David Lee isn’t supposed to do what David Lee is doing. Seven-year veterans with a concrete list of major strengths and weaknesses don’t suddenly expand on the former and etch away at the latter at 29 years-old, a time when a player is best-case at his apex and worst-case beginning to wear down.
So that the measured preseason optimism about the Warriors in 2012-2013 centered around potential improvements from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and the addition of Andrew Bogut and a fortified bench was no surprise. Lee, no matter how uniquely giften an offensive talent, was always going to be that and that only: a player with the natural tools to do everything on both ends of the floor, but only enough knowing and knack to max out as a productive, me-first scorer that may yield a negative net impact. Not unlike the overpaid star they shipped out last spring, actually, Monta Ellis.
Lee was on a solitary NBA island, a player with little ties to the current front office or coaching staff and one that looked like a salary albatross for a team always weary of paying the luxury tax. He was the old-guard stuck in quicksand as a piece of the new, and I wrote as much after the season’s first several games and opined that Lee’s role and minutes should decrease. Old dogs don’t learn new tricks, and he made that abundantly clear in my first week or so covering the Warriors. The ball-stopping, the poor shot selection, the complete and utter lack of defensive understanding and concepts – it was all there like we all knew it would be.
But then the Warriors started winning. And Lee’s always-inflated box score numbers began to slowly align with the subjective evidence gleaned from watching him play; 20-and-10 actually meant 20-and-10 and came with unmatched energy and fewer missed rotations and wasted possessions. Basically and maybe most essentially, Lee was suddenly worthy of the five-year, 80-million dollar contract he signed with Golden State in 2010, and has emerged as a crucial cog in this organization’s unexpectedly sunny present and even brighter future. He’s an All-Star by any objective measure whether he makes it to Houston or not.
The league’s national landscape may not know it, either, despite those gaudy raw numbers. Lee’s reputation precedes him as it rightfully should: a player whose production was mostly empty. How else to explain that the Warriors were better with him on the bench than on the floor his first two seasons in the Bay? That sobering fact dates back to even his days as a New York Knick, Lee registering a net rating (points scored per 100 possessions versus points allowed per 100 possessions) worse than his team’s overall mark every season since 2008.
But that’s changed now, and his stellar production deserves more praise than ever because of it. Consider this – Lee is the only player in the league to average at least 22 points and 12 rebounds per game in the last month, and he’s shot a scintillating 57.5% from the field in the process. Adjust for minutes and the result’s the same. No big man in the league is producing at the rate Lee is right now, and for the first time in his career the win-loss column and advanced metrics support his always-stuffed stat sheet.
Let’s bullet for emphasis (all numbers since 11/19).
- Warriors: +4.0
- Lee: +4.3
- Net Rating
- Warriors: +5.7
- Lee: +6.4
- Defensive Rating
- Warriors: 100.6
- Lee: 100.5
All three signs – positive in Lee’s favor compared to the Warriors overall marks – are a departure from Lee’s career norms, but the importance and unexpectedness of the bottom one can’t be stressed enough. Lee’s defensive shortcomings have been mocked for years and even now are his game’s most debilitating weakness. He’s not a shot-blocker, struggles to hold his ground in the post, and can get easily lost rotating to open space within help schemes. But he’s improved in the latter category enough to be a helpful primary or backline pick-and-roll defender, his activity level both higher and of better quality.
In 2012 he’s somehow, at the midpoint or farther along in his NBA career, learned to play on the proverbial string after causing it to fray in every season he’s played meaningful minutes but his first in 2007-2008. Indeed, Lee’s defensive rating was significantly worse than his team’s every year since then and was especially horrific once he became a Warrior. But that’s not the case anymore, and that from-nowhere development makes him a completely different player.
The Warriors are winning. Lee is finally playing defense and now producing at a level that’s literally unmatched, too. Golden State’s hot start is hardly owed to a single facet or player; roster turnover for the positive, natural progression, and coaching adjustments take the collective cake. But if it was, Lee’s dramatic and unexpected improvements would a strong case make, and that’s as surprising as anything.
*Statistical support provided by NBA.com
Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.