LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, and how basketball IQ became a fascinating NBA Finals conversation

CLEVELAND — In the weeks, days and even hours preceding Andre Iguodala’s return to action in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, Steve Kerr, and just about everyone else affiliated with the Warriors, was asked countless times, in countless ways, to somehow describe the somewhat indescribable impact Iguodala has on one of the most talented teams in NBA history. 

Kerr did the dance admirably. He talked about Iguodala’s leadership, his ability to still defend at an elite level, the way he settles the Warriors in times of chaos, all of which are true. But it’s something more. Something harder to quantify. As Kerr has said many times before of Iguodala:

“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around.”

But what, exactly, does that mean? Even LeBron James, perhaps the most intellectually, instinctively gifted player of his generation, if not ever, struggles to put it into words.

“This is so challenging for me to sit up here and say, because people who really don’t know the game don’t really know what I’m talking about,” James said, respectfully, on Thursday, and it’s true. After all, listening to, say, Bobby Fischer talk about the intricacies of competitive chess might provide you with a greater appreciation for his genius, but it likely won’t get you any closer to understanding it. 

Still, if you watch closely, these NBA Finals are a basketball master’s class being taught by some of the sharpest minds in the game today. Take a look at this play from Iguodala early in Game 3 — in which he passes up a wide-open 3-pointer to instead put it on the deck, draw defenders, and ultimately find Klay Thompson, a better shooter, for a better shot:

“It’s just a rule of basketball, when the ball touches the paint, you have a really high [scoring] percentage no matter what happens after that,” Iguodala said. In theory, this is a relatively simple concept, playing inside-out, penetrating gaps to force the defense to collapse. But there is so much more to this play than that. For starters, it’s about understanding your own strengths, and, for that matter, weaknesses.

Iguodala is a capable, but ultimately below-average 3-point shooter. He knows this. He also knows that Thompson, after getting the ball into the paint with his own dribble before kicking it to Iguodala in the first place, is going to relocate to the corner as a matter of habit. So he makes a decision, in a split second, to pass up his own good shot to create a great one for someone else. Throw in the fact that Thompson had yet to make a three in this game, and this is the kind of play that has the potential to get a great shooter into an early rhythm, which obviously benefits the Warriors over the long haul more than a single made three from Iguodala, who is a spot scorer at best. 

Iguodala calculates all this by feel, and the whole thing goes off without a hitch. When an offense is humming, this is what it looks like. But it cannot be just one player doing all the thinking. To be great, it has to be everyone, and indeed this is a Warriors team full of basketball Ivy Leaguers. Almost immediately upon his arrival with Golden State back in 2016, Durant had this to say: 

“There’s a lot I need to learn about the game of basketball. I’m not as smart as I thought I was about the game. It’s played a different way here then I was used to playing.”

This wasn’t meant as a knock on Oklahoma City, Durant’s previous team, and Durant was quick to point that out. On Thursday, as this idea of basketball IQ became a fascinating talking point in a pretty fascinating press conference, Durant spoke on behalf of all NBA players when he said they should be “offended” by the notion that anyone who has made it to the top of their respective field would lack for any sort of intelligence. 

“I compare us to musicians. I compare us to artists, to architects, to surgeons,” Durant said. “I compare us to the highest [in] any field. Because what we do is hard. So when you walk into any locker room in the NBA, I expect you to think, ‘Oh, these guys are intelligent at what they do.’ I think that’s an underrated trait from somebody outside the league, from outside of the locker rooms, because they don’t realize how hard the game is sometimes … We’re one-percenters in the world.”

Still, there are one-percenters among the one-percenters, and players like LeBron James, and teams like the Warriors, seem to set the standard of both individual and collective basketball intelligence. This matters to players, especially star players who are often the ones to take the fall when others can’t raise to their level. On Thursday, LeBron was very honest about what drew him to Miami in 2010 to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh

“I felt like my first stint [in Cleveland], I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” James said. “When you looked at (Rajon) Rondo and [Kevin Garnett] and Paul (Pierce) and Ray [Allen], you knew they were not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them. They were calling out sets. Rondo, [on defense], was calling out [our] sets every time down. It was like, ‘OK, this is bigger than basketball.’ So not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well.

“I played with D-Wade, I played with Bosh in the Olympics,” James continued. “I knew D-Wade for years. I knew their minds. I knew how they thought the game, more than just playing the game. Obviously, we all knew their talent, but I knew their minds as well … Listen, we’re all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?”

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote a terrific article earlier this week about talent in the NBA and how it almost always wins out, which is true. But what about when you have two equally talented teams, or players? The mental side can separate even the one-percenters. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry aren’t just the best because of their talent; they’re the best because of what they get out of that talent. Part of that is work ethic. A lot of it is the cerebral manner in which they operate. 

As an example, we will all remember Durant’s 35-foot bomb to seal Game 3 on Wednesday. It will go down as one of the defining shots of a historic NBA career. What most people will not remember was how it got set up, with Curry, understanding that he was having a terrible shooting night, setting a ball screen to get LeBron switched off Durant and onto him, which left Durant one on one with Rodney Hood instead:

Again, this is not a terribly complicated play. It’s not like Curry’s in the locker room drawing equations on the wall to set up a simple ball screen. It’s just the understanding of the situation, understanding that even when Curry’s not shooting well, he can use the threat of his shot as an almost greater danger to put a teammate in a favorable position, as for Durant, pulling up over Rodney Hood and J.R. Smith is a lot different than pulling up over LeBron. Curry did this all game long, really. 

After setting an NBA Finals record with nine 3-pointers in Game 2, Curry saw more blitzes from a Cavs defense determined to get the ball out of his hands. He made the right play just about every time, simply throwing the ball over or around or through the double team to set the Warriors up with a 4-on-3 situation after pulling two defenders out of the play. They got layup after layup after open shot after open shot:

After doing this for much of the game, Curry eventually ceded offense-initiating duties to Durant, who clearly had it rolling, often running to the far corner to drag a defender, or two, as far away from the ball as possible before commencing with his dizzying sequences of off-ball movement, drawing even more attention, squeezing every ounce of juice out of a 3-for-16 shooting night that would’ve rendered less-cerebral players a non-factor.  

Meanwhile, Klay Thompson is doing the same thing. Draymond Green is setting screens. Iguodala is doing, well, what Iguodala does. And before you know it, you have one of the most lethal scorers in NBA history in Durant being put in position to succeed by teammates who flat out know what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, even if most people will never recognize it, let alone remember it.