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Through his sacrifice, Andre Iguodala became a Warriors legend

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By placing aside any notion of a desire to achieve individual greatness, the former Finals MVP became a much-beloved figure in the annals of Warriors lore.

2019 NBA Finals - Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Ask several members of Dub Nation as to which, in their opinion, was the most heartbreaking departure this past offseason, and their answers might surprise the majority of people who aren’t privy to the pulse and mindset of the Bay Area fandom.

Was it the loss of Shaun Livingston? While the veteran point guard has become an admired staple of the Golden State Warriors’ five-year dynastic rule over the NBA, his decision to retire has been a long time coming, and his aging body placed doubts upon his ability to be a positive contributor for the Warriors going forward.

While Livingston’s retirement was melancholic, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t the most painful loss felt by the fans.

Was it the decision of Kevin Durant to leave in free agency for the Brooklyn Nets? He was arguably the most naturally-talented player the Warriors may have had, and his identity as an otherworldly force of scoring destruction helped the Warriors redeem themselves on their way to two NBA championships to add to their first in 2015.

But while Durant will always be appreciated for what he brought to the team, the nature of his departure — blurred by notions of an incomplete legacy and a drawn-out period of free-agency uncertainty — has left a sour taste in the mouths of several fans.

If not even the departure of a player the caliber of Durant can break the hearts of Warriors fans, then who else can possibly cause such a reaction?

Allow Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to echo the fans’ sentiments upon finding out that Andre Iguodala was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies.

“That was a complete gut punch,” Kerr said during a guest appearance on The Warriors Insider Podcast. “I’m not going to lie. That was probably the most … not even probably, that was the most painful loss, in terms of a personnel move, that I’ve felt as a coach in my five years.”

If you are one of those non-Warriors fans reading this quote from Kerr, and who might be confused as to why an aging sixth man such as Iguodala was the one that made Dub Nation grieve his departure the most — there is something important that you need to know about him.

Understanding his true value

Iguodala’s value is often lost on people who look at what he contributed to the Warriors through a narrow filter. But those who are able to set aside their own biases — those who can look past the image of basketball being dominated by the flashy nature of scorers and fancy dribblers — are wise to remove such dark-tinted shades in order to see Iguodala for who he actually is.

One such example of a possible bias: Iguodala’s career numbers with the Warriors. Throughout his five seasons with the team, he averaged only 7.3 points and 3.4 assists. He averaged just 3.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 0.5 blocks, numbers that seemingly do not precede his reputation as one of the best defenders in the NBA.

But such is the folly of falling prey to looking at the raw numbers without seeing the context behind them. People are often prone to jumping to conclusions without consolidating all of the possible information available to them. With Iguodala, such a habit must be avoided. Failure to do such a thing would be a failure to give his tenure with the Warriors its proper justice and tribute.

But most importantly, it would be a failure to understand the true character of a man who willingly sacrificed what could have been for something else that turned out to be so much greater.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Accepting an unfamiliar role

Iguodala, once heralded as the heir apparent to Allen Iverson as the next superstar of the Philadelphia 76ers, had come a long way. From becoming the next “A.I.” in Philadelphia, to getting traded to the Denver Nuggets and being expected to carry that franchise in its post-Carmelo Anthony era, he was often on the cusp of shattering the barrier that separates fringe stars from the true superstars of the league. But he was never really able to break through, despite being an athletic battering ram that was capable of toppling such a barrier.

Unable to gain solid footing within those franchises, he was then acquired by the Warriors in 2013, hoping to be the bridge that would allow a team full of potential to cross over toward greatness.

The line of thinking back then was that Iguodala could be that missing link, the final piece of the puzzle that would help the team and its young stars — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — become the class of the Western Conference. Iguodala was expected to fill in as that veteran star presence, the big-name free agency acquisition the Warriors could rally behind to lead them to further success in the playoffs.

While Iguodala did well in his first season with the Warriors, it would not be enough to lead them out of the first round of the 2014 playoffs. It was soon understood that a team brimming through the lid with talent wasn’t being fostered and developed well enough.

So the team made changes. They swapped out Mark Jackson for Kerr. Iguodala, who was a perennial starter under Jackson’s tenure as head coach, was soon faced with a proposition from Kerr that would turn his world upside down.

He was asked to come off the bench.

And instead of succumbing to ego and petulance, he accepted it.

“It’s just growing up, being smart about the situation,” Iguodala said about being benched for Harrison Barnes in the starting lineup in 2014. “You could do the opposite and kind of just tank it just to say it’s wrong. But like I said, our whole focus with this team is to try to continue to improve and make the most out of our unit, and we have so much depth, there are opportunities for us to get where everybody wants us to be.”

Despite being outwardly trusting of Kerr and accepting his demotion seemingly without protest, Iguodala had his doubts. It was natural — after all, he had spent all of his career beforehand as a starter who never dipped below 30 minutes of playing time on the floor, and who had averaged double digits in points in eight of his initial nine seasons before joining the Warriors.

Most players who have been in Iguodala’s position — those who have tasted a sample of what it meant to be the main man — grab that opportunity and hold on to it, even when the time comes that they should let it go. Superstardom, or the illusion of it, is an allure that can quickly turn into an addiction. Before long, their presence on a team becomes a facade in the form of a disease that disguises itself as the cure to all of the team’s ills.

Iguodala’s greatest quality isn’t his athleticism, nor is it his extremely-high basketball IQ and defensive instincts. Those are what make him special, but something else entirely defines his legend during the golden age of Golden State.

It was his ability to shed all notions of ego, to do away with an inflated sense of self-importance, and to sacrifice individual glory for collective greatness.

And in his and the Warriors’ quest to achieve collective greatness, what Iguodala garnered in his role as the ultimate sixth man was undoubtedly four of the greatest individual accolades he has received in the entirety of his career: Three NBA championship rings, and an NBA Finals MVP trophy.

Golden State Warriors Travel Home Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

His path to immortality

To someone who has been regaled with tales of prolific scorers winning games all by themselves, to those who subscribe to the appeal of the NBA through the exploits of its superstars, Iguodala’s path towards immortality may ultimately ring hollow. But to fully understand it, it is necessary to look past the tangibles and examine his contributions with greater nuance.

Yes, he averaged only 7.3 points per game, most of it due to his status as the sixth man and the presence of elite scorers such as Durant, Curry, and Thompson. He shot 34.2 percent on threes during his tenure with the Warriors, a decent but noticeably sub-par clip compared to the gaudy shooting numbers his teammates consistently put up. But when the team needed him to knock down a few shots and score, he would almost always — literally and figuratively — follow through.

He averaged just 3.4 assists per game for the Warriors, but that number is far from being representative of his sublime passing, his decision-making skills as a floor general, and the fact that with the ball in his hands, he could do wonders.

He was never a prolific rebounder, nor was his steals average a statistic that particularly stood out. But his endless well of intelligence and knowledge when it came to defense allowed him to slow down arguably the greatest player of this generation on several occasions.

And his preternatural hand-eye coordination allowed him to do what he does best on defense: Swiping down on opposing ballhandlers and cleanly stripping them of the ball. Like how Picasso claimed Cubism as his own, Iguodala’s method of flamboyant thievery was an art form that would become his trademark.

It was those very moments on the court, as well as the overwhelming respect he commanded in the locker room from veterans and young players alike, that captured the hearts of the Warriors and their fans. Those same hearts shattered into millions of pieces the moment he was traded away.

He never became the superstar he was destined to become. He was never able to establish himself as a bona fide everyday starter, even if his talent warranted such a billing.

But by doing away with any desire of becoming bigger than his team, he was able to become much more than just another disgruntled star . Through his willingness to assimilate within a system greater than the sum of its individual parts, he was able to become something more profound.

He became a legend.

And to quote a fictional version of Babe Ruth depicted in the 1993 movie, The Sandlot:

“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”