Are the Golden State Warriors Better Off Without David Lee?


April 15, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors power forward David Lee (10) controls the pass against San Antonio Spurs point guard Nando de Colo (25) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Golden State Warriors defeated the San Antonio Spurs 116-106. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

David Lee was the Golden State Warriors’ lone All-Star during in a season where the team made its first playoff appearance since 2006-07. You remember, back when Baron Davis was actually capable of dunking on anyone, let alone Andrei Kirilenko.

So, while Stephen Curry has become Golden State’s best player, Lee is still incredibly valuable to the Warriors. He provides a strong outlet for Curry and seems to take pressure off the young point guard during crucial points in the game, which might have helped in the waning moments of Monday’s deflating loss in San Antonio.

That certainly doesn’t mean, however, that the Warriors can’t win the series now that Lee is sidelined with a torn right hip flexor. In fact, there are several important figures that show Golden State becoming a stronger team (especially on defense) when Lee is on the bench.

Lee’s defense has never been his hallmark as a player. He’s considered average at his best moments, and a hindrance at his worst. Even some of the statistics from his All-Star campaign support these notions.The Warriors’ opponents’ effective field goal percentage (shooting percentage weighted to account for the extra point that three-point shots provide) drops from .490 to .474 when Lee is in his warm-up outfit, which is not surprising considering that Draymond Green (his backup for most of the year) is a better defensive player.

Could you even count on 45 hands how many close games the Warriors have played this season? That .016 makes a difference.

Lee also causes the Warriors to commit more fouls. On a per 48-minute basis, Golden State committed three additional fouls and allowed its opponent to shoot an extra six free throws when Lee was in action. To a team like the Miami Heat, a juggernaut that routinely wins by double digits, a statistic like that doesn’t make that great a difference. To a team like the Warriors, who fell by 10 or fewer points in 20 of their 35 losses, it does.

The logical counter argument to those points, of course, is that Lee makes that difference up with his scoring ability and rebounding. His season shooting percentage of 51.9 led all starters, and came in behind only Carl Landry (who took 558 fewer shots) among all Warriors players.

Lee’s offensive presence also draws defenders closer to the paint, which freed up Curry for a good chunk of his 272 three-pointers. Without him, Golden State might be slower and less successful defensively, but there’s almost little doubt they become a more dynamic offensive unit when Lee plays.

Then there’s the immeasurable but crucial aspect of experience. Green has performed admirably in Lee’s stead, and Golden State is already further in the playoffs than most thought they would get without their All-Star forward. But Monday’s meltdown proved that the Warriors are missing a key ingredient in their stretch drive: a player who can force his teammates to take a deep breath.

May 2, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors power forward David Lee (10) chants “defense” with fans during the second quarter of game six against the Denver Nuggets of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Lee may not be spectacular, but he is steady if nothing else. There’s obviously no way to prove it, but I’d have to think Golden State comes out on top in Game 1 against the Spurs if Lee is playing those last five minutes. For one, he makes his free throws. He shot a notch under 80 percent during the regular season. He also doesn’t force shots, which is all Golden State did during those frantic final moments.

Finally, the man rebounds. How many extra chances did the Spurs receive down the stretch because the Warriors couldn’t crash the boards?

David Lee is not without his deficiencies as a player, but to suggest the Warriors are better off without him is to focus solely on those faults. Golden State can win without Lee, but his faulty hip did not make things easier for them.