Finding the Right Destination and the Right Price for the Versatile Andre Iguodala

Being able to put NBA players into neat little boxes helps fans, writers, and executives alike conceive of their value, be it around the league or to a particular team. Rim-protecting bigs, 3-and-D wings, pure point guards, bench scorers; when a player conforms to one of these archetypes, it’s that much easier to pinpoint how he fits and how much he’s worth.

But there are players who defy convention — some because they lack the requisite skill, others because they’re so multi-dimensional, they don’t fill any particular mold. Andre Iguodala is the latter. Iguodala is a wing — we know that much — but beyond that, it’s hard to describe where he fits.

Iggy’s a great defender — one of the best in the league, in fact — but to pigeonhole him as merely a wing stopper would do a great disservice to his many other talents. Such a label is for the Tony Allens and the Luc Richard Mbah a Moutes of the world, not those with career averages of 15.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game.

Iguodala can score a bit, but it’s a near certainty that you don’t want him to be your team’s primary scoring option. He’s just not efficient enough, especially when you consider the relatively low percentage of his team’s possessions that he uses. Iguodala’s career True Shooting Percentage of .550 would rank as merely average in most seasons for players defined as “swingmen” by HoopData, and that’s despite his slightly below-average usage rate of 19.5.

As his assists per game mark shows, Iguodala is quite the playmaker for a wing. A team can ask him to play point forward for a few stretches a night and feel totally comfortable. Giving him too much of the ballhandling responsibility is unwise, though, because he’s prone to turning it over. He sports a career average of 2.4 turnovers per game, dragging his assist-to-turnover ratio down near 2:1. Among the 90 swingmen to average at least 20 minutes per game and appear in at least 40 games during the 2012-13 season, Iguodala had the ninth-worst turnover rate, per HoopData.

Befitting his status as a swingman, his rebounding rate is slightly above average for a shooting guard but slightly below average for a small forward. He used to draw free throws in bunches (7.3 per game in 2006-07) due to his slashing style of play, but that skill has waned over the last few seasons (3.2 and 3.4 per game in 2011-12 and 2012-13), as has his ability to actually connect from the stripe when he gets there. Once a 80-plus percent free throw shooter, Iguodala’s conversion rate at the line has been dropping for years and finally plummeted to 57.5 percent this past season.

While he can indeed do a little of everything, even a “jack of all trades, master of none” label doesn’t quite fit; Iguodala has mastered the role of perimeter stopper over the last few years. His long arms (despite standing just 6-foot-5.75 without shoes, Iguodala has a 6-foot-11 wingspan, according to DraftExpress), quick feet, and intense knowledge of angles, player tendencies, and his own capabilities allow him to make the kind of defensive plays many other wings can only dream of.

It’s foolish to credit team-wide improvement to one player, but trading for Iguodala did coincide with Denver’s improvement from having the league’s 19th-best defense during the 2011-12 season to its 11th-best unit in 2012-13. Some of that improvement can be attributed to increased minutes for players like Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer, but Iguodala’s ability to check the other team’s best wing and either shut him down completely or make him expend extra energy should be pinpointed as the main catalyst for the jump. There are few players on the planet who can make things even remotely difficult for the NBA’s top players, and Iguodala is one of them.

A snapshot of his statistical profile (which doesn’t come close to capturing just how good his defense is) makes clear that Iguodala is one of the most unique players ever. Consider: Only 12 other players in NBA history ever matched or exceeded Iguodala’s per-36-minutes averages of 14.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 steals (minimum 400 games played) through their age-29 season. The list is a murderer’s row of Hall of Famers, should-be Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and a spectacularly talented player who flamed out due to drug abuse.

Zeroing in on just the last few years narrows the list even more. From 2011 to 2013, Iguodala averaged 13.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes. Only eight other players ever matched or exceeded those marks from ages 27 through 29. He’s a rare specimen, indeed.

So why does all this matter? Well, Iguodala opted out of the final year of his contract earlier this offseason and is now a free agent, so where he fits and how much he’s worth is of paramount importance. While Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are the crown jewels and Josh Smith is the enigmatic wild card of the 2013 free agency class, Iguodala might just be the most intriguing free agent of all.

Much like his Swiss army knife skill set, Iguodala’s position just below the truly elite tier of free agents presents him with varied options. He’s been keeping his intentions close to the vest, but suffice it to say he’s going to have his pick of more than a few destinations.

Stay in Denver

The Nuggets have the ability to offer Iguodala both the most years and the most dollars because they hold his Larry Bird rights. By trading out of the first round of last Thursday’s NBA draft, Denver ensured that the 27th overall pick’s salary isn’t included in its cap number. The Nuggets also sent Koufos to Memphis for Darrell Arthur and the 55th pick in the draft. The two moves lowered Denver’s 2013-14 cap number by approximately $600,000. Even if Denver signs Iguodala for the full maximum contract for a player of his experience level, the team would likely still check in just below the luxury tax line next season.

Incoming head coach Brian Shaw is famously a Phil Jackson disciple, but Shaw told Benjamin Hochman of the Denver Post that he would not be running Jackson’s Triangle offense in Denver. Shaw was most recently an assistant under Frank Vogel in Indiana and played under eight different coaches in his 14-year NBA career, so there’s no telling from where his systemic influences may derive.

The smart money says he sticks with the principles — on both ends of the court — that got the Nuggets to the third-best record in the Western Conference last season. The fast-paced, share-the-ball offensive system Denver employed under George Karl routinely had the Nuggets near the top of the league in offensive efficiency, and it’s a great fit for a player of Iguodala’s myriad skills. The aggressive switching defense Denver played doesn’t exactly mesh with Iggy’s stopper reputation, but he had great success in it last year. If Shaw makes a change, it’s likely to be on that end of the court. Make no mistake, though: Iggy’s brand of D can work within any system.

Whether Iguodala remains in baby blue and gold will likely depend on his comfort level with both his teammates and the tumultuous offseason the Nuggets have gone through. Denver’s new general manager, Tim Connelly, has made it clear that re-signing Iguodala will be a priority, so the opportunity to come back will be there if Iguodala wants it.

Head east: Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee

Depending on what it decides to do with Josh Smith and Jeff Teague, Atlanta will have between $11 million and $35 million in cap room this July, per salary data compiled by Mark Deeks of ShamSports. Iguodala could slide in nicely as a second or third offensive option (behind Al Horford and a re-signed Teague) and perimeter stopper. Atlanta drafted for the future on Thursday night, selecting Lucas Nogueira and Dennis Schroeder in the first round. If Nogueira realizes his massive defensive potential, a inside-out trio of Iguodala, Horford, and Nogueira would make this potential Hawks team monumentally tough to score on a few years down the line.

The Hawks hired former San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer to be their new head coach; if he plans to bring elements of Gregg Popovich’s game plan from San Antonio to Atlanta with him, Iguodala would be a perfect fit. With Iguodala, the Hawks still wouldn’t become an Eastern Conference powerhouse, but it could give the Pacers, Nets, Bulls, and Knicks a run for their money in the second tier over the next few seasons, provided players like Kyle Korver and Zaza Pachulia return to the fold and Lou Williams makes a full recovery from knee surgery.

Cleveland is an interesting — if a bit unrealistic — option. The Cavs could sorely use a wing defender like Iguodala to pair with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. Iguodala wouldn’t have to carry the scoring burden in Cleveland (Kyrie’s got that covered), and he’d have ample help on the boards from Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, and no. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. The back line defense would be taken care of by Varejao, and Iguodala would lock up the perimeter. If the team weren’t so young and otherwise lacking in quality depth, it might be a perfect situation for Iguodala.

How much fun would it be to watch Iguodala and Larry Sanders work together on defense? Good lord. Milwaukee could wind up with anywhere between zero and $20 million in space to work with, depending on how the Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, and J.J. Redick negotiations play out. Iguodala could eat up a nice chunk of that space while still leaving some room for one or two of the three to re-sign. Considering the Bucks offered an extension to Ellis, and general manager John Hammond recently indicated the team would like to bring Jennings back, it seems like we know which way they’re leaning. Like Cleveland, though, this is a somewhat unlikely option anyway.

Sign with Dallas or Utah

Each of these teams missed the playoffs last season, and both will be looking to make a splash this summer to ensure that they’re playing in April and May of 2014. ShamSports indicates that Dallas has somewhere between $13 and $14 million in cap room as of today (with the exact number fluctuating due to Dallas’s draft day maneuvering), but that number goes up if O.J. Mayo signs elsewhere and his cap hold comes off the books.

Utah, meanwhile, can open up close to $28 million in cap space by renouncing Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, Earl Watson, Randy Foye, Greg Ostertag (!), Brevin Knight (!!), and DeMarre Carroll, according to the ShamSports calculations.

The on-court fit in Dallas probably makes more sense than it does in Utah, but neither destination seems exceedingly likely.

Go to Houston, possibly with Dwight Howard

Following the Thomas Robinson trade, Houston now has enough cap room to sign Iguodala to a full max offer. Even as a stand-alone move, it would be a coup for the Rockets. Houston was a scoring machine last season, but it badly struggled to stop other teams from putting the ball in the basket. Sliding Iguodala into the small-forward spot — potentially in a small-ball lineup with Chandler Parsons at the 4 — immediately shores up a whole lot of the perimeter defense issues.

But that isn’t the real trump card Houston can play. With the Clippers bringing Doc Rivers into the fold, it looks like Dwight Howard’s dream of teaming up with Chris Paul is dead. If Houston could swing a sign-and-trade deal for Howard (for instance, one sending Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to the Lakers), they’d likely still have enough room to fit Iguodala into their remaining cap space, provided he’s willing to take less than the full maximum.

Howard and James Harden would instantaneously become one of the top pick-and-roll forces in the league (provided, of course, that Howard is actually willing to run pick-and-rolls. Harden may have to bribe him with Skittles), Howard’s post-up game would provide an offensive element the team didn’t have last season, Parsons and Iguodala could each work as alternative scoring options — spotting up in the corners, cutting through the lane and along the baseline, or getting out in transition. Howard and Iguodala could be Houston’s answer to Tony Allen and Marc Gasol. That team is an immediately dominant Western Conference force, even if the point guard rotation solely consists of Patrick Beverley, Isaiah Canaan, and Cheap Free Agent Point Guard X.

Of course, that’s all contingent on Iguodala being willing to accept a deal for less than the full maximum, which nobody knows if he’s willing to do. Iguodala is 29, and thus likely just past his physical prime. Players of his caliber, at that age, don’t willingly take pay cuts — they know it’s likely to be their last chance to secure a big-money deal before their career is over.

It’s also not exactly clear whether Iguodala is actually worth the full max. His 15.2 PER last season would indicate that his approximately $15 million salary made him significantly overpaid, but someone using Wins Produced would argue that as a top-20 player he was justly compensated and maybe even underpaid.

Even that doesn’t necessarily capture whether he’d be worth a max deal; teams hand out contracts for future performance, not for what a player has done in the past — or at least they should. Let’s take a look at that list of 12 players who matched or exceeded Iguodala’s per-36-minutes production through age 29 again.

That group collectively averaged 19.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 2.3 steals per 36 minutes through age 29. After their age-29 seasons, those numbers dropped to 17.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.9 steals (the average post-29 numbers exclude both Iguodala and LeBron James, who have yet to play past their age-29 seasons). Applying the drop to Iguodala’s career numbers as a percentage of production, we could reasonably expect the post-29 version of Iguodala to check in with averages of around 12.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes. Being that Iguodala falls on the lower end of that spectrum of players, this is a feasible, if optimistic, projection. What’s that type of production worth on the open market?

In the 2012-13 season, only 20 players that played a significant number of minutes hit all of those benchmarks. Most of them were extremely well compensated, but the fact that a bunch were still on their rookie deals dragged the average salary of those 20 players down to about $10.8 million. Factoring in the extensions for Harden and Blake Griffin that kick in this season, the average rises to approximately $11.6 million. If Paul George and/or Eric Bledsoe get extensions, it rises even higher. By the time we’re done calculating and factoring and weighing, we’d likely wind up with a salary very similar to what Iguodala made this past year. It’s not quite the max, but it’s a good chunk of change.

Whatever the case, Iguodala can likely handpick his destination, and with it his ultimate role. He can stay in Denver and be a cog in a well-oiled machine that divides both responsibility and credit pretty much equally; he can be the big fish in any of a few small Eastern Conference ponds; and, with some maneuvering, he could latch onto Howard and be the hyper-competent role player that fills in a team’s blanks. Iguodala doesn’t fit neatly into any one preconceived role, but he’s the rare player who can slip into any skin he wants.

Jared Dubin (@JADubin5) writes and edits for the ESPN TrueHoop Network sites Hardwood Paroxysm and HoopChalk, and is coauthor of We’ll Always Have Linsanity.

Filed Under: Andre Iguodala, Atlanta Hawks, Chris Paul, Denver Nuggets, Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets, NBA