For the past several seasons, Denver Nuggets wing Andre Iguodala has been readily identified as one of the best defenders in the NBA. Those skills earned him a spot on the 2012 Olympic team, an All-Star spot last season, and a strong reputation as the sort of player who can lock down an opponent's leading perimeter scorer.
However, defense tends to get short shrift in mainstream NBA analysis, to the point where it's hard to quantify and qualify exactly what it is that Iguodala does so well. Thankfully, we now have a must-read piece to help us understand. Matt Moore of Eye on Basketball spoke with Iguodala about his defensive approach and had him narrate several possessions in which he matched up against the league's best scorers. The results are fascinating, enlightening, and very much worth your time.
Above, watch and listen to Iguodala describe how he attempts to contain LeBron James. After the jump, check out some more highlights of Moore's feature.
One of the key ideas here, apart from that Iguodala is good, is that he can only do so much against some of the league's best players:
I watched video of Iguodala's defense in preparation for this piece for roughly four hours. And the most important thing I can tell you is that Iguodala can do whatever he wants, play as well as he can, and guys are still going to score. Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, you can hit these guys with a 2X4 and they're still getting buckets.
Great offense will beat great defense, but if you make great offense work long enough, the impact will be felt. That's what great defenses do. That's what great defenders do. That's what Iguodala does.
He achieves that end with a combination of mental acuity and athleticism:
If watching Dwight Howard play defense is like watching a killer hippo flashdance, and if watching Tony Allen defend is like watching a lion track down caribou as it tries a futile effort at escape, watching Iguodala is watching an architect build a skyscraper in minutes. The angles, the accuracy and the careful blend of creativity and required pragmatics are stunning. And so much of it springs from what goes on in his head. [...]
Iguodala has a way of making something sound both complex and routine at the same time, which makes sense. He's one of about 10 people on earth who can defend the perimeter at the level he can, but he does it for 82 games a year plus playoffs. It's the same way an astronaut can talk casually about timing engine bursts or a surgeon talks about carving tissue. It's both extraordinary and mundane. [...]
That 30 percent physical part he speaks to shouldn't be downplayed. His acumen and intelligence wouldn't be as effective if he wasn't able to cover as much ground as quickly as he can. But even when he catches arguably the fastest player in the league, Russell Westbrook, at the rim, his approach is determined by the best way to counter-attack OKC's speedster at the rim.
It's this mental approach that's most striking in the absolutely essential videos that accompany this piece. As Iguodala narrates the plays, he breaks down the specifics of possessions and player movement with incredible sophistication.
It's a basketball cliche to say that defense is about effort, and in many ways that's true. But Iguodala's explanations of his defense prove that effort can only get a player so far. Defense is a skill that has to be taught, learned, and improved with repetition like any other. If Iguodala simply worked hard, he wouldn't limit the NBA's best scorers as well as he does. To defend at this level, he needs to exercise an in-the-moment logic that can only be developed over the course of many seasons in the league. Effort is nice, but it's not a magic trick to get a team to play better. As with most things in the NBA, defense is a lot more complicated than that.