By Tim Greene (@tenpercenttony)
Fans are fickle. Our estimations of certain players shift drastically from season to season, and often from game to game. Rooting for a winning team has a way of magnifying this tendency. The nagging flaws in a starter’s game—and every starter has them—are inflated, while the skills that gave the player his position in the starting lineup are minimized. This goes both ways: role players inevitably have runs of good play, and this can lead to calls for the starter’s head.
So it has gone for the Golden State Warriors’ All-Star front-liner David Lee.
After Lee went down with a hip injury late last year, then-rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green stepped in to fill the void. Their combined effort was a primary reason the plucky Warriors squad took down the Denver Nuggets in the first round and pushed the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs to the limit in the second.
The rookies’ play in the playoffs last year, combined with Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland’s mid-season revelation that, by the numbers, Lee was by far one of the league’s worst-defending big men, led to calls from the fan community to start Barnes in Lee’s power forward slot and bring Lee off the bench as a sixth-man.
But over the Warriors’ recent 10-game win streak—which ended in Wednesday night’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets—Lee illustrated why he remains a contender for an All-Star slot and a crucial piece of the starting unit. During the streak, he averaged 22.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per-game while shooting 61.4 percent from the field and 84.2 percent from the line. While Lee’s recent play has quelled most calls to bring him off the bench, it has also prompted many Warriors fans to call for Lee to be traded while his value is high.
That would be a mistake.
Lee’s recent numbers are gaudy to be sure, but they obscure to some extent his very real improvement on the defensive end. This has been a season-long trend. Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly, Lee has become a more efficient offensive player this year as well.
Let’s start with defense. Goldsberry reported last year that, as of the date of his study, opposing players made 61 percent of their close-range field goals when Lee was defending within five feet of the shot. That’s a horrendous number. To put it in context, Roy Hibbert and Larry Sanders held their opponents to nearly 38 percent in the same range. League average, according to Goldsberry, was 49.7 percent.
This year, by contrast, Lee is holding opponents to a mere 48.8 percent field goal percentage within five feet from the rim while facing 6.1 shot attempts per game from that space. (Among others, Dan Lewis over at Hickory High recently noted Lee’s improvement on the defensive end as well.) While he’s no Hibbert (40.4 percent on 9.3 shots faced) or Sanders (39.2 percent on 6.4 shots faced), that’s a fairly extreme improvement over last year’s numbers. His numbers place him near the league-average along with players like Andre Drummond (48.3 percent on 8.1 shots faced) and Derrick Favors (49.4 percent on 9.1 shots faced). It just goes to show how team-based NBA defense is.
Andrew Bogut (43.7 percent on 8.1 shots faced) is healthy and defending at an elite level, Klay Thompson continues to improve, and Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green are collectively wrecking shop on opposing wings. All of this makes Lee’s job easier. Lee still struggles to defend quicker players in the pick and roll, and he probably couldn’t block a shot if his life depended on it, but he’s at least trying. As a result, he’s playing big minutes on the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense. It’s paying off.
Now, let’s turn to offense. During the Warriors’ recent win streak, Lee has indeed put on an incredible run of efficiency. He hasn’t shot below 50 percent in a game since mid-December. But it’s a mischaracterization to say, as many did, that he had been a shell of his former self offensively before the streak. He had indeed been struggling from midrange, but adapted gracefully.
Before the streak, Lee had been shooting 56.1 percent within eight feet of the rim. That’s a couple of percentage points below his 58.2 mark from last year, but it’s nothing major. The season is long, and his recent hot streak has brought the mark back up to 58.5 percent. Lee’s arsenal of tips, lay-ins, and flip shots has remained consistently potent from last year to now.
More troubling was his accuracy from midrange, which is the area most Warriors fans had become worried about. Before the streak, Lee was shooting 31.9 percent from 8-16 feet from the rim and 24.4 percent from 16-24 feet. Last year? The numbers were a much more palatable 43.2 percent from 8-16 and 42.1 percent from 16-24.
Pre-streak, Lee’s 18-footers looked more like line drives than pop flies; as a result, he rimmed nearly everything out. During the streak, he hit 66.7 percent of his 8-16 foot shots and 45.8 percent of his 16-24 footers. The reality of David Lee’s midrange game lies somewhere in the middle. He’s certainly not as bad as he showed early in the year, nor can he keep up this torrid pace.
However, shot distance doesn’t tell the whole story. What’s most interesting about Lee’s shooting this year is his improved shot selection. The shot charts below illustrate Lee’s shooting prowess both last season and this year (courtesy of NBA.com).
[2012-13 on left; 2013-14 on right.]
As should be obvious, even after the streak Lee’s still ice-cold from pretty much everywhere but the 8-16 foot area to the left of the hoop. But in that lower left block area, Lee has been nearly unstoppable all year. In particular, he loves to catch the ball near the left elbow and spin to his right, where he can put the ball in with his dominant left hand.
Here are some particularly good examples of this move:
Basically, even though Lee has been terrible from areas in which he was at least league-average (the yellow areas) and even above league-average (the green areas) last year, his overall field goal percentage has actually improved from last year’s 51.9 percent to 53.3 percent after the winning streak. It’s all about shot selection.
The charts below show Lee’s shot distribution from last year and this year, respectively (courtesy of NBA.com).
[2012-13 on the left, 2013-14 on the right.]
Lee is living at the rim this year, and has strategically limited his midrange shooting to maximize his points per possession. It’s reasonable to assume he will improve his shooting numbers from those other areas, where Lee has been putting up numbers well below his career averages. Should that occur, we should expect a David Lee who can put up at least 20 points per night with even less stress than usual.
David Lee has made huge improvements this year on both sides of the ball. He can operate within the Warriors’ defensive system without crippling it—even if he’s still not much of a defensive playmaker—and has significantly improved his offensive efficiency within the bounds of his skillset. Lee’s not likely to become a three-point threat, nor do the Warriors need him to be. But by concentrating on getting his shots at the rim and from spots in the midrange where he’s most comfortable and effective, he can provide the consistent offensive production the team needs down low.
20 points and 10 rebounds per night, league-average defense, ever-improving shot-selection and finishing, even headier movement off the ball—what more could you want from the guy?
Statistical support provided by NBA.com/Stats, Basketball Reference, and Synergy Sports.