’ starting unit. But as Ty Lawson drove Stephen Curry into foul trouble, the Warriors had to lean heavily on their maligned bench, which let Denver chip away at the lead.

“First quarter, we did it to ourselves again,” Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said. “To start out the game I don’t know what percent they were shooting but it seemed like they were on pace to have a 50-point quarter. Our second unit came in and locked down and fought hard.”

And yet as the game extended into the fourth quarter and the lead was tossed constantly back and forth, the Warriors leaned on their defense to wrest control of the game.

“Defense is what it takes to win,” Curry said. “When we don’t show up defensively we tend to be out of the games, not very competitive, because our offense is going to be there every night but the dropoff when we’re at our best defensively and when we’re not is pretty significant. So it was huge for us to be more consistent as a team.”

Turnovers and missed shots stymied the Golden State offense, which shot only 42.9 percent for the game. But as the truism goes, offense stays while defense travels. The Warriors defense sprouts from the perimeter, where the trio of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Iguodala prowl the outer edges, sometimes shooting gaps to force turnovers and other times funneling unwitting ball handlers into the maw of Andrew Bogut. While the Warriors’ offense can be prolific in spurts, the defense remains the royal constant.

“It tells you how good we can be,” Warriors coach Marc Jackson said. “There is no question about those guys' ability to score and shoot the basketball but the thing that can remain constant for us is our ability to defend, and defend at a high level. That’s going to win ballgames so when those guys do establish a rhythm, it’s going to be awfully pretty.”

Inevitably, it all came back to Iguodala, whose pedestrian stat line belied another sturdy defensive performance. He fittingly hit the crucial 3-pointer to put the Warriors up five late in the fourth. Iggy was Golden State’s missing cog, the ball-handling wing that was so plainly missing during its 5-7 stretch in his absence.

At the same time, Iguodala’s presence for the Warriors leaves a gaping hole within the Nuggets ranks, one in which the bleeding began and never truly ended. As Thompson’s turnaround dagger found the bottom of the net with 22 seconds left in the game, the paths of the Warriors and Nuggets seemed to diverge once again. Golden State resembled the team that jumped out to an 8-3 start, leaving the Nuggets behind, and adrift once more.

Steph Curry giving Andre Iguodala a shot

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
11:06
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Special to ESPN.com
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Andre IguodalaRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesA 33.3 percent career 3-point shooter, Andre Iguodala is hitting a scorching 47.8 with the Warriors.
Watching players practice jumpers is either hypnotic or boring, depending on who's doing the hoisting.

I never much cared to see Andre Iguodala shoot before, but a few weeks ago at the Warriors' practice facility, his routine gained entertainment value with each swish. I started to question whether the slashing wing was ever a bad shooter in the first place. And I really started to wonder when he dismissed questions about improving his jumper in the offseason.

Iguodala drained 11 consecutive 3-pointers, a majority of which didn't bother asking the rim for directions to the net. It's well-known that even poor NBA shooters make plenty of shots when defense isn't present. Still, 11 in a row is a rare sight, especially considering this shooter has career 3-point percentage of 33.3.

When the Warriors landed Iguodala in the offseason, there were fears the 29-year-old swingman would be a drag on a thrilling offensive attack. He was joining Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, “Splash Brothers” whom their coach believed to comprise the greatest shooting backcourt of all time. Would Iguodala screw up the spacing? Would his discordant rim clanks throw off the Oracle rhythm?

Instead, Iguodala has fit right in. He is shooting a molten 47.8 percent from deep on 3.8 attempts per game, while doing so much else to help the Warriors to an 8-4 start. It’s early days and that number will likely come down a bit, but he’s proved to be no threat to Golden State’s spacing. You can't gladly leave a guy open if he boasts the capability to do what Iguodala did over this span.

So what’s happening here? Is this just small sample size theater? Did Iguodala fix his shot all of a sudden?

I believe Iguodala’s shooting practice routine gives some insight into that last question. It's not that he fixed something; it’s that the way he's always shot can work in Oakland.

Iguodala doesn't release the ball quickly. Instead, he ducks forward for a beat while dipping the ball below his waist. From there, he finally releases the ball nearly straight up, as though the shot is a fountain geyser. It’s a pretty shot when undisturbed. Problem is, it's hard to get undisturbed shots against NBA defenses. Or rather, it's hard for perimeter players to get those shots if they aren't playing alongside Curry.
[+] EnlargeAndre Iguodala, Stephen Curry
AP Photo/Ben MargotAndre Iguodala has Stephen Curry to thank for all that extra time around the 3-point arc these days.

Iguodala has made 20 of his 32 3-point attempts when Curry is on the floor. When Curry sits, Iguodala is 2-for-14 from beyond the arc. Again, early days, but the dramatic difference makes sense when you watch the film.

After last season's playoffs, the opposition is appropriately terrified of this little point guard shooting 3s off the dribble. This is a unique problem for defenses, as even shooters with range can’t maintain quick-strike accuracy from 30 feet off the bounce.

The rules for guarding Curry have changed, and he's noticed it. When asked about his spike in assists, from 6.9 last season to 8.7 this season, Curry said defenses are "putting two on the ball," meaning the opposition blitzes Curry with a second defender in pick-and-roll situations. This opens up teammates around the floor for the obvious reason that double-teaming leaves an offensive player to his own devices. Also, if Curry is able to elude his pursuers, he’s liable to cause all kinds of defensive chaos as he drags two defenders back toward a unit that’s attempting to remain cohesive. It’s like he’s punching the body of a defense with its own fist.

So far, Iguodala is benefiting greatly from the odd compromises Curry imposes on a defense. He has time to set his feet, dip downward and hold his follow-through at the speed of a man doing yoga poses.

Perhaps he's been a great outside shooter all along. We just never had time to see it.

The Warriors are a defensive juggernaut

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
10:28
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Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Go ahead, laugh at the headline. It sounds ridiculous on its face, given that the last time Golden State finished better than 10th in defensive rating was 35 seasons ago. One could argue that Jimmy Carter’s presidency bookmarks the latest instance of a “good” Warriors defense.

Maybe it's not the past that makes you laugh. Maybe it’s that All-Star David Lee and superstar Stephen Curry have suffered noted defensive struggles. Maybe it’s that the Warriors recently played a hyped, nationally televised game wherein the Clippers scored 126 points.

It all hides what’s probably the greatest collection of defensive talent out West. Through five games, the Warriors rank behind only Indiana in defensive efficiency. Their rating would probably be better if not for a slew of comically sloppy turnovers that became Blake Griffin dunks last Thursday. It’s just five games, yes. But don’t be shocked if this trend holds over the entire 82-game slate.

It starts with Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, both elite defensive players at their respective positions. Building a bad defense that involves Bogut and Iguodala would probably take more effort than building a good one. So long as both are healthy, the Warriors' defense should be healthy.

Iguodala shores up the exterior and Bogut protects the rim. The shooting guard works in the shadows and margins of the Warriors' perimeter D. A fan might not notice how he’s shading an offensive player a certain direction, or how he’s swiveling through a screen. Defense is a percentage battle, and Iguodala is looking to play the probabilities over time. Over the course of 40-plus minutes, process trumps results for him. Such efforts rarely get widespread praise, but they do result in team success. The last time an Iguodala squad performed better on defense with Iguodala off the court was 2006-07.

In contrast to Iguodala’s style, Bogut is a pronounced defensive presence. Your eye is drawn to the rim, where the Golden State center often blows up the play with no regard for human foul trouble. He’s a confrontational defender, occasionally prone to latching one mitt on a driving player as the other hand chops at the ball like an overhead smash. Bogut is healthy again (for now), looking svelte compared to last season and, frankly, appearing to be the dominant defender Milwaukee never would have traded back in 2010.

On the perimeter, Klay Thompson mirrors some of Bogut’s aggression. Though Thompson sometimes suffers lapses in concentration off the ball, he’s a physical, dogged man-to-man defender. Both he and Iguodala can guard anyone from point guards to small forwards. Their skill and versatility spares Curry a lot of tough matchups and a lot of foul trouble.

Marreese Speights aside, the bench is stacked with plus defensive players. It’s nearly the only thing Jermaine O’Neal can do well at this juncture of his career. Defensively, Harrison Barnes looks like the next Iguodala, only taller. Draymond Green is a large and mobile wing. Toney Douglas gave Stephen Curry fits before finally joining the Warriors. Kent Bazemore is an athletic shooting guard whose wingspan stretches wider than Kevin Love’s.

Given the Warriors' embarrassment of defensive riches, defining the team defense by citing the shortcomings of Stephen Curry and David Lee doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’d be analogous to defining their thrilling “Splash Brothers” offensive attack by Bogut’s hopeful hook shots or Iguodala’s midrange misses.

Also, Lee's and Curry’s deficiencies will likely be mitigated by help from their teammates and by time in this particular defensive system. Lee’s inability to hedge high on screens used to kill the Keith Smart Warriors. Mark Jackson’s system eases the pain by calling on Lee to sink back from screens as Curry chases his man around the obstruction. Neither player is anything special at corralling offensive attackers, but the style shift has delivered results.

The change helped vault Golden State from 27th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to 13th last season. This happened largely without an injured Bogut’s help and before Iguodala arrived in Oakland.

These are not Don Nelson’s Warriors. It’s comforting to believe that team cultures have continuity across generations, but times do eventually change -- even for a franchise as stubborn as old Nellie was.

It’s a bit confusing because these Warriors are running up and down the court, launching 3s and thrilling fans. You’d assume a devil’s bargain where such an offense can’t come with a strong defensive foundation. You’d be wrong, though. If the Warriors aren’t good defensively this season, it should come as a shock. For once.

The secret reason the Warriors are fun

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
12:50
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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David Lee and Andrew Bogut
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Lighter fuel: David Lee and Andrew Bogut battle to start a Warriors possession.

Are the 2013-2014 Golden State Warriors great? That we don’t know. Are they fun? Yes, and by broad consensus. They crushed the competition in Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe’s League Pass Rankings. They were branded “The New Showtime” in Sports Illustrated. Everywhere you look, the Warriors are appraised as fun, fun, fun.

The reason is Stephen Curry, followed by Klay Thompson. Last playoffs, fans peered in from non-West Coast time zones and saw the Splash Brothers hoisting long 3s in situations usually reserved for dribbling, passing or breathing. Now the viewing public wants more transition bombs. Viewers will get those, but they’ll also get another secret weapon -- something that might ratchet this team’s entertainment value up even further.

This summer, the Warriors placed an emphasis on their bigs pushing the break off rebounds. Last season, Mark Jackson talked of a “green light” for David Lee to bring the ball up. Lee was reluctant to do so, but gained facility with this role as the season went on.

Lee is now flanked by a newly healthy Andrew Bogut, a center who’s an uncannily good passer. Both have full permission to grab a rebound and push it like a regular Jason Kidd. It happened a few times in Wednesday night’s stomping of the Lakers, most notably when Lee and Bogut combined to create an Andre Iguodala dunk out of semi-transition.

After the game, Jackson explained his squad’s ethos: "Anybody that gets the rebound on this team has the light to push the basketball. Until they get a bunch of turnovers (chuckles), and I will reel them in. But I encourage those guys to push the ball. They are great at making plays. They are great at reading and reacting. And it's a weapon to have all those shooters on the floor. So it's a license to do that at any time."

That license isn’t afforded to most big men on most teams. Even centers and power forwards who pass ably are restricted from orchestrating offense end-to-end. Not only does it seem risky, but it can look rather silly. A big man leading a fast break conjures a clown riding a miniature bicycle. Big guys should do big-guy things, as basketball’s division of labor dictates.

"It's unorthodox for sure,” Curry mused. “In transition, another big, whoever it is, running the lane, it's tough to guard. Especially if they can get into the paint with their dribble. It just draws attention in a different way I'm not sure teams can prepare for.”

It’s uncommon to see Curry speculate on what the opposition isn’t ready for, but really, who spends time preparing for Bogut’s And-1 mixtape audition? The novelty of a big man on the loose can be a boon for an offense. The virtue of strangeness is that defenses aren’t so versed in counteracting the unusual. Golden State hopes the confusion can lead to more open 3s for Curry and Thompson. The oddball approach is, ironically, another means to Golden State’s tried and true.

Curry channeled the defense’s mindset: "If I see a big man going coast-to-coast, maybe I'll overreact sometimes, 'cause they can finish. It's not like they're just teasing. They can take it in the middle coast-to-coast. And the way they pass, if we run our lanes right and have good spacing, that's going to be tough to guard. We see our guard, soon as we get a rebound, it's open space. We have no problem turning around and sprinting because we trust them with the ball in their hands."

If a big man leads the break, he’s likely to force someone other than an opposing big man to step up and deal with him. This can foment mismatches and defensive miscommunication. Teams that obsess over stopping Curry may forget every principle when the boulder from Indiana Jones starts rolling through the lane.

Yes, the Splash Brothers will be the main draw at Oracle. That much isn’t changing. But if you’re the type of person who loves watching a lumbering defensive lineman return an interception, you might just find more joy in Golden State’s inverted fast break.

One-on-one: Jerry West

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
8:36
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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A brief summer league chit-chat with Lakers legend and Warriors consultant Jerry West.

lastname
West

Q: Being on Dwight Howard’s short list, and still in the hunt hours before his announcement -- is there a moral victory in that?

West: When people look at you a little differently, it’s flattering. But when I look at the younger players we have and the job our coaches did last year, it makes you feel good people are starting to take notice, and for Dwight to have an interest in us. We had a great meeting with him, but at the end of the day, we felt like he had made up his mind where he was going to go.

Q: When did you guys identify Andre Iguodala as a target internally?

West: We have some young people in the front office interacting with people and looking at free agent lists. We all felt we needed more of a defensive presence and a player that could play multiple positions. He’s a terrific veteran. It wasn’t hard, to be honest, because of his career. You can count on him every night and pencil him in for two or three positions.

Q: Guarding three positions, playing three positions -- did you ever imagine there would be this kind of emphasis on versatility. Nobody really considered those things when you played. A guy was a point guard or a power forward or a center and that was it, right?

West:The league is changing and we don’t have many back-to-the-basket players. We now have a game that requires skill and versatility. A lot of that is about being able to think. It makes all the difference in the world to have a player in there with a high basketball IQ who can make the right decision.

Q: What’s caused that evolution, a game where a power forward is often a guy who’s 6-foot-7 hanging out in the corner?

West: The advent of so much dribbling has created a different kind of player, and it starts at a very early age. We have so many gifted ball handlers. Everything is pick-and-roll. Unless he’s a catch-and-shoot guy, a player is going to put it on the floor and attack. Kevin Durant is a wonderful ball handler. And anytime we get a Derrick Rose or a Chris Paul or someone who can do those kind of things, kids are going to emulate that.

Q: From the perspective of a Hall of Fame guard, what makes Stephen Curry the shooter he is?

West: He’s got that baby face, but this guy really likes to compete. Some people have gifts that others don’t have. When he shoots the ball, I don’t care if it’s what I consider to be a bad shot, I think he’s going to make it. He’s got almost perfect mechanics. You can’t have a flying elbow. His release, his rotation on the ball, he shoots every shot the same. That’s the most important thing with shooting -- repetition. It’s a lever, and he’s got a great lever. But even more important, he’s got something in his fingers.

Q: Can Harrison Barnes play the 4 for the Warriors?

West: Watching him develop. My goodness. His ability to become a better player in one summer is remarkable to see right now. Remarkable. He can be an All-Star player. If you look at him now, he’s gotten bigger physically. He’s a tireless worker and he’ll work on the things that will make him a better player, not just the things he does well. And our coaches know what he can do.

Notable offseason moves by contenders

July, 10, 2013
7/10/13
4:01
PM ET
By John McTigue, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty ImagesAndre Iguodala had the second-highest FG percentage among all players inside of five feet last season (min. 200 attempts).
The Houston Rockets have made the biggest splash this offseason, but they aren’t the only playoff team from last season making moves.

Below is a statistical look at some of the other moves made by 2013 playoff teams looking to improve.

Golden State Warriors/Andre Iguodala

The 6-6 Iguodala has a skillset that should complement the Warriors' hot-shooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Iguodala’s strength on offense is his ability to finish around the basket.

Of the 135 players with at least 200 field goal attempts inside five feet last season, only LeBron James (75 percent) finished with a better field goal percentage than Iguodala (73.4 percent).

Iguodala made more field goals (212) inside five feet than Curry and Thompson combined last season (206).

Defensively, Iguodala can also take the tougher defensive assignments off the hands of Curry and Thompson.

Iguodala was the fourth-best defender in isolation last season, allowing 0.63 points per play. Thompson ranked 44th and Curry ranked 65th as isolation defenders (min. 100 plays).

New York Knicks/Andrea Bargnani

The Knicks traded Steve Novak and several other pieces to acquire Bargnani. Despite shooting 45 percent from 3-point range with the Knicks, Novak fell out of the rotation in postseason play due to concerns over his defense.

However, if the Knicks expect Bargnani to replace Novak’s offense while providing better defense, they may be mistaken.

Win shares estimates the number of wins a player contributed to a team based off statistical performance, and can be divided into offensive and defensive win shares.

Novak was slightly better defensively according to the win shares but was more than five wins better on offense than Bargnani. This is due in part to Bargnani shooting 42 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3-pointers during that time.

Furthermore, the Knicks were nearly the same defensively with or without Novak on the court the last two seasons, allowing 101.4 points per 100 possessions with Novak and 101.1 points without him. The Raptors were 2.8 points per 100 possessions worse with Bargnani on the court the last two seasons.

Los Angeles Clippers/J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley

The Clippers shot 36 percent from 3-point range last season, 15th in the NBA. During the postseason, however, the Clippers struggled from deep, shooting just 30 percent, third-worst among the 16 playoff teams.

Both Redick and Dudley should be able to help the Clippers from beyond the arc as they are two of the 18 active players who have attempted at least 1,000 3-pointers and hit at least 39 percent of those shots since 2006-07.

That was the year Redick entered the NBA and one year before Dudley began his career.

Conversation starters for 2012-13

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
10:41
AM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz and Beckley Mason
ESPN.com

Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.

1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?

Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.

But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.

The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.

Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?

I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.

Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …

2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?

Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.

Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.

That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?

Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.

Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.


Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
Mason: I agree, particularly because it takes a certain ingenuity to be a truly great offensive player. That’s just not the case on the defensive end, where position, intelligence and effort are the hallmarks of excellence.

I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?

Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).

Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...

3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?

Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.

You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.

In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.

Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.

So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.

The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.

Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.

4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?

Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.

The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.

Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.


Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
Arnovitz: Development is another one of the great unknowns in basketball, and here’s a head-scratcher of a case study:

5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?

Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.

The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.

He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.

Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?

Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).

Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.

If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.

Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...

6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?

Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.

Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.

I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.

Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.

Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?

Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.

As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.

I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.

Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.

Iguodala brings different game to Denver

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
10:37
PM ET
By Jose DeLeon, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
The Nuggets will replace Aaron Afflalo with Andre Iguodala. Will Afflalo be missed?
This is the first installment of a series called “Missed or Not Missed?”. The concept is simple -- we take a look at a few Western Conference teams and determine if the players they’ve lost will be missed or if the player they brought in will make them forget that loss.

The Denver Nuggets helped the Los Angeles Lakers land Dwight Howard by sending Arron Afflalo to the Orlando Magic. The Philadelphia 76ers contributed by trading Andre Iguodala to Denver.

Will swapping offense for defense benefit the Nuggets this season?

Late game contributor
Afflalo played a major role late in games for the Nuggets -- he scored 208 points (third-most) and shot 84.8 percent from the line (third-highest percentage) in the fourth quarter and overtime last season.

Meanwhile, Andre Iguodala was the sixth-highest scorer (119 points) for Philadelphia and was a liability at the line, posting the worst percentage (43.4) among his teammates with at least 20 free throw attempts after the third quarter.

Lock-down defender
Despite the departures of Afflalo, Al Harrington and Nene, the Nuggets are still left with four players who averaged more than 10 points per game last season.

Iguodala might not contribute as much as Afflalo offensively but he is the better defender.

As the on-ball defender against jump shooters lats season, Iggy allowed the sixth-fewest points per play (.81) and eighth-lowest field-goal percentage (35.0) among the 35 players with at least 370 plays. Afflalo was scored on frequently -- he ranked dead last in both categories.

Monday Bullets

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
3:08
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
  • SI's Zach Lowe breaks down the financials of Serge Ibaka's $48 million dollar extension, and what they mean for James Harden: "If Harden gets that max deal from Oklahoma City, the Thunder will be paying the tax for at least the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Assuming a max deal for Harden and that Oklahoma City gets the No. 30 pick in each of the next two drafts, the Thunder would be set to have about $75.5 million committed to 10 players in 2013-14 and $77 million committed to the same number of players in 2014-15. Fill out the rest of the roster on the cheap -- forget the mid-level exception -- and Oklahoma City will be looking at $80 million payrolls in those seasons. The tax line is at $70.4 million now, and it will go up as league revenues rise. But most projections have the tax line somewhere around $75 million in the 2015-16, and very solid growth (about 3 percent) would have it jump only to $72.5 million in 2013-14 and $74.6 million in the following season. Note again: These are estimates. Under the harsh new tax rates that kick in for the 2013-14 -- just in time! -- the Thunder would be paying a tax bill ranging from $7.5 million to $12.5 million or so, depending on the exact tax level and how much the team’s ownership is willing to spend on the back of the roster. Is Oklahoma City, the league’s second-smallest market, willing to spend something like $85 million or even $90 million to fill a team?"
  • Bradford Doolittle projects only one team in the East to win 50 games (Insider) and for the Hawks to be the No. 2 seed despite losing Joe Johnson.
  • Jason Richardson learned how to play off a dominant big man with Dwight Howard in Orlando. That should work out well in Philadelphia, where he'll be paired with Andrew Bynum.
  • Philadunkia's Steve Toll imagines Masai Ujiri reacting to opportunity to trade for Iguodala: "He was told Andre Iguodala and he probably said something like, 'hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm let me think on it and I’ll call you back' then proceeded to rip his shirt off like vintage Hulk Hogan and go running around the Denver front office like a crazy person yelling 'Iguodalaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was just gifted Iguodalaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa for Afflalo and Harrington, Iguodalaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!'"
  • Answer: A Felix the Cat flag, screenplays and a stuffed turtle. Question: What did you miss at Michael Beasley's estate sale?
  • Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold digs into Dwight Howard's somewhat maligned offensive game and finds a lot to like, especially in pick-and-rolls: "Beyond his finishing, however, the authority in which Howard dives into the teeth of the defense instantly draws extra defenders to him. This magnetism creates the floor spacing and passing angles his teammates feast on. With Howard on the floor the three point shooting percentages of Ryan Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson were all much better than when he was on the bench."
  • Blake Griffin's face-up game needs work.
  • Meet future NBA player Mirza Teletovic. He plays a bit like Ryan Anderson, says Sam Meyerkopf of Euroleague Adventures.
  • SB Nation's Andrew Sharp hilariously explains that it's been a great decade to be a Wizards fan if you are into endearingly dysfunctional players. And funny names.
  • On Ball Don't Lie, Dan Devine explains why Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings have a lot to figure out next season: "In sum, teams playing the Bucks feasted when Jennings and Ellis shared the court, scoring an average of 107.7 points per 100 possessions of floor time, more than five points-per-100 below Milwaukee's season defensive mark, according to NBA.com's metrics. To put things in perspective, only one team put up defensive numbers that inept over the course of the full 2011-12 season -- when Jennings and Ellis shared the backcourt, the Bucks ceased being a slightly-worse-than-average defensive team and became the Charlotte Bobcats (107.8-per-100 allowed)."
  • In an interview with Patrick Hayes, Kirk Goldsberry (of Court Vision fame) reflects on seeing statistics in action during the NBA playoffs: "I put out the chart in April, which showed how extremely effective Durant is from the top of the arc. It’s his favorite shot, he shoots a ton there, he owns that spot. The fast forward to the playoffs when the Lakers are playing the Thunder, then last possession of the game, Durant is approaching the top of the arc and Ron Artest is for some reason sitting back six feet and we all know what happened -- Durant nails that shot. What struck me was why didn’t the Lakers know that was his best shot?"
  • A Lakers fan who feels guilty, sort of, about his team's embarrassment of both basketball and literal riches.

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