Golden State Warriors: Would They Still Be Playing If David Lee Was Healthy?


May 16, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (30, left) and power forward David Lee (10, right) react after game six of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs at Oracle Arena. The Spurs defeated the Warriors 94-82. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For the many eliminated playoff teams, the weeks after elimination are a time of regret. With the NBA Draft Lottery looming, 14 teams are hoping for the fortune that eluded them during the regular season, leaving now-eliminated playoff teams to reflect on what could have been. While many Golden State  Warriors fans may be looking forward, eagerly waiting to build on this season’s playoff success, some may still be mired in frustration.

Among more enjoyable trends, injuries have been a central theme of this postseason, and as anyone reading this article has heard, the Warriors were not left unscathed. David Lee tore his hip-flexor during Game 1 of the Warriors’ first round series against the Denver Nuggets. Lee was expected to miss the rest of the season, but played limited minutes versus the San Antonio Spurs.

Lee did play a role off the bench, generally as an offensive interlude to begin the second quarter, but was drastically limited in role and effectiveness. Playing almost entirely without their lone all-star, the Warriors lost 4-2, but contended in nearly every game.

The Spurs played consistently excellent defense on Stephen Curry and seemingly benefited from a severe injury to Curry’s ankle. A healthy Lee demands defensive attention that may otherwise have been focused on Curry, and could have helped in freeing him offensively.

The Curry-Lee pick and roll was the staple of the Warriors’ productive regular season offense. Per, 20 percent of the Warriors offense was finished by a pick and roll ball handler or roll man. This would be a significant portion without considering Lee, Curry and other Warriors passing out of the pick and roll to other players after forcing defensive helping help.

So, it stands to reason that adding a fully healthy Lee would have drastically increased the Warriors chance at upsetting San Antonio, right?

May 16, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) hugs Golden State Warriors power forward David Lee (10) after Spurs win over the Warriors for game six of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Golden State Warriors 94-82 to win the series. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, maybe not. During the regular season, the healthy David Lee played in all four of the Warriors’ games versus San Antonio, totaling 155 minutes, about 38 minutes per game. Though this is a small sample size, and the playoffs are a different situation, Lee did nothing in these minutes to signify that San Antonio would struggle with him in the playoffs.  he Spurs held Lee to a far below average 47.3 percent true shooting percentage, and he was not compensating for this in other areas.  He rebounded 17.8 percent of available rebounds, only slightly above his regular season 16.8 percent rebound percentage and his assist percentage dropped from 16.8 percent to 12.1 percent.

Furthermore, Lee’s inefficiency and lack of creation did not come in a decoy role similar to Curry’s post-injury, but at a greater usage than his season average, meaning Lee’s offensive struggles had an increased impact.

With Lee on the court in the regular season versus San Antonio, the Warriors surrendered a respectable 101.1 points per 100 possessions, but only scored 99.6.  With Lee off the court, the Warriors allowed only 98.9 points per 100 possessions, and scored 104.6. While these sample sizes, especially the 42 possessions with Lee off the court are too small to be determinant, do not suggest that a healthy Lee would have helped the Warriors.

In the series against San Antonio, the Warriors scored 101.9 points per 10 possessions, and allowed 105.9.  The Warriors had an offensive rating of 106.5 and a defensive rating of 105.5 during the regular season. Their offense struggled against San Antonio during the playoffs, while the defense was only slightly worse than average. However, in their two victories, the Warriors held San Antonio to 92 points per 100 possessions, and scored 102.7.  Elite defense, rather than elite offense seemed to be the Warriors winning formula versus San Antonio, and though Lee helps an offense, his defense is damning.

May 16, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson (11) is consoled by power forward David Lee (10, right) against the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter in game six of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Spurs defeated the Warriors 94-82. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Though some may find his precise passing majestic, Lee earned the nickname “Golden Gate” for a different reason. Interior help defense is arguably the most important singular role in NBA defense. Defenders, generally big men, must prevent opposing offenses from getting easy looks at the rim and finishing when they do.

Simply put, Lee protects the rim worse than almost every big man in the league. With him on the court, the Warriors’ opponents attempted 27.4 percent of their shots from zero to three feet, and converted 64.2 percent of those opportunities. With Lee off, 25.8 percent of opponents’ attempts came from that range and only 60.8 percent were converted. According to HoopData, the league average field goal percentage from three feet and in was 64.6 percent.  When David Lee came off the court, the Warriors improved from slightly above league average to fourth in the league at opponent field goal percentage within three feet. If further evidence of Lee’s defensive deficiency is necessary, along with coining the name Golden Gate, Kirk Goldsberry detailed and attempted to explain this phenomenon for Grantland.

Lee’s poor defense extends beyond rim protection, however. While the Warriors help schemes protect Lee in the pick and roll, Lee struggles to defend other offensive attacks. His slow lateral speed leaves him vulnerable to drives, often forcing him to compensate by giving his man a wide-open jump shot.   According to Synergy Sports, Lee allows 0.94 points per play to isolations, 275th in the league. His poor positioning and effort have effects just as adverse as his foot-speed, and he arely positions himself well to defend post-up situations (along with most other plays), allowing 0.84 points per play to post ups, which is 143rd in the league.

Though Lee’s offense is beneficial, a team like San Antonio is well prepared to exploit any and all defensive flaws presented by their opponent.  In Game 1 of the San Antonio-Memphis series, Tony Allen, widely considered an elite defender, was victimized by San Antonio’s ball movement as they repeatedly took advantage of his inconsistent off-ball defense.  The Warriors’ best performances versus San Antonio were more a result of productive defense than offense, and while a healthy Lee may have given the Warriors a new weapon against the Spurs offense, he often creates many more holes in the Warriors’ own armor.