As rumors percolated to the surface in recent days that the Warriors has been fishing around to establish the trade value of David Lee, there was some rejoicing in Warriorland. When the rumors suggested that the target of the Warriors' trade machinations was Andrea Bargnani, well ... there was less rejoicing. I don't know anyone who wasn't thrilled to hear that those particular rumors were bunk.
But the rumors also suggested that Lee has very limited trade value, which means that, for better or worse, we're stuck with him. As one of the last bad contracts given out under the old, more flexible CBA, Lee is probably going to be a Warrior for a while, for good and ill.
And we saw a lot of both of those from David Lee this year. On the positive side, Lee had a solid offensive season, scoring 18.1 pts/36 on a respectable .561 TS%. According to the league's stats cameras, few players cover more miles in a game than Lee, and his hustle is self-evident. This is a guy who leaves it all on the floor, which was never as obvious as when he came back from a torn muscle to contribute in a playoff series with the kind of turnaround that makes you wonder if he was using Deer Antler spray. His sportsmanship supporting his teammates even when he couldn't play is a model for players everywhere. Lee also put up his best individual rebounding numbers as a Warrior, and undoubtedly contributed to the team's overall improvement in that area this year.
And for the most of the season (with one notable stretch in February excepted) he seemed to be putting renewed energy and hustle on defense. It's probably not a coincidence that this season saw his best defensive RAPM as a Warrior.
On the other hand, his game still shows frustrating limitations. Somehow, his already abysmal shot-blocking numbers went down this season. At one point in the season, he led the league in having his own shots blocked. For every clutch basket he made - and he made quite a few - there were times when an opposing help defender waited patiently and effortlessly swatted his shot, or he was stripped going up and did that ugly arm-flailing thing looking for a call that never came.
And his rebounding, well, for all his gaudy individual numbers, the Warriors grabbed a higher percentage of rebounds when Lee wasn't on the floor - and this trend has gone on long enough to eliminate any reasonable claim that it's a fluke. Lee's really bad at boxing out, which probably explains it, but it's frustrating nonetheless.
And, of course, you can't talk about David Lee's season without talking about what happened in the playoffs. David Lee got hurt, and the team somehow turned around and beat a higher-ranked team, and then, without him, put a scare into the mighty Spurs, managing to do something we haven't done since Tim Duncan entered the league: win in San Antonio. It sure feels like a team losing one of its best players should suffer a bigger hit than that - as Denver fans muttering about Dino Gallinari can attest.
That wasn't all because David Lee was gone, of course. Rather, it was a confluence of factors including a healthier Bogut capable of giving us big minutes, good matchups, and some growth from our younger players. But it was also hard not to notice how much better a job Andrew Bogut does of setting screens to spring Curry for his scoring binges. Bogut sticks his butt out, shuffles his feet, and does a decent job of hiding which side he's going to set the screen until the last moment.
Lee just sort of stands there on his picks, and does a remarkably poor job of creating space for the ballhandler. He's great on the roll, dangerous with a jump shot, drive, or pass when rolling to the basket, but I don't think it's a coincidence that some of Curry's biggest nights have come when Lee hasn't been setting the picks.
All of Lee's flaws would be forgivable if he was making, say, $8m a year. But he's not. Lee has approximately the 30th-highest contract in the NBA going into this free agency period, and one of a few deals that extend for three more seasons. There are worse contracts out there (Joe Johnson, come on down!) but they're hard to find. It's a little weird for the 30th-highest-paid player in the NBA to be the third-best player on his own team when everyone's healthy, but nobody disputes that this is Curry's team anymore, and a healthy Bogut might be able to challenge for the title of best defensive center in the game.
Frustratingly, there's very little about Lee that doesn't come with some good and some bad. He earned an all-star nod this year, but it was probably on the basis of PPG and RPG numbers that were inflated by a heavy minutes load and the media's vast over-rating of double-doubles.
For me, I'm actually pretty happy with the defense and rebounding effort I saw from Lee this year. No, we didn't rebound better with him on the floor, but his personal improvements undoubtedly contributed to the team's improvement in that department. And I've pretty much resigned myself to him being who he is defensively so long as he's really putting the effort out, which he did this year.
On the other hand, there's plenty of stuff I'd really like to see him work on. The aforementioned boxing out and pick-setting, of course, could make a big difference and it's hard to understand why he's so bad at both of those things. It'd be great to see him get a couple of more feet on his jump shot so he could start taking three pointers (although it has to be said that he deserves credit for knowing his range, which too many players don't. Everyone turn and wave at Josh Smith now, he knows we're talking about him).
Lee's not likely to ever live up to that contract, but he's an important part of this team. We don't make the playoffs this last year without him. In some ways, the worst you can say about him is that he's the basketball equivalent of that starting pitcher who isn't so great, but keeps you from having to put legitimately bad players out there because he always makes it to the 7th inning. There's real value in that.
So what grade do you give him?