“Lee’s cartoonish body language seems to exclaim, ‘I’m just not cut out for this side of the court, you guys.’” – Kirk Goldsberry, March 1, 2013
“He’s the second-highest-paid Warrior, but at this point he’s maybe the fourth-most important player on the team.” – Justin Verrier, October 25, 2012
“When you think of what many consider to be a bright (or brighter) future for the Warriors, just about no one associates Lee with that.” – Tom Ziller, November 30, 2012
“Keeping him in the lineup when opponents have possession in the final minutes exposes the Warriors to any number of offensive attacks.” –Me, two weeks ago.
People sure love to pick on the Golden State Warriors’ David Lee.
The two time All-Star and former Florida standout has a history of mixing an impressive stat sheet with terrible defense for sub-.500 teams. He’s strong, but not very athletic. Efficient, but slow. Unselfish, but unspectacular. Have I said his defense is terrible?
Poking holes in Lee’s game has become a beloved pastime for basketball analysts, particularly as focus and acclaim has shifted to defense-first teams like Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls or the latter day Memphis Grizzlies. Lee (like Chicago’s own Carlos Boozer) has undeniable skills at the rim and from mid-range, but his above-average ability to read defenses and create from down low hasn’t translated to the other end of the floor, where he frequently gets lost on rotations, plays out of possession, or gets overpowered by larger, stronger big men.
Those types of mistakes have become inexcusable to many league observers, and Lee’s visibility (an ironic consequence of his offensive production) has made him a whipping boy for offensively-minded power forwards.
However, even after you take all of that into consideration, the Warriors would not be on their way to the playoffs if it weren’t for his production and consistency over the course of the season.
Lee scores more than 18 points per game (on .517 shooting), brings down more than 10 boards and hits more than 80 percent of his free throws. He’s smart, quick (not the same thing as ‘fast’, buy a dictionary) and is a team player on offense. More importantly, his presence on the floor creates an efficient alternative to the perimeter scoring offered by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack. That, in turn, forces opposing defenses to leave a man on him, thereby giving the Warriors a more balanced offensive attack.
Golden State averages 108.5 points per 100 possessions when Lee plays, a stronger offensive rating than what the league-leading Denver Nuggets have averaged over the course of the season. While the Warriors’ supercharged offense is a partially due to Lee’s ability to score on his own – his ambidexterity is a nightmare for opponents to defend – it also benefits from Lee’s outlet passes and assists, which more often than not target Curry or Thompson. Among power forwards who average at least 30 minutes per game, Lee ranks third behind Pau Gasol and Blake Griffin in assist ratio (15.6 percent), and second behind Griffin in assists per game (3.5).
Alternatively, when Lee sits, the Warriors’ offense suffers. Although Golden State still scores an impressive 101 points per 100 possessions (minus-7.5 points from), its assist percentage falls by more than 10 percent, which implies less passing and uncomplicated offensive schemes. Curiously, their turnover ratio also increases by 0.4 percent, a small but meaningful bump given the Warriors’ tendency to allow points off turnovers. Perhaps this is why he averages almost 37 minutes per game, which is more than the likes of Griffin or Serge Ibaka.
Lee’s above average passing highlights a well-rounded offensive game that frequently gets lost in the shuffle with all the talk of his negligible defense. Among qualified starting power forwards, Lee ranks 10th in free throw attempts, ninth in made free throws, 12th in usage rate and ninth in player impact estimate. He does all of this, again, while averaging almost 37 minutes per game.
Lee will never be considered an elite all-around player, but his ability to do a lot of little things very well plays an integral role in an offense that fueled the Warriors into the playoffs. As for his defense, it’s bad to be sure, but it’s gotten better. Golden State’s defensive rating with Lee on the floor fell from 109 points per 100 possessions last season to 104 points per 100 possessions this year, according to basketball-reference.com.
And he hasn’t been deaf to the criticism. Last month, Lee said this to Ethan Sherwood Strauss of WarriorsWorld:
“At this point I could care less. I’ve worked hard to improve my defense. I think I’m a much better defensive player today than I was a year ago and definitely to start my career. There’s a lot of different numbers to support a lot of different things. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say me putting up 20 and 10 doesn’t matter because ‘numbers don’t matter,’ but at the same time, ‘charts at MIT matter.’ You can’t have it both ways.”
So, maybe it’s time to give David Lee a break. He’s right, we can’t have it both ways.