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Warriors vs. Clippers preview: David Lee will return, but where does he fit?

David Lee will make his 2014-15 regular season debut tonight, but where will he fit in new coach Steve Kerr's rotation?

Ezra Shaw

After a short delay, David Lee is set to return back to the lineup tonight against the L.A. Clippers at Oracle tonight. Nursing a strained hamstring, he has been practicing with the team since Sunday, meaning he has gotten a chance to get some reps with his #fullsquad on the court before possibly donning the jersey. It helps that he was able to play with the team during the preseason, but there is no substitute for actual games with actual defenses and actual 100% effort.

Lee continues to be a polarizing figure for fans and critics alike - being the subject to contestant trade rumors because of his redundancy on the roster, his large salary cap figure, and his questionable defense.  He was rendered relatively ineffective in the series against the Clippers last spring, struggling to stay on the floor against DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. His fans love his stat-filling lines, charting consistent double-doubles and high-quality passing. His critics see bigger post players put up big numbers against him on the block, despite him continuing to work on his skills.

Tonight begins a very important season for Lee. He stands to prove that he is still worth his hefty contract, to show that he is still worthy of his starting position which the organization continues to support him having, and to silence the voices who pick apart his game.

Let's take a look at some of the key questions Lee and the Warriors are facing:

Does David Lee fit in the starting lineup?

The argument has been made for a long time that the Warriors present a stronger starting lineup with Lee on the bench than as a starter. Draymond Green's stretch 4 potential along with his versatility on defense have not only presented a strong case for him to be on the floor over Lee at tip off, but to be finishing games as well. Very similarly to the Iguodala-Barnes debate, this might come down to "Who works the best with who?" Does having Lee play with Bogut create the best dynamic offense while covering up for Lee's deficiencies?

The argument could be made that Lee's offense could fit well with a second unit that has struggled to score so far at times. Lee would be a great fit on the floor with Shawn Livingston running the top of the triangle, and flexing to Iguodala or Barnes on the wing.

My guess?  Lee stays with the starters, contrary to popular belief. The franchise puts him on posters and in commercials, and continues to believe that his popular figure justifies his starting spot.  The numbers will continue to show that the team defense is better with Lee on the bench... but I don't think this will be Kerr's call to make. This one might be coming from the top, and we might just have to deal with it.

Can David Lee fill that "Third Scorer" roll we have been missing?

The Splash Brothers have been dominating the floor to start the season - but the question is, and is usually pointed out during broadcasts, who will be the third scorer? When the three pointers stop falling, the team starts to look a bit stale. David Lee has been known to be a great change of pace in the past, though we have had to struggle through enough Lee-isos to drive you nuts. With his ability to move, cut and pass, he will do doubt continue to improve an already dangerous offense.  Its hard to deny his 18.2 ppg last year, and that was even with a noticeably declining outside shot that has looked much more dependable in the preseason.

With Bogut fitting into his swiss army knife mode and continuing to not be much of a scoring option, and the Iguodala/Barnes combination a mystery from night to night on the offensive end, Lee's contributions are welcome and comforting. His 13/14 season did feature a lower Win Share than previous seasons (7.6 compared to 9.1 in 12/13) while seeing an increase in his usage %. Lee will need to focus on his consistency and aggression. He still continues to get to the line close to 4 times a game, and we can't forget about the rebounding  (where he will help a team that has struggled at times giving up extra possessions on the offensive boards).

My guess? I want to believe Lee's numbers will return back to the standard and he will be a viable 3rd scoring option. The regression over the years however doesn't lie. The good news is as Klay Thompson's game continues to evolve and with more scoring options around him, we will not count on Lee to be the focal part of the offense than he has been in years past. He still brings a strong Basketball IQ to the floor, and an obvious sense that his teammates like to play with him. Lets just hope he finds his mid-range jumper again, and continues to keep his ability to finish at the rim.

Will the Warriors continue to consider his long-term place on the roster?

David Lee's $15M salary figure sits as an eyesore on the salary cap log for the team this year. He was brought in under an old guard; overpaying for players to come to a rebuilding franchise in dire need of stars. Becoming more frustrating is that the organization has developed viable options for Lee in the starting lineup with Draymond Green as his replacement. There is a serious fear in keeping Lee's contract on the books, especially after signing Klay Thompson's extension, without having to trade away more appealing assets than an aging power forward with uneven production.

As the front office has seen though, it is not easy to trade a contract this large without pairing up other assets with it. Will getting rid of Lee be worth the bad contracts and possible loss of draft picks needed to make the swap? Does the franchise continue to see Lee as a valuable piece like we saw in the potential Kevin Love trade where other franchises might differ in that opinion?

My guess? He's ours guys, unless some team is eager to add some veteran presence (like the Magic) that feels they are on the fringe.  Its becoming more likely that we will have to trade an asset like Iguodala or Barnes before we can trade David Lee, and in the end staying the course and considering the luxury tax option to keep a player like Draymond Green might be smarter than taking pennies-on-the-dollar for Lee. He will be a large expiring contract when the 15/16 season kicks off, so maybe the story changes slightly for a rebuilding team. But for the time being? It's safe to keep wearing his jersey.

In Conclusion...

It's hard not to want David Lee to succeed. He has been with the franchise through tough periods, and has been rewarded with trips to the playoffs. He finds himself on arguably one of the best rosters he has had in his career this year, but the pressure on him has never been so high. We will continue to put his performance in a vacuum all season long, and criticize every time he is late on weak side help, or gets schooled in the post. But it's all we can hope for; Lee is our problem to have, and in reality there could be much worse problems to be dealing with.

For more on the Warriors' matchup with the Clippers, check out our storystream for tonight's game.

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