Pretend for a moment that all you know about "NBA Player X" is the following: He averages 10.5 points, five assists and 4.3 rebounds per game.
If you're like most fans, you probably aren't all that impressed. After all, according to NBA.com, there are 131 players with higher scoring averages, 32 with higher assist averages and 133 with higher rebounding averages.
Those numbers, on their own, don't exactly scream "superstar."
But "NBA Player X" is actually Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, a man for whom conventional statistics are almost totally worthless. And while Iguodala is perhaps the best example of the outdated, misleading nature of old-school numbers, he's hardly the only one.
The fact that the stats we most commonly rely upon to quantify players say next to nothing about Iguodala's value should tell us something about their usefulness (or lack thereof). Even in terms of evaluating Iguodala specifically, those numbers would seem to indicate he's not playing well at all.
Iggy hasn't scored fewer points per game since his rookie year. Until this season, he never posted fewer than five rebounds per game, and his solid assist total is his lowest since 2007-08. If you didn't know any better, you might assume Iguodala was having his worst season ever.
But we do know better, or at least we can know better. We just have to focus on the numbers that actually matter.
Welcome to the Present
There was a time when analytics were discussed in NBA circles as some kind of futuristic concept, one that was someday going to change the game a long way off in the future.
Folks, the future is now.
Even using the more rudimentary advanced stats (oxymoron alert), we get a much clearer understanding of Iguodala's value. As it turns out, said value is stupidly high.
His on- and off-court splits are a good place to start. With Iguodala on the floor, the Warriors' offensive rating improves from 97.0 to 110.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Basically, his presence on the hardwood transforms the Dubs from the worst offense in the league to the third-best.
The story is pretty much the same on defense, where Iguodala helps Golden State jump from a defensive rating of 102.4 to 94.3, per NBA.com.
In the interest of objectivity, it's critical to note that the chasms between those numbers are exaggerated by an abysmal Warriors bench. But if we eliminate those off-court numbers and focus only on how the Warriors play with Iguodala on the court, we see something truly remarkable: his individual net rating.
Per 100 possessions, Iguodala has posted a rating of plus-16.5 points, per NBA.com. That's the best figure of anybody who logs at least 15 minutes per game this season—better than LeBron James, better than Kevin Durant and better than Paul George.
By this measure—and it's a darn good one—Iguodala's statistical impact on point differential is unparalleled. And since point differential is, you know, kind of important in the effort to win basketball games, that's a pretty nice distinction to have.
Maybe that helps explain why the Dubs are 20-7 when Iguodala plays, but just 5-7 in games he's missed.
The Warriors are just better across the board when he's on the floor. Their rebound rate spikes because he consistently blocks out his man, their true shooting percentage improves because he drills open shots and moves the ball better than all but a few wings in the league, and their assist ratio jumps up while their turnover ratio dips.
Overwhelmed? Here, absorb those facts graphically:
|Warriors' Advanced Metrics With and Without Iguodala|
|REB%||TS%||AST Ratio||TO Ratio|
If you want to dive deeper, we can do that. Get your scuba gear.
Iguodala's value to his team is undeniable, but we should also pay attention to his individual statistics. We've left points and rebounds behind now, though, so we'll take a look at what really makes him such a valuable defender and scorer.
Per 82games.com, Iguodala holds opposing shooting guards to a PER of 8.6, miles beneath the league average of 15.0. Small forwards fare slightly better, but still only manage a 12.2 PER when matched up against Iggy.
And as an offensive player, the Warriors' do-it-all forward has morphed into one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Iguodala ranks No. 1 in the NBA in points per play on spot-up shots (1.65). He's hitting 59.2 percent of his standstill three-point attempts, and has almost entirely eliminated mid-range jumpers from his repertoire. Of his 51 spot-up attempts this season, 49 of them have come from beyond the arc.
Plus, he's finishing exceptionally well around the basket. Per NBA.com, Iguodala has converted a whopping 69.2 percent of his shots in the restricted area.
A Long Way to Go
The great irony of Iguodala being such an advanced stats darling this year is that he, perhaps more than most other players in the league, contributes in ways that fans can't yet quantify.
With him, the thing that is most dangerous about Iguodala is the intangible things that he does. He's not scoring a ton of points, but he can affect the game and impact the game in so many other ways: defensively, facilitating for their offense, finding their shooters, and things like that. Those are the things that I'm more concerned about.
Basically, we can watch clips like the one below and conclude that Iguodala is a good defender. He's long, he's quick and he has a nose for the ball.
The steal leading to a dunk is great. It gives Iggy a cosmetic stat, helps improve his defensive rating and showcases the kind of awareness that contributes to his individual defensive numbers. But what about the six or seven other times in a given game when he helps on a big or denies a pass back out to the wing?
What about the handful of instances where his ability to help and recover forces a low-percentage post-up or a more dangerous cross-court heave?
There's no individual stat to measure each time Iggy gums up the works on defense or makes the pass that leads (after another three rotations) to a good shot. And that's a bit of a shame because so much of his value exists in those fuzzy corners of unquantifiable basketball genius.
You can hear some of that genius seep out as he describes to Matt Moore of CBSSports.com his thought process on a couple of notable defensive possessions as a Denver Nugget.
A Failure of Language
Clearly, Iguodala's actual value far outstrips most fans' perception of it. That's a failure of statistics, but it's also a failure of language.
When we talk about Iguodala's contributions, we fall into the trap of verbally minimizing them.
"A huge part of that has been Iguodala’s willingness to do all of the little things that make a team better regardless of whether or not his contributions jump out in a box score," wrote Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times.
Did you catch that? Hoffman used the term "little things."
And that's just it: Iguodala isn't great because he does the little things. He's great because he does the big ones. A combination of outmoded statistical analysis and our own habits of referring to contributions other than points, rebounds and assists as "little things" is to blame for the misconception.
Helping a teammate and recovering with lightning speed is a big thing. Taking shots from high-percentage areas and passing the ball to keep the rock moving are big things.
The ability to fit in, sacrifice and make teammates better are big things—huge, actually.
Iguodala is an elite NBA player. By some important measures, he's one of the very best. That's because what he actually does well are big things; we've just been calling them by the wrong name for a long time.
Evaluating players by their numbers is necessary, so we should at least agree to start using the good ones that are now widely available. Points, rebounds and assists provide only the most basic information about what a player does during a game, and they're as likely to mislead as inform.
At the same time, we have to augment the things we say with numbers by doing some visual inspection. Nobody can watch every second of NBA basketball, which is why numbers are always going to be a key shorthand for evaluating talent. But there's enough video out there to provide context for them.
Ultimately, the old-school stats tell us next to nothing about Iguodala. Admittedly, he's an extreme case, but that makes him an ideal example of the analytical pitfalls conventional numbers create.
It's time to move forward. We have the tools to make more intelligent judgments on players and teams now. Let's start using them.
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