I came into camp that year still trying to heal my knee. It seems like every off-season I’m trying to heal a knee, and this one was no different. I wasn’t as in shape as I wanted to be because I had spent the majority of the summer rehabbing, but I was willing to try to grind it out and find my way back into it. You never want to rush your recovery, but circumstances always conspire to force you to do just that. I had spent the summer taking it slowly, and I was excited to push through camp and see where we could get to in our second year together. I had a better feel for each of these guys now. I was aware that I was playing with some all-time great shooters and that I could trust the movement, because if I passed up a good shot, I knew the ball was probably going to come right back. But still, the opportunities for me as an offensive player were lessening. Steve was introducing concepts that were favoring the outside shot even more than we had before, and that simply meant that I was going to have to play with some balance and awareness. Rather than making the offense on my own, I could see that part of what was needed was for me to have a kind of meta-awareness of how everyone else’s game was opening up. Knowing when to open the throttle, when to close it. I felt that as camp went on, I was finding a groove. I shot well, played well, ran the floor well. Steve came to me near the last day of camp.
“You’ve played well, Andre. You’ve earned the starting spot . . .”
I knew right then that there was only one reason he was telling me that. There was going to have to be a “but.”
“But I think it’s best for the team if you come off the bench. If we don’t bring you off the bench, we’re just not going to get as much from our second unit.”
I had never, in my entire NBA career, come off the bench. A million things went through my head. Was he really saying I’d earned it, or was he just trying to soften the blow of telling me that I’d lost a step? Was this the beginning of the end for me? I didn’t want to think so, but every player knows that his days are numbered, and when a starter is turned into a bench player, it’s just one of those moments when you begin to wonder if the end is coming sooner than you think. It may sound as though it’s all ego. I know it’s easy for folks sitting at home to criticize a player for not wanting to come off the bench. But you have to understand the depth of it for NBA players. From the time you are in your youngest years of the game, seven, eight, nine years old, you are told that you don’t want to come off the bench. To do so makes you a scrub. As you grow, it becomes not only part of your identity but just the way you understand your job. It would be as if you were a journalist, had made a career as a journalist, and then after eleven years someone came to you and said, “We want you to keep writing articles, but we’re going to put someone else’s name on them.” You would take exception and it would be a silly argument for someone to come to you and say, “All that matters is that the article is good in the end.” That isn’t all that matters. There is a certain way you are used to doing things, and it is a lot to totally upend it.
But I had to trust Steve. And I had to trust the organization. He and I saw the game the same way. If he said that the team would do better with me playing with the second unit, then I had to believe him. And most of all, I knew that whatever my personal feelings were about it, there was no conceivable way that starting a big ruckus over this was going to be anything other than terrible for the team.
Coming off the bench was entirely different from starting and it would take me all year to get used to it. When you start, you can kind of let the game come to you. Every game is different. Every player, every team, every contest has its own rhythm to it. As a starter, you can let that rhythm reveal itself to you in the first two minutes. You can take it in and figure out the plan. But coming off the bench feels like you’re being thrown into an already moving wave. You’re having to impose your will on whatever’s happening. You’ve got to force things off the bench. That’s not really my style. I didn’t really know how to do that, and as the season started, the whole thing was even more confounding.
But Steve did have another vision for me. Every time he sent me in, he would say the same thing to me: “Andre, find the flow.” And for some reason, I knew exactly what it meant. It meant get that ball moving, get it popping. Get motion and rhythm to our game, especially if we were down when it was time for substitutions. I had been thinking of it all wrong. My job wasn’t to come in and create offense. It was to come in and find where the offense lay. It was always there. I was to find it for our team, to uncover it and deliver it. And almost always it could be found through the movement of the ball.
People in my life, friends, family members, didn’t understand. I would argue with my business manager Rudy all the time. He thought I was suffering from a lack of confidence. My close friend and basketball trainer Tyrell, who’d been working with me since I came into the league, said his friends were texting him things like, “You said Dre was nice. He fell off. He’s over.” And I could see where they were coming from. In my two previous roles, I had tried to just focus on doing my job, but the circumstances of the roster meant that I was still the face of the team, with my image on posters and programs. And this meant I would have ads and opportunities and clout. In this new role, however, I might spend twenty-four minutes on the floor and come away with 4 points and 3 assists.
It’s one thing to agree with something and quite another thing to go out and live it game by game. I would have a good game, and know that I’d had a good game. I would feel focused and clean, showing up in the right spots, making the right plays, and we would win. But still, it would just feel weird that I’d had only one shot. It would get frustrating. To complicate matters, we were definitely winning. By the time we got to Christmas Day that year, we were 22-3. No one wants to be the guy who’s complaining when everyone is winning. And we’d been having fun doing it. I would be on the sidelines cheering and jumping up and down with support for my team, but inside I was struggling. And it wasn’t even about shooting all the time. There were some nights when I would feel like, “Man, just let me get the ball, draw a double-team, and pass.”
Helping find the rhythm for my team worked. But finding my personal offensive rhythm within that never did. Sometimes I’d be open to shoot, but I would know that we’d had too many one-pass-and-shoot possessions in a row and that it was time to get the ball popping. So I would pass up the shot. After a while it was hard for me to attend to both my own rhythm and the team rhythm. They were frequently at odds. Sometimes I would come into the locker room at halftime and be pissed. I was literally out there on the floor killing my value. I could see it happening, possession by possession. What if this wasn’t my last contract? What if I had come to Golden State only to descend into being a mediocre player? I knew those thoughts weren’t going to help me, but it was human nature. This game takes a lot out of you. And the idea that you might not be getting everything you can out of it is troubling. It can make a person unravel. It always goes back to that question. How much would you take to give up a hip? When you give as much as you do to this game, when you know it may make it impossible for you to walk without pain again, you want to make sure you are getting everything you possibly can in return. Championships are good for you, but maximizing financial security may, in the long run, be even more important.
But even when I had my doubts, it was clear that there was absolutely no point in sabotaging the locker room with complaining. I could see what Steve was trying to accomplish, and the vision made perfect sense to me because he and I had learned the game the same way. We finished 67-15, one of the best records in franchise history, but I still ended the regular season feeling entirely out of sorts offensively. I had never gotten into my groove, and I was aware that offensively I was capable of so much more. But there were moments toward the end of that season when I began to understand something greater about it. I would be working with the second unit, trying to see the game and transmit it to them as we ran. And I would start realizing that the more judicious I was about picking my offensive spots, the better everything went for me and for the team. I began to finally understand the meaning of the old cliché “Less is more.”
From The Sixth Man by Andre Iguodala, published on June 25, 2019 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Andre Iguodala.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.