David Lee has garnered recent defensive praise upon existing in the vicinity of bad games for Dwight Howard and Kevin Love. The past two contests won’t convince me of his defensive acumen any more than this season will sway me against his 80 million dollar contract. Tim Kawakami opposes the deal, which is an understandable pose in light of Lee’s underwhelming season. For now, I’m neutral, but in search of why he disappointed–for reasons other than his elbow turning into a bow-el.
DL made a key switch when he came to the Warriors from New York. D’Antoni’s system dictated that David play the five, while often surrounded by four shooters. Those shooters pulled floor space like fingers stretching pizza dough, as Lee was left to explore expanses in between.
Often, all that stood between him and the hoop was the opposing, lumbering, uncoordinated center. DL slipped screens to some deadly finishing, and even made Chris Duhon look competent. Of course, this offensive advantage came with a severe defensive tax: Those larger centers did as they pleased on the other end.
So, what’s happened since David Lee started playing more four for Keith Smart? Why is he slinging 49% when he shot 54% the year before? Well, according to Hoopdata, Lee is shooting roughly the same percentage as he was last season from 10-15, and 16-23 feet. So his stroke is just fine. The overall drop off mostly stems from altered shot selection. Per game, the Warriors big has two fewer attempts at the rim than he had the year before. Pre-season, Lee gave insight as to how this could happen:
“It’s a little bit of a difference because in New York I was a five, so the rest of the floor was spaced. Now we have Andris down on the block, so his man will be kind of waiting there, so slipping isn’t going to be as effective.”
Without the slips, Lee’s a less effective offensive player. Also, he hasn’t played well defensively in the four role. My hope was that time away from NBA Goliaths would help David’s D, but he looks especially vulnerable against mobile power forwards who can shoot. The sad truth is that Lee just isn’t very good at defense. This is counter intuitive because few guys can better wax-eloquent on off-hand questions regarding NBA strategy. Even fewer bigs possesses greater awareness on the offensive side–his passing ability feels almost European. But, all that spatial intelligence vanishes when the context shifts from “creating” to “stopping.”
So, the goatee’s combination of skills and deficiencies puts Keith Smart in a bind. When David Lee plays center alongside Radmanovich, the Warriors gain a potent weapon at the five, while melting on D (Because VladRad goes against, say, Carlos Boozer). When Lee plays power forward in a more traditional two-big lineup, his offense suffers as his defense does little to change Kawakami’s mind.
Enter Ekpe Udoh, who oddly could be instrumental in validating Lee’s contract. In the Wolves game, Udoh was a brilliant manifestation of what Golden State has never valued. He blocked shots from all angles, he challenged shooters far from the hoop. This was true to form, more comforting than surprising. So far, he has the best defensive plus-minus of anyone at or above his minutes-played total (Sidenote: Monta Ellis has the worst defensive plus-minus of any starter). Ekpe mitigates Lee’s deficiency (bad defense), while Lee mitigates Ekpe’s weak spot (rebounding). The two are a natural pairing if Udoh can grow a power forward’s offensive game–or at least something near it.
Yesterday, Tim Roye was mulling whether Ekpe should be a power forward or center. I’d say: Udoh’s a future four, because Lee has six more years.