David Lee – and not Stephen Curry and not Andre Iguodala – is Golden State’s highest-paid player. He is also healthy, quite talented, and less than two years removed from an All-Star berth. Last season, under former Warriors coach Mark Jackson, Lee averaged 33 minutes a game and started all but two of the 69 contests he played in, working up averages of 18 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
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Under new coach Steve Kerr, however, those averages dropped 18.4 minutes, 7.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest. He has played in just nine out of his team’s 15 playoff games thus far, 68 minutes total, and doesn’t figure to work all that often in a Finals matchup against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has been forced to go small in these playoffs.
He’ll also make over $15 million again next season, in the final year of the six-year and nearly $80 million deal he agreed to be signed and traded with to Golden State in 2010. As such, the Warriors will look to trade him in the offseason, and Lee knows this.
Oh, he so knows this. From Scott Howard-Cooper at NBA.com:
"I think they tried to trade me the last two years, didn't they?" he told NBA.com.
"That's nothing new," he said of preparing to be traded. "But once again, what's kind of predicted and what ends up happening is not always the same thing. We'll just see what happens. I love it here. We have accomplished a lot here. We'll see once the season's over. The most important thing, though, is getting this ring first and then worrying about that later."
It is true that Lee has been on the trading block for some time. Maybe not as far back as 2013, when he edged out teammate Stephen Curry for an All-Star spot (Curry was later added as an injury replacement), but certainly during last season when it became apparent that, despite great stats, the W’s tended to play better with Lee off the court.
That’s not Lee’s fault, as he’s not a selfish player. It’s just, strangely, how his game has worked for some time. The Warriors were a very good defensive team last year, but Lee was the team’s weak link on that end of the floor.
There were rumblings about Lee coming off the bench under Kerr even prior to the start of the 2014-15 season, and when David went down with a hamstring injury before the regular season started, the decision for the coaching staff was made all the more easier. Draymond Green got the start and the Warriors rushed out to a top defensive ranking that they would not relinquish as the season moved along.
Lee wasn’t the only former Warrior starter to hit the pine under Kerr, as Andre Iguodala was also asked to come off the bench in back of swingman Harrison Barnes. Iguodala was healthy from the outset of the season, however, and served as one of the NBA’s top sixth men. Lee, on the other hand, didn’t return from injury until late December (after a brief attempt to return to game action on Nov. 5), and was hardly a rotation mainstay.
Lee’s per-minute stats were fine during the regular season, but he has struggled in the playoffs – hitting less than a third of his shots. It can’t be easy, even in a championship year, to stand aside like this. Lee, thankfully, is handling it in stride.
“A lot of friends and family say, you haven’t played as much, you [probably] can’t stand Steve,’’ Lee told The Post on Wednesday at Oracle Arena. “I’ve answered: ‘In fact I get along with him great off the court and he’s been very honest with me on where I stand.’ That’s all you can ask. I’d like to play more, but he’s done an unbelievable job as coach.”
He has indeed. And whatever the outcome of this Finals run provides, Kerr and the multi-tiered Warrior front office will have to do an unbelievable job in attempting to deal Lee this summer.
Plenty of teams will have salary cap space this summer, and many squads will find no trouble in moving the sort of players around that would allow them to take on Lee’s $15.1 million salary and the last year of his contract. Teams are likely wary of the 32-year-old forward, however, noting that his defense seemed like a millstone last season and that his perimeter game (lots of long twos, which he hits at a fine rate, but no three-pointers) may be out of step in today’s NBA.
On top of that, Golden State isn’t looking to deal Lee just because it has a logjam up front, or in return for players it needs. The Warriors want to fully expunge themselves of Lee’s salary in order to lessen their luxury tax burden, which means no players in return, and a trading partner with a superstar’s worth of cap space. There should be no doubt that the Warriors’ ownership group will happily pay the tax for a champion or even a championship contender (should Golden State fall to Cleveland).
Just not that much luxury tax.
Draymond Green is worth maximum money to these Warriors; he’s a pivotal player on both sides of the ball in the team’s schemes, and he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer. Giving him that max would create a roster featuring six players working with eight-figure salaries. That would push the team’s payroll to nearly $90 million without figuring out the last few open roster spots, without signing the team’s draft pick, and prior to negotiations for Harrison Barnes’ contract extension.
Again, the Warriors are not going to go cheap. They know they have a special team in place, and they’re not going to cut it up just to avoid a tax that they just missed this year and are most certainly paying next year even if Green leaves the squad. It’s just the amount because with tax issues a $90 million or $100 million payroll suddenly turns into a $120M or $130M payroll.
Removing Lee won’t make all those issues go away. It’ll be tough to trade him for both basketball and financial reasons, you can’t bundle him with this year’s draft pick on draft night in June to a team that won’t have free cap space until July hits, and the team has already sent out one first-round and four second-round picks to various factions in order to help build this fantastic roster.
He was asked if he thinks he will be a Warrior next season.
"No idea," Lee said. "A lot to be decided between now and then. I realize the money I make next year and I realize that they're going to try to pay guys like Draymond. That's all been documented very clearly. But we'll see how things shake out. Who knows. But we'll see."
Sometimes good intentions and professional behavior aren’t enough to secure a deal everyone is happy with. That’s tough news for both the team, and the player who was once expected to be at the forefront of its championship charge.
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