The Golden State Warriors were desperate at halftime of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When forward Andre Iguodala started the second half in Oklahoma City, few questioned the ploy. It was a slightly surprising move, but not a controversial one. Iguodala is one of the five best players on this team, after all, and a key member of Golden State’s famed “Death Lineup.”
With the switch, the Warriors snagged their first second-half lead in Chesapeake Energy Arena since Stephen Curry‘s famous 37-foot game winner on Feb. 27. They quickly lost their advantage Saturday, but they eventually wrenched it back in crunch time, thanks in large part to Iguodala’s defense on Kevin Durant.
Generally, putting the reigning NBA Finals MVP into a lineup is a move that garners wide support. Also, of Golden State’s 10 most-used lineups, the four best-performing units all include the veteran swingman.
It all begs the question: In games that count for everything — such as Game 7 on Monday night — why not just start Iguodala in the first place?
Warriors coach Steve Kerr is reluctant to do that just yet. On whether he’ll deploy the lineup switch, Kerr said, “I don’t anticipate doing it to start the game [on Monday], but we’re going to meet as a staff, and we’ll talk about all of those things.”
The given reason for keeping Iguodala in his role is that he’s needed to buoy the bench — and it’s a bench Kerr believes in. Kerr’s slogan for his team is “Strength in Numbers,” meaning that almost everyone has a role, and almost everyone feels invested.
In this paradigm, Iguodala operates almost as the bench’s connective tissue, someone who animates players whose talents aren’t as multifaceted as his own. More than that, he’s a coach on the floor, getting his reserves into their proper places throughout the game.
So, while Iguodala might be a better overall player than Harrison Barnes, he’s also better-suited to helping solidify the second unit. That’s the theory, anyway, and it’s a foundational one in this operation.
Kerr’s big move upon taking over was shifting Iguodala to the bench. It’s also why Iguodala joked he’d have to “kick Steve Kerr’s ass” if they failed to win a championship last year.
While keeping Iguodala in a reserve role is understandable, it also means confining him to a role that shrinks in the playoff crucible. Leading the bench matters, but in the playoffs, the bench matters less.
Still, it makes sense to believe Kerr about Monday’s Game 7. It would be surprising to see Iguodala start for a few reasons, but also because Golden State’s bench players generally perform better at Oracle. The home-versus-road splits for Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli and Brandon Rush all speak to the Bay Area’s salutary effects.
In Oakland, the bench has more potential to succeed, and thus more to say about an outcome. Because of this, Iguodala’s role as bench leader matters more. This might be the “Iguodala Compromise” of the future, where he starts on the road but not at home.
So, expect Iguodala to come off the pine yet again in a crucial Game 7. But, should the Warriors survive to make another Finals, don’t be surprised to see Iguodala starting, again, in Cleveland.
While “Strength in Numbers” is a cherished ethos, there’s a time to sacrifice it in favor of playing to your strengths.