Much of the attention on the season-opening matchup between Golden State and San Antonio was on a certain free-agent acquisition to the former’s potent lineup. There’s perhaps legitimate fear that this Warriors team will be unstoppable and that the season is merely a perfunctory exercise that will result in only one outcome. But the Spurs have made a living of disproving lowered expectations and their own recent addition – veteran forward/center David Lee – might provide an unexpected boost to a team that is and always seems to be a contender in their own right.
Lee’s no stranger to having to live up to certain expectations. His offensive abilities have always been balanced by defensive shortcomings that have been exaggerated over the years and now have a life of their own.
Watching one breakdown that led to an easy Steph Curry layup resulted in several social media responses of “Leefense,” ignoring that it was future Hall-of-Famer Pau Gasol who blew his assignment.
To his credit, Lee (much like the Spurs themselves) keeps trudging along and doing what he does best, despite being a part of four teams over the last two-and-a-half seasons after several years of relative stability. As a valued free agent that could provide consistent scoring as a reserve, he fills a need for San Antonio, who, prior to their shellacking of Golden State, were considered to have a somewhat unproven bench.
But individual numbers don’t mean as much to Lee at this point in his career, as he explained to Today’s Fastbreak before a recent preseason game in Orlando, just an hour-and-a-half away from where he played collegiately at the University of Florida.
When asked what his goals would be for the season, he emphatically answered, “Definitely team success,” before adding, “I’ve done some pretty cool things individually and some things I’m definitely proud of. But the year I enjoyed most was when we won a championship in Golden State. That’s why I was really interested in going to teams that had a chance to do that, and I think I’ve found a great spot in San Antonio.”
Aside from his offensive abilities, he adds to an established team culture of championship aspirations. As he explains, “If I were to have come from a 30-win team and had never been on a playoff team I think [joining the Spurs] would be a huge adjustment. When you’re on a championship team, you realize some days it’s your time to shine and other days, it’s about helping another guy to be his best.
“Really, that selflessness is the biggest difference – of course, you have to have talent – but that selflessness is a big part of building a championship-level team and sacrificing ego, being willing and able to take a back seat to other guys. Things like that, things that I learned in Golden State as our team got better and better…that’s definitely something that’s easy to continue here.”
The type of sacrifice Lee mentioned was clearly evident in the Spurs’ victory when he played just 11 minutes despite the consistent lead that San Antonio held over their heavily-favored opponent. But there were positive moments to be gleaned from that limited playing time, aside from the 11 points, six rebounds and two assists that Lee posted.
After snatching a rebound and bringing the ball upcourt, he implored younger teammate Jonathan Simmons–who had a jaw-dropping breakout performance–to calm down as the possession unfolded, a let-the-game-come-to-you lesson that he clearly benefitted from.
There were the slick passes from Lee underneath the basket which led to easy shots, staunching any attempts at a Golden State comeback. And when teammate Dewayne Dedmon suffered an embarrassing shot attempt that was blocked by the rim itself, there was Lee to clean up afterward with an unspectacular layup.
When asked how his game has changed over the course of his career, he explained that much of that was by necessity. “When I came in, it was all based on athleticism and get-up-and-down,” said Lee; as the narrative has evolved over the years, many forget he won a dunk contest as a McDonald’s All-American while in high school. “And then…I had to get a mid-range jump shot, had to be in great shape. You can’t get away with being out of shape as a veteran player and now it’s just really about making the most of my minutes. Of course, y’know, I’ve been on teams where I was the first option and been the captain of the team and things like, and now it’s just about playing a more specific role and trying to be the best at that role that I can be.”
That adjustment, one Lee described as “easy one,” is certainly facilitated by the Spurs’ renowned culture, adding that San Antonio’s veteran-laden group “keeps things very simple, very disciplined.” Even with Tim Duncan no longer serving as the on-court representation of that team philosophy, Lee adamantly stated that it’s still very much a part of how the team conducts the business of winning.
“Absolutely, there is. There’s a certain way that they’ve done things for years and you know the veteran guys like Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobilli] and guys like that have carried that on each year as well as [Gregg] Popovich having a way of having things done and it really works on being selfless, disciplined and efficient in everything that you do…very fundamental…but that culture is there, that’s for sure.”
As for how he’s been able to work under Popovich’s tutelage, Lee called his new head coach “the best of our generation,” no small praise from someone who’s played for notables such as Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and Rick Carlisle. “As far as not only being a winner but a guy that’s just so knowledgeable about the game itself…when he talks, people listen,” before sheepishly adding, “Obviously, I do everything he tells me to do to the best of my ability.”
Lee explained that from his very first practice with the team, Popovich was already providing guidance. “Day one in training camp there were already two things that he was pointing out to me that I needed an extra explanation on and then I got that, was able to do it fine the next day.” Popovich has a way of bringing the most out of his players, even an accomplished 11-year veteran.
The Spurs have followed that template for so long that it’s become customary – add any player and find a way to make them better. It’s been so effective over such a sustained period that it’s become inherently boring. Still, ignore the Spurs at your peril.
The loss of Duncan reverberates throughout the organization on many levels, but there’s still enough disciples of Popovich’s flexible-yet-stable system that they’re virtually assured of yet another 50-plus win season. While Kawhi Leonard continues to assert his greatness alongside mainstays like Parker and Ginobili, new additions like Gasol and Lee will continue to find a way to thrive.
Lee becomes positively giddy during those moments that he waxes poetic about the team and it’s ingrained approach to success. He’s not likely to be very productive this season, but he’ll play an important role, and Popovich and Co. will help him maximize it.
Calls for players to load the team bus cut the interview just a bit short, but Lee still wears his infectious smile as he adds, “It’s been a perfect fit.” There’s still a long season left to play, but with one strong showing against the preseason favorites to win it all, that certainly seems to be the case.