The Golden State Warriors are headed to their fourth straight NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they may be without their ace defensive stopper.
After suffering a left lateral leg contusion in the fourth quarter of game three against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, Andre Iguodala missed the final four games of that series. Following the Warriors' closeout victory against the Rockets in Monday's game seven, head coach Steve Kerr shed doubt on Iguodala's status moving forward.
"It literally is a day-to-day thing," Kerr said while speaking on Inside the NBA.
He has not progressed, unfortunately, as well as we thought he would. Obviously, he's a huge factor against Cleveland. You've got to have a lot of bodies to guard LeBron, and Andre's been our main guy against LeBron the last three years.
Since that time, Iguodala has subsequently been ruled out of game one, and according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes, he "recently got a second opinion on his injured left knee and is still trying to figure out what's wrong". The 34-year-old "plans to search for a remedy in the coming days," Haynes reported, but it is already too late for the series opener.
But while the Warriors will unquestionably miss Iguodala's poise, they also have a fair number of alternative options to throw at James until he is able to return.
During the two regular-season match-ups between Cleveland and Golden State this season, Kevin Durant wound up guarding James far more than any other Warriors player, according to Second Spectrum data. Whereas the rest of the Warriors combined were matched up against James on 80 total possessions, Durant alone had 77 against the four-time MVP.
In the Warriors' 99-92 Christmas Day victory over the Cavaliers, Durant guarded James for 33 possessions, while the rest of his teammates combined for 44 possessions. When Durant was slotted onto James, the Cavaliers star scored only six points on 2-of-8 shooting (including 1-of-5 from three-point range) to go with three assists and two turnovers. Cleveland scored a paltry 31 points as a team in those 33 possessions, which would have ranked last league-wide by far in offensive efficiency during the regular season.
A similar scenario unfolded when the two teams met again in mid-January. Durant hounded James for 44 of his 80 total possessions, although James was far more effective against him this time around, going off for 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. The Cavaliers also were far more potent offensively compared to their Christmas Day match-up, as they averaged 111.4 points per 100 possessions with Durant on James. While James got going as a scorer, Durant limited his effectiveness as a passer, forcing him into four turnovers compared to only three assists.
In those two games, Iguodala guarded James for a total of 17 possessions, according to Second Spectrum data. He otherwise spent a majority of his time on Dwyane Wade (32 possessions), Kyle Korver (14) and Jeff Green (13).
Whereas Iguodala was largely glued to James throughout the 2015 Finals, those days have been a thing of the past since Durant joined the Warriors.
"I just think we're in a unique position where we have a lot of length and a lot of guys who can guard multiple positions," Iguodala said after game one of the 2017 Finals, according to Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group. "We can change the match-ups to give teams different looks and that's what we've been trying to do. KD and Draymond have done a really good job when we're on the floor together of communicating really well on our switches and covering our areas."
Regardless of whether Iguodala is able to return at any point throughout this year's Finals, Durant figures to draw the primary defensive assignment on James. However, it will take a team-wide effort from Golden State to contain the damage James does on a possession-by-possession basis.
That starts with limiting his opportunities to run up the court off misses and thwarting his drives to the hoop.
Both the Cavaliers and the Warriors ranked among the top five league-wide during the regular season in frequency of transition possessions. Golden State is also notoriously sloppy with the ball, ranking 26th in terms of turnovers per game (15.4) and tied for 28th in turnover percentage (15.3). Whenever the Cavaliers secure a long rebound off a clanked three-pointer or swipe an ill-advised pass, the Warriors must play disciplined transition defence or James will carve them up for easy baskets.
Cleveland mustered a meagre nine fast-break points against the Warriors on Christmas Day despite Golden State coughing the ball up 15 times. In the mid-January match-up, the Cavaliers had 12 fast-break points off 17 Warriors turnovers. James scored only four of those 21 points in the two games.
Both in transition and in half-court sets, the Warriors likewise must sell out defensively to thwart James from destroying them on drives to the hoop.
James scored 21 points on his 31 drives against Golden State during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum data, shooting 8-of-11 from the field and 4-of-6 from the free-throw line. He passed out of those drives 10 times, but he notched only one assist compared to five turnovers. James's 8.1% assist percentage on drives during the regular season was more than double his rate against the Warriors, while his 16.1% turnover percentage against Golden State was nearly three times as high as his season-long average.
By throwing different defenders at James and double-teaming him at times, the Warriors would force other Cavaliers to beat them. Given how poorly James' supporting cast has played throughout the postseason, that's a gamble worth taking.
"We're making Bron play hero ball, which is tough to do, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals," J.R. Smith told reporters after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 series hole against the Celtics. "We got to help him."
Having Iguodala in the fold would be an undeniable asset for Golden State, even if he isn't James's primary defender. Slotting him on the likes of George Hill would hinder one of Cleveland's only other shot-creators off the dribble, while he could play more of a free safety role whenever he defended Smith.
Regardless of whether Iguodala is able to return at some point in the Finals, though, the Warriors must approach their defensive game plan against James the same way.
"It's a team effort, man. It's not just me," Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris, the self-proclaimed best James stopper not named Kawhi Leonard, said about guarding James following game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. "Everybody played their part in guarding him. He's obviously the best player in the game, and you need multiple guys and a team to guard him an entire game."
It'll take a village for the Warriors to slow down James - from Durant and Iguodala to Draymond Green, Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson. Iguodala's absence removes one such defensive option from the equation, but Golden State can't (and won't) pin that responsibility on a single player.