Golden State Warriors: David Lee’s Decline Lowers Team Ceiling


David Lee’s decline this season could spell trouble for the Golden State Warriors. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a look at the two best players for each of the top five Western Conference teams, based on record:

  • Oklahoma City: Durant & Westbrook
  • San Antonio: Parker & Duncan
  • Portland: Aldridge & Lillard
  • Los Angeles: Paul & Griffin
  • Houston: Harden & Howard

Something in common you’ll see from all these teams is they possess two players that consistently strike fear in opponents each time they step on the court. James Harden and Dwight Howard have the ability to combine for 60 points and 25 rebounds while fouling out an opponent’s entire roster. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can do anything on the floor due to their incredible athletic and scoring advantages. I could keep going for each team, but you see the point.

If you performed the same exercise with the Golden State Warriors, which two players would you choose? After a healthy amount of pacing and chin-rubbing, most people would probably go with Stephen Curry and David Lee. If this were last season, everyone would feel perfectly comfortable with that answer. Lee was a legitimate All-Star and considered a premier offensive post talent due to his scoring variety and rebounding prowess. This season’s answer brings a bit more ambiguity.

David Lee has experienced an offensive decline. One may not notice this by simply looking at his current season averages of 18 points and nine rebounds, but the key to the above question is striking fear into opponents. Changes in Lee’s offensive attack lowers the amount of alarm that an opposition has seeing him step onto the court.

The first illustration of Lee’s decline is not the quantity of points scored, but where he is able to score on the floor. Last season, Lee was able to punish defenders who refused to step out 18 feet from the basket to guard him. He shot 42% from the floor between 16 and 24 feet, which is very impressive for a post player. This season he is only shooting around 34% from the same distance interval. When Lee lacks confidence in his outside game, he becomes a more one-dimensional player by taking more shots near the basket. The graph below illustrates the change in Lee’s shot distribution from last season to this season.

This season, Lee has increased his close ranged shooting by 24%, while decreasing his long-range shooting by 50%. Because Lee is not comfortable with his long-range shooting, defenses can get away with sagging off Lee when he is far from the basket. This is a devastating blow to the Warriors pick-and-roll offense. Curry and Lee was a dangerous pick-and-roll combo last season because both players could score in such a variety of ways. If the big man hedged to help his teammate guard Curry, then Lee would receive the ball at the elbow and have two advantageous options.

  1. If the defender is late to get back to Lee and no one is there to help, Lee would consistently hit the 18-foot jump shot.
  2. If the defender recovers, or a help defender comes to overplay the jump shot, Lee can pump fake and get to the basket for either a layup or free throws.

With the first situation above no longer an option, teams have learned to sag off Lee when he is involved in a pick-and-roll situation with Curry. Opponent’s number one priority is containing Curry and then sprinting into the paint to maintain defensive integrity. Not having to worry about Lee’s outside game has made defense much easier for opponents. Teams do not fear Lee’s offense as much as they did last season.

Another puzzling aspect of Lee’s season, and frankly his entire time with Golden State, is his inability to get to the line. Lee has never been a volume shooter from the charity stripe. He shot 4.1 free throws per game last season compared to 4.7 this season. However, since Lee now relies on taking shots closer to the basket, free throws need to be more of a focus in his offensive attack. Of all active players averaging at least 18 points and nine rebounds, only Al Jefferson is averaging less free throw attempts per minutes played. When you watch Lee play, he drives to the basket and tries to get contact, but it doesn’t seem he has the same respect as other players with regards to getting foul calls. To be most effective, Lee must be able to force his way to the free throw line in the same fashion as Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. Possessing this quality allows Lee to have a poor shooting night and still end up with over 20 points in the box score. Currently, Lee does not have this skill, which does not make him a consistent danger to opponents.

Stephen Curry and David Lee is the weakest pairing of the top six teams in the Western Conference. Since Curry is considered a top-10 player in the league, Lee is the player that causes the pair to look feeble. Lee’s offensive decline causes problems for the Warriors if opponents decide to defensively remove Curry from a game. Thompson, Iguodala, and Bogut cannot create their own shots and are limited to specific places on the floor. Last season, Lee was able to score from a plethora of places on the court and defenses had trouble accounting for his variety of shots. Because Lee is more one-dimensional this season, the Warriors potential playoff lineup features only one player who can create his own shot and score from multiple places on the floor.

The hope for Golden State is the collective effort from all five starters can surpass the glaring weakness of not having a strong second go to scoring option. However, a lot of playoff possessions are isolation style with possible pick-and-roll action. When teams key in on Curry, it will be interesting to see where the Warriors get their ad-hoc scoring.

All data is through 03/06/2014 and provided by