Playoff Iggy is Back: The Importance of Andre Iguodala

Andre Iguodala coasted through yet another regular season but still managed to be quite effective; playoff Iguodala will be critical as the Warriors make another championship run.

He might not have snagged as many headlines as his more heralded teammates, but Andre Iguodala embodied the "wait until April" Warriors ethos as well as anyone. While Iguodala's shooting numbers improved over last year's tough marks, the Warriors’ bench was more vulnerable than it had ever been before. Even the vaunted Hamptons Five lineup with Iguodala alongside Golden State's four All-Stars looked less inevitable than ever before.

The Warriors continued their season-long trend of questionable effort and commitment during their six-game first-round win over the Los Angeles Clippers. While most of the credit has to go to the Clippers for doing their best David impression, they managed to stagger Goliath far more than Goliath might have expected.

While Los Angeles didn't topple the Golden State dynasty, last year's Houston Rockets came closer than anyone outside of Cleveland had since the Warriors' championship run began. With James Harden and Co. coming to town, Golden State's fortunes will be tied to how much they can limit last year's MVP. One of the most critical men in that fight will be Andre Iguodala, who appeared to be returning to form against the Clippers in the first round. He averaged 10 points, 4.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game in the first round while making a respectable 8 of 22 triples (36.8%).

Andre Iguodala may be the X-factor in their second-round series against the Houston Rockets due to his ability to guard James Harden and due to his importance to the team's bench lineups. Iguodala actually started in Game 1 and was a crucial part of the Warriors' narrow 104-100 victory. Iguodala made six of his seven shots, played 34 minutes, and guarded both Harden and Chris Paul for stretches of the game. He was also critical to them taking Game 2 and a 2-0 lead back to Houston. Iguodala will be crucial to helping the Warriors close out Oracle Arena with a championship.

Holding down the bench

Before Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, the team's bench was one of their most important weapons. Shaun Livingston was the steady hand on the tiller as the backup point guard, someone who could be versatile defensively, move the ball around, and post up with an untouchable fadeaway jumper when needed. Leandro Barbosa would dart around - less of the Brazilian Blur than in his Phoenix days - but still able to blow past any defender who was foolish enough to give him a step. Marreese Speights was an early adopter to the ways of the stretch-center revolution, while Brandon Rush and Ian Clark spaced the floor. David West joined the group late but was vital as a steady inside presence on the last two championship teams.

But among all of those players, Andre Iguodala was the heart of the bench. His ridiculous basketball IQ, passing flourish, and nearly unparalleled defensive acumen held everything else together. Every Warriors lineup looked better with Iggy in it, as a mostly non-scoring option on offense and as the man who would guard point guards through power forwards at a consistently elite level. Iguodala was at his most effective as the most important player on one of the best benches in the league.

Almost all of the rest of Iguodala's bench mates are gone, replaced by minimum-contract players and late first-round draft picks who haven't really panned out. Kevon Looney has grown into an excellent role player up front, Shaun Livingston is still useful if not as productive as he once was, and Quinn Cook has brought shooting prowess even though he struggles in other areas of the game. The rest of the bench is loaded with inconsistency and disappointment.

It might not matter much since the Warriors have the four horsemen of the apocalypse and Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup. However, it certainly mattered against the Clippers. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell decimated the Warriors' overmatched bench; Iguodala and Looney were the only consistent contributors who didn't wilt in the face of their opponents. The Rockets are much more top-heavy than the Clippers, but the Warriors' bench has turned from a strength to a weakness and Andre Iguodala is their best hope to turn that around. While Iguodala did end up entering the series as a starter, he also spent significant minutes with more bench-heavy lineups in Game 1. That will probably continue as they will need him to shore up their second unit all series long.

Locking up Harden

Anyone who watched the Rockets play this season can tell you that guarding James Harden is not a one-man job. Harden put up scoring numbers that haven't been seen since the days of Michael Jordan, and did so in such a statistically absurd manner that it seems almost impossible. Harden scored more on isolation plays this season than any NBA TEAM per and posted the second-highest Usage Rate in NBA history. More than arguably anyone else in the history of the league, he is an offense unto himself.

The Warriors started Iguodala in Game 1 and he was given the James Harden assignment; it remains to be seen if Steve Kerr will send Iggy back to the bench either later in this series or later in this playoffs, but for now he appears to be the primary man assigned to last year's MVP. Iguodala started again in Game 2 and was +17 in a six-point Warriors win.

Iggy spent time on Harden during the three games he played in last year's Western Conference Finals, and is certainly familiar with Harden’s game. Furthermore, even regular season Iguodala remains a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end of the floor--his Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.79 would have ranked 11th among small forwards. ESPN still categorizes Iguodala as a shooting guard, however, and he tied for second among all 2-guards in that catch-all defensive metric.

One doesn't need numbers to understand Iguodala's defensive impact. He knows where to be at all times on that end of the floor. He has retained enough of his staggering athleticism to stick with perimeter players while possessing the strength to bang with larger players on switches.

The Warriors cannot hope to stop James Harden. They can only hope to contain him, and hope that their bench can stay afloat long enough to allow their starters to carry them to the finish line. If the Warriors are to accomplish either of those goals, Andre Iguodala will be the determining factor.

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