In one of lovely little quirks of the NBA schedule, Andre Iguodala's made his first regular-season appearance as a member of the Denver Nuggets in the familiar — if not necessarily friendly — of the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that drafted him ninth overall in the 2004 NBA draft and with which he had spent the first eight seasons of his professional career. (And it is a "quirk" — remember, the 2012-13 schedule was released two weeks before Iguodala was shipped to Denver in the four-team blockbuster trade that landed Dwight Howard in Los Angeles and Andrew Bynum in Philly.)
The combination debut/homecoming didn't go nearly as well as Iguodala hoped; even with new franchise center Bynum sitting due to a knee injury, the Sixers had the defensive wherewithal to stall Denver's fast-paced offense, notching an 84-75 win behind five double-figure scorers led by 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks from mulleted sixth man Spencer Hawes. The night was a struggle for Iguodala individually, too, as the 2012 NBA All-Star and Summer Olympian scored just 11 points on 13 field-goal attempts, missing all four of his 3-point tries and two of his three free throws — he looked tentative and awkward throughout his 35 minutes of floor time, and Denver largely followed suit.
After the game, Iguodala — always a thoughtful quote, even when he's saying things that his former supporters might not particularly enjoy — admitted to feeling the kind of totally understandable pressure to which athletes rarely feel comfortable admitting. From John Smallwood at the Philadelphia Daily News:
"I think I was trying a little too hard," said Iguodala [...] "Your first thought [about playing a former team] is always, 'Destroy them.' You want to win the game. First and foremost, you want to play well.
"Being human inside, it's hard to block that out, to not let it affect your game, not try to force it. At times, that affected me. If I hadn't had a shot in a while or wasn't being impactful as I wanted to be, I would think about forcing it instead of letting it flow."
Sometimes, that manifested in shot-jacking — he hoisted a pair within the game's opening 48 seconds, and after sitting on the bench a spell, put up a triple within 50 seconds of checking back into the game in the second quarter — but later in the game, it also seemed to result in what could be described as paralysis by analysis. Iguodala was a virtual non-factor in the fourth quarter of the game, which opened with just re-upped point guard Ty Lawson and rookie swingman Evan Fournier combining to chop a 13-point Philly lead down to five midway through the period, and ended with a largely arrhythmic Nuggets offense failing to threaten much down the stretch.
While it might not have been an unusual site for Sixers fans — as Smallwood put it, it was "another mostly unmemorable performance from a mostly unmemorable player from a mostly unmemorable era of Sixers basketball" — the return as a whole was still odd for Iguodala, inarguably the franchise's best player over the past half-dozen years but a figure whose little-bit-of-everything, not-enough-of-the-thing-everyone-wants game made it difficult for Philly to embrace him. The Sports Xchange summed the scene up nicely:
[Iguodala] was given a mixed ovation when he was introduced, and booed each time he handled the ball, especially early in the game. But the Sixers offered a video tribute during a timeout midway through the first quarter, and the fans rose and gave him a warm round of applause.
Iguodala said he had never had a night in which he was booed and given a standing ovation.
"I don't know too many guys that have had that," he said.
But neither was he surprised that the notoriously tough Philadelphia fans booed him.
"They'll get on their [own] team sometimes if they're not playing too well," he said. "It's been worse."
It's certainly been, at times, for Iguodala himself over the years, owing to the fact that, as SB Nation's Paul Flannery put it Thursday morning, "There are fewer places that are tougher than Philly on 'good, not great' players."
There are layers upon layers of subtext to booing in that city that would take a team of anthropologists years to dig through, but that are nonetheless natural to its citizens. On the scale of one to J.D. Drew, Iggy received far less than say, Scott Rolen got, and a bit worse than the Eagles' long snapper who was oddly introduced as a courtside celeb.
[...] the home folks jeered knowingly when he lost the ball out of bounds late in the fourth quarter.
That's our Iggy, they were saying [...]
With two years and $31.1 million remaining on the six-year, $80 million contract that all but sealed Iguodala's fate as a never-quite-living-up-to-the-billing star in Philadelphia, Nuggets fans hope they won't find themselves wearily repeating the same phrase before long. They shouldn't put too much stock in the first game of a long season; odds are he'll shake loose quickly, perhaps as early as Friday, when Denver faces off against what figures to be a much more permissive and less talented defense fielded by the Orlando Magic.
But if he continues to struggle — especially with his deep stroke, a legitimate concern given the fact that he's never really been a marksman (32.3 percent from 3-point land before last year's 39.4 percent breakout/possible outlier) and considering how dismal Denver's O looked without the injured Danilo Gallinari to space the floor — then there could be more pressing, more attempts to destroy gone awry and more sluggish performances. For a team and a player both eager to get out of the gate fast, a slow start could prove particularly costly.