Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Should Andre Iguodala make the Hall of Fame? It’s a unique case for one of the most unique players in history

Andre Iguodala officially retired as an NBA player on Friday, and the debate has already started: Is Iggy a Hall of Famer? It’s a question with no clear answer. If he gets in, he should be celebrated. If he doesn’t, it won’t be some grave injustice, either. 

I’ll say it straight out: I don’t think Iguodala had a Hall of Fame career, and I don’t think he was a Hall of Fame player. Yes, I believe those are two different things. No, I don’t think Iguodala quite checked either box.

But, man, what a player. Before we go any further, let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of that. This guy was one of the most versatile, and uniquely valuable players of the modern era. You always hear people saying we’ll never see another Jordan, or another LeBron, or another Curry, but ask yourself this: When might we see another Iguodala?

It could be a while. Because let me tell you, world-class athletes with world-class instincts don’t grow on trees. Iguodala was a core component of a dynasty. If only for that, he’s one of the rarest players in history. 

But, more than that, simply the way he saw and played the game was unique. He was an incredible athlete who preferred to think his way around the court, who operated three chess moves ahead when, for a long time, he could’ve just leapt over the whole board. 

The opposite of the superficial athletes we malign for never nurturing nuance, Iguodala saw, and brought, the game’s grayest areas in technicolor. He was also one of the best perimeter defenders and highest IQ players of his generation, and an offensive beacon of all that is valuable outside of scoring. 

It’s not that Iguodala couldn’t score, but it was never his forte. Early in his career he was miscast as a go-to guy with the Sixers. Even in his prime he never hit the 20 PPG mark, and he averaged a shade over 11 PPG for his career. He made one All-Star team and no All-NBA teams. 

While still at his physical peak, Iguodala, by virtue of his situation but also in a show of admirable humility, deemphasized the parts of the game that tend to lead to those types of distinctions, and it resulted in the most important number of both his career and Hall of Fame resume: four championships. 

“I’m not a ring culture guy, but I’ve benefitted from that,” Iguodala recently said when discussing the merits of his Hall of Fame candidacy on the “Old Man and the Three” podcast. He then followed with an intriguing thought on Hall of Fame inclusion. 

“I think there should be tiers of the Hall of Fame,” Iguodala suggested. “I’m not a Hall of Famer if you ask me. If you ask me, no, no, no, no. Those guys [Hall of Famers], they had no flaws. And I think I was good, but like Kobe [Bryant], LeBron [James], c’mon, I can’t do that. A lot of us can’t do that. They have to be in their own like different world. And then MJ [Michael Jordan} should be in his own different world. That’s how good MJ was.”

This will never happen, but for the sake of having a nuanced discussion, Iguodala is on to something here. When we think of Hall of Fame, we think best of the best, and Iguodala was never that. But neither was Mo Cheeks, and yet he’s in Springfield. 

Cheeks also made his mark as a top-flight defender who averaged the same 11 PPG as Iguodala. He won one championship, with the 1983 Sixers, and wasn’t close to the best player on that team. On equivalency, Iguodala should be in any Hall that includes Cheeks, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Cheeks, if we’re in the business of being honest, probably wasn’t a Hall of Fame player. 

If there were tiers, as Iguodala suggests, perhaps it’s a different story. The all-time greats in Tier 1: Jordan, LeBron, Kareem, Magic, Kobe, Bird, Shaq, Duncan, Oscar, Hakeem, Curry, West, Wilt, Russell, Durant, Dr. J, Isiah, Moses, and so on down the line. Giannis will eventually be in this group. Same for Jokić. 

Tier 2 is the perennial All-NBA types — not quite all-time greats, but no-doubt first-balloters: Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade come to mind. This, by far, is the group that comprises the most Hall of Famers. James Harden will eventually be in it. Same for Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. 

Tier 3 resides squarely on the fence. Reggie Miller averaged 18 points for his career and never made a first or second-team All-NBA. I would argue that Iguodala meant at least as much, if not more, to winning at the highest level as Miller ever did. At the very least Iggy was certainly a more complete player, only without the leading-man moments that run on a vintage NBA TV loop. 

Then again, Miller had to carry his teams. Iguodala never had to do that. Or when he did, they weren’t that good. We call it a sacrifice that he took on the sixth-man role for Golden State as if he was a superstar who willingly went to the bench, but realistically he was the fifth-best player on that first title team, and even that could be argued against. Andrew Bogut definitely had a case. 

Sure, Iguodala was better than Harrison Barnes and was therefore good enough to start. But that doesn’t make you a Hall of Famer. The truth is, Iguodala was better suited for a supporting role the whole time; his transitioning from an overtasked “star” in Philadelphia, and to some degree in Denver, to a star in his role in Golden State wasn’t so much a sacrifice as a stroke of career fortune. 

He was perfect on those Warriors teams. Absolutely perfect. But those teams were also perfect for him in that they covered for what he couldn’t do. If Iguodala doesn’t hook up with Curry, Durant, Klay and Green, he’s just a one-time All-Star with a couple of second-round playoff appearances. This Hall of Fame thing isn’t even a discussion. 

But he did hook up with the right team at the right time. He saw Steph Curry and the Warriors coming when his Nuggets lost to them in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. He knew he could add elements that Golden State lacked, and he was right. He unlocked so much of what that team did on both ends of the court, and he was rewarded for it with the 2015 Finals MVP. But to this day, anyone who argues that Iguodala actually deserved that distinction over Curry loses all credibility in those sorts of discussions. 

Iguodala was immensely valuable. He was never, not even for one second, more valuable than Curry. Not in that series. Not ever. And that’s important. It’s easy to over-romanticize the “little-things” players. It’s your chance to look smart. The Finals MVP voters thought they were being smart in 2015. They weren’t. 

Years from now, will Hall of Fame voters look smart if they grant entrance to Iguodala? No. But they won’t look dumb, either. As I said from the start, reasonable minds can disagree on this. If Iggy gets in, it will be fine. If he doesn’t, it will also be fine. 

That’s how it is for Tier 3 candidates. They can go either way. I suspect it will be an equally interesting discussion when Jrue Holiday retires. A champion. A great defender. But not quite a great player. In the end, being that this tiers idea, as much sense as it makes, is never going to happen, all voters can do is operate on the strict standard of true greatness. To me, Iguodala is, or was, a really good player who falls just short of that standard. 

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