The mind games of Andre Iguodala

THE OTHER DAY in practice, Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala caught the ball on the wing, looked toward the corner and fired a pass to Derrick Jones Jr. under the basket for an easy dunk.

It was not what he was supposed to do.

The ball was moving and finding energy with each pass. A shooter was coming open for a 3-pointer. All the play required was for Iguodala to relay that pass to the short corner.

Swing, swing.

“Ninety-nine percent of basketball players would have made one more pass,” Heat forward Duncan Robinson said.

But that is not what Iguodala did. Because that is never what Iguodala does.

“The 3 would have been a good shot,” Robinson said.

But the dunk was a better shot. Iguodala not only sensed it was wide open, he had the confidence to break protocol and fire the pass to the block.

“I threw it without seeing my teammate,” Iguodala said. “I saw a jersey from the other team over in the [corner] already. And I’m like, ‘Well, if he’s there, somebody’s got to be [on the low block], wide open.'”

Robinson was on the sideline, watching the play unfold.

It happened so fast, it was hard to process everything that had gone into the read, let alone the action. But Robinson knew he’d just witnessed something special.

“He came over to me like, ‘Bro, that’s like the epitome of you. I just figured it out,'” Iguodala recalled.

The brilliance of the pass was so subtle a trained eye is needed to see it — which is exactly the way Iguodala wants it.

Yes, he has had star turns in his day. Big plays in big moments that garnered attention. In Game 6 of Miami’s Eastern Conference finals win over the Boston Celtics, he hit all four of his 3-point attempts for a season-high 15 points. In 2015, he was the Finals MVP of the Golden State Warriors‘ first title run.

But a big part of why Iguodala has gone to six straight NBA Finals is that he doesn’t broadcast what he’s doing. Why give away all the knowledge he has accumulated? It’s fine for his coaches and teammates to appreciate all that goes into his craftsmanship, but why let opponents know he can sense what they’re going to do before they do it?

“That’s where he starts playing mind games,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who coached Iguodala to five of those Finals appearances from 2015 to 2019. “And he’s a contrarian. So he’ll play dumb about it. He won’t even really want to talk about it.

“But he loves making the subtle play, the play most people wouldn’t even recognize, but that a coach or a teammate would see on tape. He actually takes great joy in making that kind of play.”

THERE’S AN OBVIOUS reason why Iguodala should talk about the trade secrets.

Talking about it is how you get credit for it. Which is how you establish value in the NBA. Which is how you get paid.

But his skill set has been so valued by the teams he has been on that he hasn’t needed to brag or draw attention to the little things he does to help teams win.

In his on-court basketball career, Iguodala has earned $166.7 million, including a $30 million extension with the Heat for his age 37 and 38 seasons, with career averages of just 12 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists.

“People always talk about maximizing your career,” Iguodala said. “Agents, they say, ‘What’s your brand? What’s your Instagram look like?’ But it’s like, ‘Yo, don’t just be doing it to sell a T-shirt or sneakers or something. Have a real cause behind it.'”

Iguodala’s brand is curiosity. Which is why both the Heat and their Finals opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, tried so hard to trade for him this spring as they geared up for their playoff run.

The Heat had everything it needed to make a Finals run, except a key contributor who had actually made huge plays in the biggest, pressure-packed moments of the Finals. The Lakers wanted Iguodala for themselves, but also to keep him away from another contender. On the biggest stage, problem solving is paramount, and Iguodala knows that the solution to complex puzzles is the ability to look at them differently.

And after losing two key players (point guard Goran Dragic and center Bam Adebayo) to injury in Game 1 of the Finals, Iguodala’s experience is more valuable to the Heat than ever. While Iguodala is reticent to give away tricks of the trade publicly, teammates like Robinson have been trying to soak in as much as possible.

“When he first got here, I just wanted to pick his brain on as many things as possible,” Robinson said. “I don’t know if he got sick of it yet, but I’ve been asking him questions nonstop, and we developed a relationship which I’m thankful for.”

Iguodala had sat out all season following his trade from Golden State to the Memphis Grizzlies, waiting for a deal that would send him to a championship contender. There were some who assumed he’d sit the entire year, then re-sign with the Warriors once his contract expired. But that was never an option.

“People brought it up all the time,” Iguodala said. “But when you look at the salary caps, look at how things work, I [couldn’t] go back there until 2022. So it was never a thought throughout the whole process.”

He misses the Warriors but has come to appreciate his new franchise.

“I still talk to those guys every day,” Iguodala said of his Warriors teammates. “Like, you’re not allowed to say anything bad about Steph [Curry] around me, or in general. Even on social media I’m like, ‘S—, I’ve got to stop liking posts from the Warriors or any of the Warriors fan accounts.’

“I play for the Heat. So I’ll be caught in like these little internal battles. But it is part of the journey. So I’m going to just maximize these last however many days of my career I’ve got left, just try and enjoy it.”

And make no mistake, Iguodala is enjoying his time with the Heat.

“We’ve got a special team,” he said. “Everyone wants to see everyone else succeed, which is very rare in professional sports. Team sports, you don’t always see everybody who wants everyone else to do well. It’s always — it’s at least two people that don’t like each other.”

TALK TO IGUODALA long enough and a pattern emerges. He is always saying a little more than he wants to, but not nearly as much as he could.

Like that last quote about how rare it is in professional sports to be on a team where everyone is wanting their teammates to succeed. He could’ve stopped there. But then he added the part about how there’s always “at least two people that don’t like each other.”

There are probably a dozen stories behind that quote, and he’s keeping them to himself. But it would be dishonest to leave the last part out, and Iguodala can’t tolerate that.

“One of my favorite things about Andre is that he sees all the BS in the world and he just calls it out in very subtle ways,” Kerr said. “I love his perspective of being super-educated on the issues, but having like a wicked sense of irony and humor and F’ing with people when they don’t know they’re getting F’d with.”

Not everyone comes to understand Iguodala on this level. Which is fine with him. Enough people do. And he kind of enjoys watching people dig for it. He wants to challenge your intellect. To see the reaction. But also to keep learning himself.

“When I’m in practice, one of my things is to remember everything the coach is saying — because eventually I’m going to use it against him,” Iguodala said. It’s how he locks in when others are drifting. But it’s also how he tests coaches, and yet another mind game.

At home, he and his wife will engage in the type of debate you’d hear late at night in the hallways of a liberal arts college.

“It’s like academic arguing. Who’s smarter on this subject?” he said. “My friends are like, ‘What are you arguing about?’ I’m like, ‘We’re arguing over the pH balance of this water.

“It keeps the brain going, like sparking healthy debates and healthy discussions.”

Not everyone, however, likes to be provoked to go that deep.

His new coach, Erik Spoelstra, put it this way: “He’s a fun guy to be around, and he’s an interesting guy. [He’s] somebody who is curious, who is continuing to grow even with the amount of years he’s had in this league.”

LET’S GO BACK to the play from practice. The one where Iguodala instinctively knew someone would be open under the basket — without even seeing him — because a defender had slid to another area of the court.

How did he know a teammate would be open?

His mind is like a long-exposure photograph. He sees every bit of light coming into the camera.

Most people can’t hold that much in their head, then act decisively at precisely the right moment. They fall into paralysis by analysis, information overload, or whatever you want to call it.

Iguodala is a genius at it.

“The other night when he hit those 3s,” Kerr said, referencing Game 6 of the conference finals, “that was typical Andre. He did that routinely for us. He might go three or four games without making a 3, and then, series on the line, he just makes big plays when he needs to.”

It manifests the same way off the court. The back of his jersey says “Group Economics,” which isn’t a concept most people are familiar with. Ask him what it means and he launches into a brilliant stream-of-consciousness treatise with all sorts of intellectual connections that’ll make your head spin.

“That was a term I learned from David West,” he said. They were interviewing candidates for the players’ union executive director job, and West asked how they felt about group economics. Iguodala wasn’t familiar with the term. But when he and West became teammates with the Warriors, he circled back and the two had long conversations about it.

“How do you bring more value to the Black community?” Iguodala explained. “How do we get more value out of ourselves? How do we build up our communities? How do we build up our communities so we don’t rely on government?

“People understand how powerful voting is, how powerful government officials, their jobs are, and they start running — and then how important it is not just voting for the president, but local officials. Now you have better funding for schools because your land’s worth more. You know, you have more home ownership because the land’s higher. You have more commercial development because the land’s worth a lot. And then when you buy from your own, you’re essentially recycling money back into your own community.

“If we start building our own businesses and buying from ourselves, then that’s how we build our communities, and then that’s how you get school systems that are great, and that’s when you start having better relationships with law enforcement.

“And that stems all the way back to group economics. So that was the meaning behind that and why I put it on my jersey.”

Whew. That was a lot. But just when your head is going to explode, Iguodala synthesizes it down into the perfect pass and slam dunk.

“Basically,” he said, “group economics is what fixes all the other things people have on the back of their jerseys.”

IGUODALA ENDED UP explaining to Robinson how he made the read of the play in practice.

“He just sees the play happening before it happens, really, is the best way to put it,” Robinson said. “But one of the things I love about Andre is he does it in just a very matter-of-fact way.

“It’s not flashy. It’s just very simple. That’s just playing basketball to him. These are not extraordinary things to him. And maybe your average basketball fan wouldn’t even know what it is that he’s doing, or acknowledge the impact. But he does it so often, it’s just amazing.”

Since he joined the Heat at the trade deadline in February, Iguodala has spent a lot of time explaining the finer points of the game to Robinson, a second-year forward whose outside shooting has earned him a key place in Miami’s rotation.

“For me, it’s the part of my duty to help them grow as basketball players,” Iguodala said.

But it’s also what Iguodala loves most about the game now. He has won three titles and a Finals MVP. This is his sixth straight trip to the Finals.

There’s nothing he has left to prove. There’s just more games to win, and a little more time in the sun to enjoy.

“I want to go home, like, yesterday,” he said of the Heat’s extended stay in the NBA bubble. “But every time I get on the court I just forget. Like, my wife would joke with me, ‘You sure didn’t look like you want to go home the way you’re diving for that ball.'”

Try as he might, that’s the one trade secret Iguodala can’t hide.

“I really love basketball,” he said. “I love the game so much.”

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