As recently as last season, David Lee was a core member of the Golden State Warriors. Lee started in 67 of 69 games, averaging 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 33.2 minutes per game.
As we head down the home stretch of this season, Lee is almost an afterthought.
It started when Lee suffered a hamstring injury at the beginning of the season, opening the door for Draymond Green to be the starting power forward. Green took full advantage of that opportunity and then some, as he has arguably become Golden State’s second-most important player behind Stephen Curry. The versatile Green has a legitimate chance at both the Defensive Player of the Year award and Most Improved Player award, and he’s in line for a huge contract in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Lee was relegated to the bench when he returned to the lineup on Dec. 22. He was still rather productive and consistently got minutes, but his role has steadily diminished over the course of the season. In March, he’s playing just 11.3 minutes per game, and he has received DNP-CDs in three of the last four games. Even the rarely used Festus Ezeli has gotten minutes over Lee.
So what gives?
While Lee remains a productive scorer and rebounder, he has never been much of a defender. Because of his defensive deficiencies, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is using Lee less and less because of what Kerr wants to do with his team on the defensive end.
I recently wrote about Kerr’s increased usage of small ball lineups featuring Green playing the 5, lineups that have been extremely successful. These units feature a bunch of long, athletic defenders who can switch screens and wreak havoc on passing lanes, which then helps the Warriors get out in transition and get easy buckets.
Lee just isn’t cut out for that type of defense. He obviously doesn’t work as a 4 in those smaller units (it wouldn’t be a small unit if he was playing the 4), and he can’t anchor them as a 5 like Green. Marreese Speights isn’t exactly a good defender, but he’s long, strong and athletic, and as Jesus Gomez notes over at SB Nation, Speights has been better than Lee offensively, which has given him the edge in the rotation. Then there’s Ezeli, who’s also long, strong and athletic, making him an appealing option to use in the middle, even if he hasn’t done much in his NBA career.
Even when the Warriors are using a more traditional lineup, Lee often isn’t the greatest fit because of the increased versatility of many power forwards in the league. Kerr explained this earlier this week, per Monte Poole of CSN Bay Area:
“David’s a great player. He’s been an All-Star. He’s still in his prime,” he went on. “What’s been tricky is that we’ve developed a formula while he was out that has been very effective for us. And you compound that with the fact that the whole league is going small at the 4-position and every night you’re playing a 3-point shooter at the 4 spot. We’ve adapted to that. We’ve adapted to our early-season lineups. Draymond has obviously grabbed that position. So it’s tricky.”
With Kerr embracing small ball and putting an emphasis on length and athleticism in his lineups, there’s just no place for Lee at the moment. It’s not like the Warriors need his scoring, because they’re getting it from plenty of other sources.
To Lee’s credit, he’s rolling with the demotion because Golden State is running roughshod over the league:
“We’re winning and we’re having fun,” Lee said. “It’s hard at times. I couldn’t do this if we weren’t winning. But we are. I’m not going to put myself ahead of that.”
While Lee isn’t playing now, that doesn’t mean he won’t be used down the road. It’s a luxury to have a player of Lee’s caliber coming off the bench, and he provides some insurance against injury. He also could help if the Warriors are forced to play big in the postseason against the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies. So he still has some value.
However, it’ll be interesting to see what Golden State does with Lee in the offseason. He clearly doesn’t fit with the Warriors’ preferred style of play, and he’s set to make $15.5 million as an expiring contract next year. With Green possibly (likely?) getting a max contract, Golden State could look to move Lee to help avoid some or all of any possible luxury tax payments that would come along with paying Green a max. There were reportedly some discussions about moving the big man at the trade deadline, but the team didn’t want to just dump him and didn’t want to upset the chemistry.
That was the right move for this season, but the mindset could very well be different in the offseason. If the Warriors can find a palatable deal, Lee will likely have a new home next year.