From small acorns
Drafted at the end of the first round with the 30th pick in 2005, David Lee started his NBA career in a dark place. There were not many bleaker franchises than the mid-2000s New York Knicks, at the height of the incompetent reign of Isiah Thomas.
Both Channing Frye (8th) and Nate Robinson (21st) were selected ahead of him, but David Lee became a much more impactful player than either.
Indeed Lee became a tiny sliver of light in the dysfunction engulfing the Knicks.
Right from the off he was a double-double machine. True, in limited minutes in his rookie year you had to look at his per-36 stats - 11 points, 9.7 rebounds - but by his second year he was averaging 10.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game on a hyper-efficient 60% from the field.
At the time, smarter Knicks fans were campaigning for him to get more time, buried as he was coming off the bench behind the sad story that was Eddy Curry.
He first leapt to the attention of many fans with this iconic buzzer beater with only 0.1 seconds left:
But what was most impressive about David Lee’s Knicks tenure was how hard he worked. Sure, he may never have been the greatest defender, but his game grew every year.
An All-star in New York?!
He really broke out when coach Mike D’Antoni arrived in New York. As the disastrous Zach Randolph-Eddy Curry experiment was mercifully ended, David Lee became the full-time starter in the Pringles-era 2008-10 Knicks.
Bereft of cap-space and short on talent, the Knicks had a couple of years to get through before the 2010 free agent bonanza. Fans needed hope, anything to cling on to.
David Lee provided it.
By the 2009-10 season, he had really come a long way from his early days. He had developed a nice mid-range jump-shot, and his play-making and passing skills were on full display.
All of this culminated in the first triple-double of his career, dropping 37 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists on a certain franchise from the Bay Area.
Averaging a career high 20.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists, he became the Knicks’ first All-Star since Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston in 2001.
Coast to coast
The free agent bonanza of 2010 came and went. The Knicks signed Amare Stoudemire to a fully guaranteed $100m dollar contract. David Lee was surplus to requirements.
But there was another franchise looking to rise from the ashes. The Warriors’ ownership group wanted to make a splash in free agency and, after years of losing, to change the culture of the organisation.
David Lee’s signing helped lift the franchise, signifying that they were a free agent destination. This time he would be paired with a much more successful Curry--Stephen Curry—the young star who would evolve into a world-beater.
They formed a solid partnership over the first couple of years. Always a professional, Lee continued to develop as a leader and player.
In the locker room he helped change the culture, as Marcus Thompson set out a couple of years back:
Lee’s mindset helped in a locker room that had been short on professionalism. He found joy in his role as the approachable leader and veteran presence. And throughout his tenure, he was important to developing the unity of a formerly fractured locker room.
This is something we take for granted now, but it’s been a long journey to build this culture and David Lee played a key part in that.
He was generous in the community as well, as a St Jude Hospital ambassador, and helping refurbish courts in the Bay Area, among other activities.
An All-star in Golden State?!
His most successful year was 2012-13. He became the franchise’s first all-star since, wait for it, Latrell Sprewell in 1997!
Whilst he was never going to make an all-defense squad, he was rewarded for a fine season with a place on the third team All-NBA.
Then, after seven years in the NBA and never having made the playoffs (an unwanted league record at the time), he finally got his chance to shine.
But injury struck, as he went down with a hip injury that was supposed to end his season. Desperate to help his young teammates, he battled through it to get back on the court.
It may have been more symbolic than anything else, but it was a symbol of a true Warrior.
Eclipse by Draymond Green
Over the next couple of years the franchise continued to grow. Though he had some strong performances the next year, not least in knocking off the Heat, Curry had supplanted him as the face of the franchise.
Then, after a strong preseason in Kerr’s system, Lee injured his hamstring, opening the gates for Draymond Green. While Kerr maintains he was going to start Lee, Green was a different caliber defensively.
To his credit, Lee did not get upset. He played the good soldier, alongside Andre Iguodala, setting a tone and showing what sacrifice meant to the young Warriors.
But he was always ready to be called on.
Against Memphis in the second round of the playoffs, the Warriors went down 2 games to 1. They were outmuscled and a little rattled by the physicality of the Grizzlies.
Over the last three games of the series David Lee averaged just over 15 minutes, 4 points, and 4 rebounds a game to help the Warriors to victory.
He was called upon again in the Finals. With Green struggling to make the right plays it was Lee in Game 3 who gave the Warriors a jolt and some momentum to carry forwards.
He put up 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 4-of-4 shooting in Game 3. He followed that up with 9 points, 5 boards, and 3 assists in Game 4.
Crucially, as this video from Coach Nick points out, he unlocked the potential of the 4-on-3 situations that resulted from the aggressive traps on Steph Curry.
His on-court contributions in the Warriors run to their first title may have been small, but they did matter.
More important was his role as a bridge between bleak times, helping set the culture of the organisation. It was a role he was groomed for in the dark dysfunction of New York, and that he fulfilled in the California sunshine.
By the end, he may not have been the face of the franchise, but he deserved his ring nonetheless.
Before he rode off into the sunset, he had one last gift of generous leadership to give, paying for the Warriors post-title celebration in Vegas.
David Lee was a leader on and off the court, a professional who always worked hard, and an all-around good guy.
Thank you, David Lee