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A Closer Look: Iguodala as Sixth Man of Year

A closer look at the numbers reveals that Andre Iguodala deserves Sixth Man of the Year, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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Former players and television analysts alike continue to fruitlessly (and hilariously) fight the numbers movement in the NBA, but even the staunchest among them can’t deny the cumulative advances in basketball understanding made over the last decade-plus. It requires no advanced mathematics degree to get on board with the idea that there are more descriptive qualifiers of a player’s strengths and weaknesses than a two-number per-game average (Player A averages 17-10) or a single, context-absent counting stat. Even if you don’t subscribe to some of the heavier empirical metrics out there, the consciousness of the average fan has reached this point.

It’s strange, then, that the voting process for the league’s most prestigious awards still often reflects an electorate stuck in a more primitive time – despite its ostensible status as a collection of relatively highly informed basketball minds.

Rest easy, beat writer friends around the country – this isn’t a shot at any of you. Rather, it’s a recognition of a simple fact: A voter group comprised almost exclusively of people whose job is to watch and catalogue a single team in copious detail often won’t do a good job accurately researching and voting on awards that involve 29 other teams’ worth of players. It’s not a question of commitment, but one of available time and job description.

What often results is a shorthand of sorts; those with understandable time constraints look to simpler, less time-consuming ways to make the process easier for them. This can manifest itself in word-of-mouth evaluation, small memory samples (typically the few games per year a given voter saw a given opponent) or, by far the most common symptom, over-reliance on the low-hanging fruit represented by simple counting stats (particularly points per game).

Nowhere is this reality more readily apparent than in recent voting for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. A table from Hardwood Paroxysm’s Jacob Rosen in a recent article on the subject showcases the somewhat incredible degree to which voters gravitate toward scoring alone within the confines of this particular award: No winner in the last 14 years finished outside the top three in scoring among eligible candidates, and only on one single occasion did any top-three selection for Sixth Man average single-digit nightly points (Anderson Varejao finished third in 2009-10 while scoring 8.6 points per game).

An examination of each individual race would surely reveal that this bias rewarded the “right” guys on many occasions, but it’s plain to the naked eye how this sort of extreme reliance can lead to issues. While it’s understandable that points are the first go-to for many while evaluating players given their importance on the scoreboard, it’s very strange to see such an overuse persist even as it’s exorcised from most areas of general basketball consciousness. There are better ways of determining player value, whether a guy starts or comes off the bench.

 


 

Andre Iguodala doesn’t average a gaudy point total. Given the roster around him, it’d be a bit silly if he did. His 7.1 points per game are all the Warriors need from him, with myriad other duties on his plate that mean more to team success. A couple decades ago, tracking and understanding the impact of these other elements of Iguodala’s game might have been tough given available resources. Today, it’s a couple clicks away and frankly it’s becoming a bit strange to see these resources widely ignored in some circles.

Under the simple assumption that NBA awards like Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year are attempts to qualify overall value added by a player within the category, the fact that Iguodala trails guys like Jamal Crawford and Enes Kanter – gunners who have demonstrably hurt their teams in vital areas while on the court – on many hypothetical ballots is nearly laughable at this point. At best, it’s a recognition that Iguodala’s impact is harder to quantify empirically (probably lazy, but somewhat fair); at worst it’s conscious ignorance, not of some complex analytical rocket science, but of basic arithmetic and basketball logic.

Crawford is a popular name with a glorious history as the prototypical “sixth man,” a guy who comes in and props up bench units with mostly individual creation and shot-making. Many NBA players even feel Crawford deserves the Sixth Man of the Year award for a record third time, as Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy detailed here. Here’s the problem: He hasn’t propped up anything but opponent plus-minus figures this year. He’s having his worst year as a Clipper by a wide margin, and arguably his worst overall season since his rookie year in 2000-01.

Crawford barely nudged himself over 40 percent from the field in the last week or so, and is assisting on the lowest percentage of teammate baskets in his entire career. Worse yet has been his team impact – a small drop-off while Crawford plays would be understandable given the top-heavy nature of this Clippers team, but the degree to which L.A. improves when he leaves the floor is staggering. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, a metric designed to weed out teammate and opponent noise in this category, places him 73rd overall among 97 shooting guards (Iguodala rates eighth among 81 small forwards – the highest of all realistic Sixth Man of the Year hopefuls excepting Portland’s Ed Davis, who’s a fringe candidate).

RPM hates Kanter too, rating him 53rd among 77 centers – and dead last among these 77 for isolated defensive RPM, even behind rookie Jahlil Okafor in Philadelphia. This metric is far from an end-all and isn’t perfect, but it suggests (strongly, given the gap between Kanter and nearly everyone else at his position) that he’s among the most detrimental defensive players in the NBA, if not the very worst. Should a few extra points and rebounds a game next to his name really smother the blatant reality that Kanter damages his team on one side of the ball more than his value impact suggests he helps on the other?

There are other semi-realistic choices without such glaring holes in their candidacies, but Iguodala’s overall impact swallows them up. An injury that caused him to miss just under 20 games comes up most often as a detractor to his case, and while it certainly doesn’t help, a few bits of context beg attention. Easiest is the fact that his minute totals are still comparable to other major candidates – Iguodala played just 18 fewer minutes on the year than Kanter prior to Wednesday’s games, and wasn’t so wildly far behind others that his broad impact can be ignored.

More importantly, though, one must consider the circumstance and quality of the minutes played. The timing of Iguodala’s injury means he was active for a huge percentage of the most important minutes and games played by Golden State this year (from a strict standings perspective, excluding their run for 73). Through March 11, Iguodala’s final game before his stretch on the sidelines, the Warriors were 58-6, all but locking up the top seed in the West. It absolutely matters more that he was present for their historic first few months, a stretch that furthered their title goals significantly more than their results during the time he missed.

The in-game importance of the minutes he played also stands out from his peers, an even more vital consideration. Iguodala is a constant presence in crunch time for a team that’s been historically dominant during these high-leverage situations – none of his competition for the award even comes all that close. Take a look at this chart, gratefully borrowed from Matt Femrite in a recent blog post, which shows the percentage of team crunch minutes played by various other Sixth Man of the Year candidates as of early April:

bandicam 2016-04-14 01-11-20-786

Iguodala’s total before his injury was 89 percent, mostly as part of the most dominant single lineup in NBA history. Not only does Iguodala close tight games much more often than his competition (over four times as often as Kanter, for instance), he plays a vital role, defending top opposing wings in every situation and often sliding up or down a position to check a particularly potent ball-handler.

If the quantifiable aspects make the point, the intangibles drive it home. Iguodala isn’t a flashy shooter like teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson or an uber-talented spark plug like Draymond Green, but his value to his team is much closer to these other three than most would believe. He’s nearly as indispensable to “the Death Lineup” as Draymond, a long and versatile defender who doesn’t need to see the ball at all to make a significant impact. It’s an imperfect science, but a look at other variations of the Curry-Thompson-Barnes-Iguodala-Green unit that’s destroyed the league suggests that removing Iguodala is more damaging than swapping any other single piece besides Curry (yes, including Green).

Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect the electorate to consider all the detail herein. Maybe it’s not. The answer likely depends on who you talk to, including those who believe the voting process should be scrapped altogether and started fresh. That’s a conversation for another time, but this pen would be in support of any changes that encouraged real research and effort by those voting. Sure, they aren’t NBA championship rings, but these awards mean real things to the players considered – from pride and legacy concerns all the way to a real, tangible impact on the checkbook in many cases.

In the short-term, here’s hoping the current voter group makes the right call. No primary bench player has added anywhere near as much value to their team as Andre Iguodala this season, particularly with any weight whatsoever given to the high-leverage minutes that often separate the champions from the also-rans. Give the man the hardware.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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