Two seasons ago, Golden State Warriors forward David Lee made the All-Star team ahead of teammate Stephen Curry, in a choice that was hard to understand then and incredibly tough to fathom now. Some 25 months after that selection, Curry is working as an MVP candidate for the top-ranked Warriors, while Lee has been demoted from his starting position. Lee’s move to the bench was initially due to injury, but his status was assured when replacement Draymond Green proved to be a revelation on both ends of the ball, and secured even further when the Warriors raced out to the NBA’s best record.
Golden State still owns the league’s top mark, and while Lee is at full health right now he has found his minutes go up and down as a member of the team’s bench unit. Lee is, charitably, the team’s 11th man on most nights. And, on many NBA nights, the 11th man plays briefly or not at all. After 19 frustrating minutes (good stats, but negative impact on both sides of the court) in a W’s win over the Clippers on Sunday, David Lee did not play at all due to coach’s decision in Monday night’s win over Phoenix.
It was his second DNP-CD in three games. Don’t think first-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr isn’t aware. From Tuesday’s practice, via Monta Poole of CSN Bay Area:
"I communicate with all my players, all the time," Kerr said. "And every player is different. Every situation is different. This is a really tricky one.”
Kerr sighed and paused ever so briefly.
"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."
In response, Lee said the right thing and pointed out that he is “not going to put myself ahead of” the Golden State juggernaut that has won 50 games in 62 tries thus far. The 31-year old forward did point out that sitting his way through so many wins was “hard at times.”
Kerr, who came off the bench as a role player for five different NBA championship team, understands:
“And it's incredibly frustrating for him, as it should be. He's a human being."
Lee would seemingly fit in swimmingly with the Warriors as a reserve forward. He remains a very good athlete that can finish a screen and roll set in a spread offense in the lane, and his sound shooting would appear to keep defenses honest in a modern NBA that has seen teams (like the Warriors in particular) embrace more and more perimeter panache. On top of that, Lee’s defense, upon his late-December return, did appear to be much improved.
The issue is that while the Warriors do play significantly better than their opponents with Lee on the court, his on/off splits don’t in any way approximate the standout numbers the Warriors as a whole are managing against other teams. And while Lee was one of the first stretch fours to burst onto the scene nearly a decade ago, the definition is changing. These bigs are asked to shoot three-pointers, now, and Lee has attempted just 28 (making one) in his NBA career. His shooting percentage on shots outside of 16 feet has also declined over the last two seasons.
This is the price the Warriors pay for being so damn deep. Fellow reserve forward Marreese Speights has contributed significantly to several important Warriors wins this either coming off the pine or starting, and yet he’s still being bounced around – working 21 minutes one game, and two and a half minutes three games later. Justin Holiday has come out of nowhere to provide sound minutes, and Festus Ezeli’s ability to play rim protector often has him slated ahead of Lee and Speights despite mitigating play in other areas.
Steve Kerr worked under Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, two coaches that liked to keep typical benchwarmers on their toes with random rotation placements and surprise minutes, all while keeping an open line of communication with stars and role players alike. He knows how to handle this, but it should be noted that the Lee luxury problem isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Lee leads the Warriors in making over $15 million a year this season, a number that will jump to nearly $15.5 million next year. The trade market, more than likely, isn’t open for the Warriors to dump Lee unless they’re willing to take on even nastier contracts that run past $16 million. Even with Stephen Curry’s relatively cheap second contract on the books, and team options for Harrison Barnes and Speights only numbering a combined total of $7.7 million next year, the franchise will likely have to pay the luxury tax once it matches any offer for restricted free agent Draymond Green.
And, make no mistake, unless something ridiculous happens the Golden State Warriors will match any offer for restricted free agent Draymond Green.
So, as it stands, the Warriors will probably pay the luxury tax for a 2015-16 team that could be defending a championship run. Lee will be paid handsomely, though he’ll have to watch another potentially productive year (David still has a quite-good 19.6 Player Efficiency Rating this season) go down the tubes, and the world will continue apace.
It’s a good thing the Warriors are so chock full of good, talented dudes. After decades of irrelevancy, it’s a nice thing to boast.
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