David Lee is a basketball enigma.

He’s somewhere between elite and below-average athletically.  He’s a black-hole and a point forward.  He’s left-handed but finishes equally well in the paint with his right.  His effort superficially fluctuates on a possession to possession basis.  He’s the league-leader with 50 double-doubles but hardly seems it.  He’s his team’s lone All-Star despite the fact he’s its second best player.

And perhaps more important and indicative than anything else about Lee, he’s great and he’s awful all at the same time, a perfect case study for modern day analytics and how to weigh the impact of offense with respect to defense and vice-versa.

So we know all that.  The well-educated, stats-centric NBA jury is still out on Lee and it’s likely to be for the remainder of his career.  A player this rightfully maligned and chastised for his defensive play can’t suddenly turn the tables approaching 30 years-old, just as one with skills the inverse of Lee’s can’t, either.  Lee is what he is, a uniquely gifted and effective offense player with an overall influence that toes the line of nothing for his considerable weaknesses on defense.

But on nights like yesterday’s, in games that Lee carries the Warriors to a crucial home win with 23 points, 16 rebounds and four assists while playing with sustained and unmatched  effort, the player he really is shouldn’t matter.  Lee wasn’t only scoring, rebounding and facilitating above his typically awesome levels, but he shouted pick-and-roll instructions, closed out on shooters and tried to play with awareness that easily belie his normal defensive acumen.

Basically, Lee gave his damndest effort on defense in last night’s win over the Hornets.  Or, at least assumed a perfect impression of a player doing so.  In a game where most Warriors slept through the opening quarter, his early hustle and activityhelped keep Golden State within easy striking distance and was maintained once his team had the lead for good.

Whether or not Lee’s energy made for real defensive impact is open to interpretation, but the tone it helped to foster certainly isn’t.  If he’d come out as flat as his teammates, it’s likely the Warriors leave Oracle last night just a half game ahead of Houston for the conference’s sixth playoff seed.  With every team hoping to avoid San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, the importance of yesterday’s win can’t be stressed enough.

There’s an ongoing debate as to the genesis of Lee’s defensive struggles – is it simple physical deficiency? A misunderstanding of concepts? Perhaps general apathy? The answer is that it’s a combination of all three aspects, and also that it doesn’t really matter; Lee isn’t changing.

Defensive engagement and action – impactful, meaningful or otherwise – is all we can ask of and expect from Lee at this point.  And given the obvious benefits of his game on the other end, that should be enough to warrant acclaim.  It doesn’t mean he’s an All-Star or should be a franchise cornerstone, but as long as energy like last night’s is consistently evident, it certainly means he’s a player the Warriors can count on come playoff time.

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