For the second season in a row, the Warriors enter the NBA Finals without Andre Iguodala being at full strength. They are overwhelming favorites to beat the Cavaliers despite Iguodala's injury, which will sideline him for Game 1, but they will be missing their only answer to LeBron James for as long as he is out.
There isn't a player in the world who can single-handedly stop LeBron - a lesson the Pacers, Raptors and Celtics learned the hard way in these playoffs - but Iguodala defends him as well as anyone else in the league. At 6-7 with a 6-11 wingspan, he has the height needed to guard LeBron and the length to make him uncomfortable whenever he puts the ball on the floor. He also has the strength to keep the Cavaliers superstar from bulldozing his way to the basket at will, both off the dribble and in the post, as well as lightning-quick hands.
As James told The Undefeated prior to Game 1, those qualities give Iguodala the tools to go up against "some of the premier perimeter players in our league."
Iguodala's defense hasn't been enough to stop James from getting his numbers in the past, but he at least has a history of making life difficult for him. In the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron shot 38.1 percent from the field when Iguodala was on the court compared to 43.9 percent when he was on the bench. There was an even greater disparity in the 2016 NBA Finals, with LeBron shooting 46.6 percent with Iguodala on the court compared to 60.6 percent when he was on the bench.
James was more efficient in the 2017 NBA Finals, though he still scored and assisted at a higher rate in the minutes Iguodala wasn't matched up with him.
|Series||LeBron per 36 minutes w/Iguodala on court||LeBron per 36 minutes w/Iguodala on bench|
|2015 NBA Finals||26.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.9 turnovers on 38.1% FG, 30.0% 3PT, 66.1% FT||34.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.2 turnovers on 43.9% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 81.8% FT|
|2016 NBA Finals||25.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 4.4 turnovers on 46.6% FG, 33.3% 3PT, 72.2% FT||24.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 2.1 turnovers on 60.6% FG, 60.0% 3PT, 71.4% FT|
|2017 NBA Finals||28.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.6 turnovers on 57.1% FG, 56.3% 3PT, 65.2% FT||29.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 10.1 assists, 4.9 turnovers on 55.6% FT, 20.0% 3PT, 64.3% FT|
The Cavaliers actually outscored the Warriors by a total of 96 points in the last three NBA Finals with LeBron on the court and Iguodala on the bench. It's a tremendous swing from the 102 points the Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by without the two-time champion in the lineup.
The Warriors have a number of versatile defenders on their roster who can replace Iguodala in theory, but they're each at their best when they aren't the primary defender on James. While Kevin Durant is best-suited to draw the LeBron assignment to begin the series, the Warriors probably can't afford for their leading scorer in the playoffs to cover him for an entire game. Draymond Green doesn't carry the same load as Durant on offense - paving the way for him to expend more of his energy on defense - and yet he's most effective operating as a help defender who can stifle pick-and-rolls with his switchability and protect the rim with his long arms.
That leaves Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson, neither of whom have the size of Iguodala, the athleticism of Durant or the length of Green to slow down LeBron. The combination means the four of them will spend time on LeBron, as opposed to relying on one of them to get the job done.
Steve Kerr said Iguodala's doing better today, "encouraging" signs, but is out for Game 1. Said KD, Klay, Livingston and Draymond will all get time on LeBron. pic.twitter.com/E3pJ2A1Zou- Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 30, 2018
Whether any of this ultimately matters remains to be seen. Following the trades they've made since the last time they met the Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers no longer have a secondary playmaker who is a threat to score as many points as LeBron. With Iguodala being out indefinitely, the Warriors might live with James getting his if nobody else on the team gets theirs. They could also go to the other extreme, choosing to load up on James and dare the likes of George Hill, JR Smith and Kevin Love to beat them four times over seven games, similar to how the Celtics defended the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
It takes far more than one player to contain LeBron anyway. Golden State's game plan has always started with Iguodala, but Durant, Green, Thompson and Livingston have each spent time on him in the past because of how frequently they switch as a team on defense. The Warriors just don't have someone who can focus entirely on guarding LeBron without Iguodala in uniform, and history says that alone tips the scale in Cleveland's favor.