Admit it, we take the foundational players of this league for granted.
Don’t take LeBron James for granted.
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) January 11, 2020
Lebron giving us a 28/8/8 statline every season is a given. Steph Curry lobbing fireballs from anywhere up-to centre court is normal. General Chris Paul barking orders and hitting elbow-daggers on whatever team he commands par-for-the-course. It just is what it is over and over again.
Until it isn’t.
Deron Williams was an All-Star in Brooklyn. The acquisition of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to pair alongside him, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez made the entire league quiver. Then Williams, like overnight, suddenly wasn’t near being an All-Star. The whole team experiment went kaput and he basically fell right out of the league.
Josh Smith, who averaged 18/7/6 for six straight years fell out of the league at twenty-nine (his last game was 2015 and Detroit only finished paying off his $54 million contract in 2019!).
The inevitable twilight of NBA players can be severely sudden like Deron’s or Josh’s. One day they’re scraping together ten or twenty points a game, the next they’re broadcasting on the local telecast or “grinding it” in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Some do age gracefully. Production dwindles evenly over time. Fans slowly come to terms with their degradation. The lucky few are honoured with year-long retirement parades.
Most just pass like a ship in the night. Anyone wondering if Tyson Chandler is still getting lobs on practice squads somewhere? True or false, Anthony Tolliver is on an NBA roster?
Nowadays, I prepare myself for such events. Carmelo Anthony retired three years ago in my mind, I will be ready. Marc Gasol, I’m ready. LaMarcus Aldridge, prepare the arrangements, I’m ready. Everyone and their Rabbis are waiting for the Russell Westbrook shiva.
Andre Iguodala, on the other hand, I had to unpack my emotional bags.
He’s ancient for 2021 NBA years. The average age of an NBA player for the last three years is twenty-six.
Iggy. He’s thirty-seven!
I know, I know, Vince Carter was sixty-five or something last year when he played his last game, but Vince was not exactly an impactful player on a losing team.
And, yes, there are nearly as old, but more masterful players still going strong: Lebron James is [ageless] thirty-six; Commandante Paul thirty-five. But they’re athletic and talented anomalies. Generational greats that come around seldom. Not to say Iggy wasn’t athletic and talented back then – ooo boy I feel myself digging a hole here. You catch my drift.
It seemed, observing his regressive production at least, that Iggy’s end was nigh.
His impact in Golden State slowly diminished. When the Warriors dumped him in Memphis, it felt like he was nearing the TNT booth (PLEASE BE RID OF SHAQ). Even after sitting out half of last year and playing in the bubble and playoffs with Miami, I was preparing myself for Iggy to take his curtain call. Maybe he’d go Juwan Howard or Udonis Haslem-style and sit behind the bench or do some “team consulting” on the side.
Man, I was wrong.
The Miami Heat started this season at a poo-poo (as Zach Lowe would describe it) 7-13 owning the 22nd worst defence and giving up the third-most threes per game. It wasn’t pretty.
It also wasn’t totally their fault either. They had just ploughed their way through an entire Playoffs only to have to start a brand new season two months later.
Injuries and COVID pestered them. The most any lineup played together was thirteen games for a total of 156 minutes as of Tuesday. They also rank as one of the highest in man-games-lost.
NBA injury plot. Games missed by injured players versus team wins. Bubble size represents cumulative quality of players lost (Lost-ws metric) https://t.co/jZoxzmQuOE pic.twitter.com/k0pfIh6zRx
— Man Games Lost NBA (@ManGamesLostNBA) March 16, 2021
Since that ugly start, though, the Heat are 15-7 with the best defence in the league. The team is healthy, Jimmy Butler is going Jimmy Bananas of late, and Iggy is playing some damn good defence.
Players that relied on explosiveness and athleticism throughout their careers – like Iggy once did – are more prone to falling off cliffs than cresting surging waves. Chris Herring of Sports Illustrated recently examined the decline of Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook (who are six and five years younger than Iggy respectively) and outlined how players who can’t shoot or “play up” a position fade swiftly, falling behind the increasing speed and quickness of the game.
Indeed, the game is much faster and more dynamic than it once was. Older players falling behind more quickly. In 2015-16, eleven players at the age of thirty-seven or older played at least thirty games. The next year that number was at eight. Last year, two. This year, just one: Andre Iguodala.
Sidenote: Props to thirty-six-year-old Melo for becoming a born-again-scorer, but he’s no defender, and his bucket-getting is not all that unique to older players – I.E.: Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith.
Iggy is particularly unique because his contribution remains on the defensive perimeter. Those who have stuck around as long as he has – like Vince Carter or David West or Kyle Korver – found a niche and specialized in it. Vince was a mentor and a shooter – with the odd old-man cram – David West was a burly rebounding, passing, centrifugal force for the Warriors’ secondary group. And King Korver sniped.
Not Iggy. He’s not much of a shooter nor is he big enough to big-man a second unit for long periods of time. Rather, he’s stayed relevant by being one of Miami’s go-to perimeter stoppers.
It’s as though Tom Brady shared some of his fertile-hair-strong-arm elixirs. Not since Kevin Garnett in 2012-13 has a thirty-seven-year-old had such a substantial defensive impact. But by then, KG was playing more inside, an easier task for creaking joints and heavier feet. KG could use his length and IQ to defend effectively.
Out on the perimeter, where Iggy still roams, there’s less forgiveness for diminishing athleticism. He wouldn’t be out there if he couldn’t stick it.
The numbers don’t lie either. All year, Iggy’s been a legitimate top NBA defender.
Miami allows three fewer points per 100 possessions when Iggy is on the floor, which is nothing to shrug at for someone averaging eight minutes a game in the fourth quarter. He has the 18th highest defensive RAPTOR of players who have played over 800 minutes – the best in the last five years of his career. He’s also 25th in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus for players averaging more than twenty minutes a game and is 9th in the league in defensive Box Plus-Minus.
True, Miami plays a lot of zone, which can hide defensive liabilities and inflate ratings. But if you’re secreting away a weak defender you shove them in the corners, not mount them at the top, where Iggy is found, to welcome the initial point-of-attack.
Besides, when they do play man-to-man, there’s Iggy, devouring the other team’s dude. He’s first in the league in points allowed in the paint and second in points allowed on fast breaks.
In a win against the Lakers in late February, Iggy was glued onto Lebron for the majority of the fourth quarter. Lebron was 1/6 with two points. How many guys are getting in front of James in transition and getting a hand on the ball – Bam 747 coming in for emergency landing.
Even when he is not on a team’s first option, Miami switches everything, which is a worry-free venture when you have someone big, athletic, and intelligent to seamlessly transfer one to another.
A week after the Lakers, Miami beat Utah. Miami uses a lot of match-up zone and will flex into man-to-man on occasion. In those moments, there Iggy is meeting Donovan Mitchell head-on. In others, he’s on duty with Rudy Gobert, simplifying any screen n’ rolls with Gobert and D-Mitch – it also helps when you can have someone brashly point out the action.
According to NBA’s Advanced Match-up data, which is by no means perfect, Iggy spent at least one minute guarding, D-Mitch, Joe Ingles, Gobert, Mike Conley, and Bojan Bogdanovic, within all that time they scored a total of two points on 16% shooting. Spida finished the fourth quarter with six points on 1/8 shooting.
Put him on a secondary or tertiary scorer, and goodnight. In New Orleans, Iggy was responsible for Lonzo Ball in the latter half of the fourth quarter – he went 0/1, zero points.
Do you see the trend building here?
Time and again, Iggy is squeezing scorers dry. Whether it’s zone or man, he sucks the life out of a team’s offence anticipating screens, reading plays, and sliding into switches and helpsides like a flirty DM.
You won’t see him grabbing many steals or slapping blocks, but he won’t foul either. He’s 23rd in defensive plays per foul (number of steals and blocks per foul) – ranked among the likes of Mikal Bridges and Joel Embiid – according to teamrankings.com and 19th in fewest personal fouls per game.
Iggy is returning to Golden State form. No, he’s not as quick or as explosive as he once was. And, true, over a sustained period of time, he may struggle guarding a primary option. But Miami has done a good job deploying him at the right time. A little over a third of Iggy’s twenty-one minutes a game is in the fourth quarter. Miami also has the luxury of sicking Jimmy Butler on wings or Avery Bradley on guards, with Iggy waiting to disrupt. It’s also likely Miami will be active prior to the deadline.
*Update: Miami traded a 2027 second and recent-bigot Meyers Leonard for Trevor Ariza last night. The exact kind of wing to support/complement Iggy.
Miami’s defence has finally tightened up. They were on a five-game winning streak until running into Memphis last night – note: Iggy didn’t play – have won thirteen of their last fifteen games, and are firmly reestablishing themselves in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
All of it thanks in large part to the defence of the ageless Andre Iguodala.
*All data is of Wednesday or Thursday Morning