Golden State Warriors forward David Lee tore his right hip flexor in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game versus the Denver Nuggets, and will be out the rest of the playoffs. With Lee expected to be ready for next year’s training camp, the rest of the Warriors will determine how many games he will miss.
Though often criticized, Lee has been vital to the Warriors’ success this season. Lee is a member of each of the Warriors’ nine most-played lineups, only one of which has a negative net rating, according to NBA.com, and is second on the Warriors in usage percentage among players playing more than five minutes per game.
Curry is considered to be the offensive “star” of the Warriors, but the team equally relied on Lee’s passing to initiate the offense and his scoring to finish it. One of the most common features of the Warriors offense is the Curry-Lee pick and roll. The Warriors, knowing that teams will often trap Curry, often run the pick and roll just to get Lee the ball with space, generally at the elbow opposite of where he set the screen.
(Image captured from mysynergysports.com)
Lee shoots a respectable 42.9 percent from mid-range and 58.2 percent from less than eight feet, enough to force the defense to rotate to deny him the shot or a lane to the basket. As the defense rotates, Lee, an excellent passer, is consistently able to find his teammates for open opportunities.
According to mysynergysports.com, the Warriors end 16.6 percent of their offensive possessions with a spot-up, and 7.9 percent with a cut. These opportunities are often generated by Lee’s excellent passing out of the pick and roll. Golden State scores 1.03 points per play out of spot-ups, good for third in the league, and 1.27 off cuts, the second best in the league. The Warriors have excellent shooters, but Lee’s ability to draw the defense and set up his teammates is equally responsible for the Warriors success in these situations.
So, can the Warriors replace Lee’s production?
In two of the three games Lee missed this season, Carl Landry replaced him in the starting lineup. Landry is capable of a reasonable Lee impersonation. He shoots 43.6 percent from midrange, often off the pick and roll, typically with Jarrett Jack,and could replicate Lee’s rebounding, as his total rebounding percentage is only 2.6 percent lower than Lee’s.
However, Landry and Andrew Bogut have yet to appear on the court together this season, and starting Landry would leave the Warriors without a capable scoring big man off the bench.
Also, though Landry scores well out of the pick and roll at 0.98 points per play, according to mysynergysports.com, he cannot replicate Lee’s passing, leaving the Warriors to run a less imposing version of their normal offense. Like Lee, Landry would struggle to defend Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler, but may be able to score on Chandler in the post.
While Mark Jackson has been hesitant to go small all season, with Bogut playing well, the Warriors could start Jack and start Harrison Barnes at power forward. According to 82games.com, Barnes has only played about 1 percent of the Warriors minutes at power forward, and due to Bogut’s inconsistent health and Jackson’s apparent disdain for small ball, the Curry-Jack-Thompson-Barnes-Bogut lineup did not record a single possession all season. However, shortly after Lee’s injury Saturday, the Warriors played that exact lineup–for only three possessions.
The small ball lineup presents an opportunity for the Warriors to adopt a Houston Rockets spread pick and roll style offense, with Bogut setting screens while three perimeter players are ready to shoot or attack an aggressive close-out. Barnes is capable of guarding Chandler, but a healthy Kenneth Faried would impose some problems on the defensive glass. But most importantly, playing Barnes at the four could help free up Stephen Curry.
In Game 1, the Nuggets did an excellent job of denying Curry any decent shot opportunities. They trapped off pick and rolls, hedged off ball screens and refused to allow Curry to consistently score. The Nuggets would still trap off Bogut, but without a second Warrior big man in the lane to help off of, Denver would be forced to recover sooner or help on Bogut off of wing capable of hitting the three or attacking the lane, where there would likely only be one Nugget able to help.
The Warriors are often at their best when Barnes is aggressive offensively–unlike Saturday. Without Lee’s defender to clog the paint, Barnes will have an easier time attacking and finishing at the rim.
Though overcoming Lee’s absence will likely require some incredible performances from Curry, the injury does present opportunities for the Warriors to experiment with lineups for the future