David Lee entered 2014-2015 as the presumptive Golden State Warriors starter at power forward, despite growing evidence and rumblings that Draymond Green had become the superior player. But the all-star forward pulled his hamstring before the season began, giving Green all the space he needed to take the role and run.
For the remainder of the Warriors' Championship campaign, things never got too much better for the veteran, Lee. It's easy to spin the narrative that he grew frustrated by being benched for the first time in Golden State, sulked and lost his ability. It would be easy to look at the dramatic +16-win improvement the Dubs enjoyed and attribute the difference to benching the no-defense Lee. But that would miss the point.
The fact is, Lee was a phenomenal teammate who took the demotion in stride. He never chirped, as most players of his stature might. He was always engaged on the bench (see featured pic?) and ready to contribute what he could. And when his number was finally, thankfully called in the NBA Finals, he delivered one last moment for the Warriors fans who lovehated him for years.
Against LeBron James and the spunky Cleveland Cavaliers, David Lee dropped 11 points on four shots to bring a dead Warriors offense back to life in a game three loss. And in the pivotal game four, he added nine more points off the bench, as well as five boards and three assists to put the Western Conference Champs back in control. He was fresh and spry, playing with effort on defense, and largely redeeming himself after two straight postseasons with nary a positive impact.
But the season up to that point wasn't so kind to Mr. Lee, and his decline was a long time coming. Lee's Real Plus-Minus dipped for the second consecutive year, as he fell from 23rd in the NBA among power forwards to 37th (still one slot better than David West last season, though).
On defense, the problems were the same as they've always been. Weak contests at the rim, late and non-instinctive rotations and a chronic case of slow feet. But it was on offense where the cracks really began to show. David Lee's mid-range shot, which he perfected just before coming over from the New York Knicks, went from elite...to good...to dreadful in six years. At one time, Lee shot a spectacular 0.448% from beyond 16-feet (for comparison, LaMarcus Aldridge has a career best of 0.442%).
In the last two years, that 16-foot shot accuracy fell to 0.357% in 2013-2014, and then a brutal 0.303% this year. Somehow, his percentages from 3-10 feet crashed even harder, all the way to a nauseating 0.314%. Tony Allen just finished up a FIRST TEAM DEFENSE season shooting 0.261% and 0.333% from those two zones, respectively.
As David Lee lost the ability to make a jump shot, he attempted a much greater share of his field goals from the restricted area. This sounds nice in theory, as any 6'10" professional basketball player will shoot well from that range. However, his inability to leave the area cramped the Warriors offense by rule, forcing Kerr to play Lee with four perimeter players to maximize floor spacing. However, this meant Lee playing rim protector center, further compounding his defensive deficiencies.
Add in the fact that Lee was playing more minutes in "bench" lineups lacking elite defenders like Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut compared to a year ago (Dray and Bogues were 9th and 10th on the team in terms of minutes played with Lee), and it's not hard to see why his on/off defensive splits suffered so greatly. Opponents shot 0.502% from the field when David Lee was playing, and scored a healthy 105.7 points per-100 possessions on the league's best team-defense. As a whole, the 67-win Warriors were outscored by 10.5 points for every 100 possessions that David Lee played in 2014-2015 -- a spectacularly bad number for pretty much anyone on a team this good.
Sadly for Lee, he only managed one truly memorable game this season, and even that came in a loss (he posted a 24-9-6 line against the Bulls when they shattered the Warriors' home winning streak on January 27 -- ouch).
David Lee looks ahead to a future with a new team that can give him opportunities to contribute in a more meaningful role. Again, Warriors fans can appreciate a veteran who knows how to gracefully bow out. But the thought here is that David Lee might not have quite as much to contribute as he thinks. There's no doubt that he can get defensive rebounds and score cleverly with either hand inside the restricted area, but he may no longer be the 19-and-10 rock that Warriors fans loved to sometimes-love.
As a Warriors fan, that's a sobering thought. David Lee gave us 5 years of his prime, culminating in losing his job and presumably being shipped out of town as a hot-potato contract, a shell of who he once was. But he does have plenty of points and rebounds in a Golden State uniform, and he's got one hell of a ring due in November. I'm sure that's good enough for him, and I'm sure he wouldn't have it any other way.