“The core is still intact in Golden State with Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, [Andris] Biedrins, and [Anthony] Morrow to name some of them,” said David Lee after agreeing to be traded to the Warriors in 2010. “We have a chance to do some special things with a good young core that can grow together. It turns into a great situation.”
The Warriors were coming off a 25-56 season. The roster included the talented but lanky Curry, a quick but misguided Ellis, an overpaid Corey Maggette, an injured Biedrins and enough journeyman for multiple teams.
This was nothing new for the Warriors, who, aside from their improbable series win against the Dallas Mavericks just two seasons before, were the doormats of the league. They were far from a destination, and in the midst of the much-heralded free agency class of 2010 that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Warriors were on the outside looking in.
Enter David Lee, an All-Star in New York – albeit an injury replacement – and the low-post threat that the team had been searching for since Chris Webber departed. He wasn’t the superstar Warriors fans dreamt about, but it was a start.
The signing represented Joe Lacob’s first move as spearhead of the franchise, which saw the new majority owner offer Lee a six-year, $80 million deal. No single acquisition could erase decades of ineptitude, but the sign-and-trade for Lee gave hope to a fan base itching for any inkling of success.
Despite the dollars involved, there was no immediate payoff: the Warriors fired Don Nelson, finished 36-46 the following season and despite Lee’s impressive numbers, the team was only marginally better. They weren’t a force, but only the most ambitious fans thought Lee alone would push them to the postseason.
The franchise was still recovering from the clasps of Chris Cohan, and it would take years before the Warriors found their stride under new ownership. Lee was the earliest symbol of such change, even during the empty seasons. He represented a different type of acquisition for the team, one from actual desire instead of a player simply accepting a deal because it was the most lavish.
Much like the Sacramento Kings are experiencing now, the Warriors had to overpay for any player of value. Whether it was Erick Dampier, Derek Fisher or Corey Maggette, Golden State had whiffed on many free agent talents even when ownership was willing to pay for it. Lacob’s approval of the deal marked the beginning of a new era, one that many fans hoped would be free of turmoil, mopeds and losing.
It wasn’t until the 2012-13 season that the deal began to pay serious dividends. Lee was an important locker room presence and talent to complement Curry, but it didn’t translate into team success in the early stages. Lee made the All-Star team again in 2013 with averages of 19.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 37.6 minutes. He represented the first Warriors All-Star since Latrell Sprewell in 1997 and for the first time since 2007, the Warriors were a playoff team.
Unfortunately for Lee, he injured his right hip in his first playoff game against the Denver Nuggets that season. While he would return later that series, he clearly wasn’t healthy and the team was eliminated the following round. The following season ended in a first-round exit at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, though the Warriors were missing their center Andrew Bogut.
The David Lee era officially ended on Tuesday, almost five years to the day he was acquired from New York. Lee will be sent to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Gerald Wallace and much needed luxury tax relief – to the tune of at least $20 million] – for the coming season.
Lee’s role took on many forms over his five seasons with the Warriors. Initially, Lee was seen as the free agent coup the team had been looking for years. His presence inside was vibrant early, despite criticism of his performance on the defensive end and the idea of “empty” stats.
After the Warriors acquired Bogut, the critiquing of Lee reached peak levels. Lee’s deficiencies on the defensive side became even clearer with Bogut anchoring, and suddenly the double-double machine was seen as a detriment to the team’s rising expectations.
The team’s success without Lee – with Harrison Barnes at the 4 – in the 2012-13 playoffs only heightened talks of a potential move. Once seen as the necessary offensive pick-and-roll threat to compliment Curry, Lee quickly evolved into the defensive negative that was holding the team back.
Lacob continued to stand by his prized acquisition, but it became clear that the team wouldn’t reach their full potential with Lee starting at power forward; not with Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph and Serge Ibaka residing in the West. It wasn’t until Steve Kerr was hired – and another injury to Lee to start the season – that the necessary move was made: starting a much-improved (and future max player) Draymond Green with Lee coming off the bench.
The Warriors started 31-5 and just like that, Lee was a forgotten man. His contributions were suddenly lost and his presence no longer needed. The team thrived playing “small” with Green starting at power forward, and with Kerr’s new offensive system in place they quickly became the scariest team in the league. When Lee returned, his minutes were scarce and his production diminished.
The tremendous success of the 2014-15 season – which saw the Warriors finish with a championship and the third-best record of all-time (83-20) – came with little on-court production from Lee. He was the “odd man out,” as Kerr put it, as the team experienced levels of success not seen since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams.
With a charisma and tone suitable for public office, Lee was once seen as the voice of reason. He was repeatedly interviewed following games and did so without complaint. This season, with his diminished role, he was an afterthought. He would shower, change at his locker and leave without much fanfare while others – most notably Green – replaced Lee against the wall where the cameras and microphones would crowd.
“We’re winning and we’re having fun,” Lee said in March. “It’s hard at times. I couldn’t do this if we weren’t winning. But we are. I’m not going to put myself ahead of that.”
This is what ultimately will be remembered about Lee’s tenure with Golden State: that even through the coaching changes, the inflated stats and the benching, he remained a professional throughout. There was no public cry for more minutes, no trade requests and most importantly, no negative energy that would further effect the team.
This team-first attitude is what makes Lee’s departure not one of sadness or relief, but of gratification. Whether it was the smiles and subsequent champagne showers following their title-clinching victory in Cleveland or holding the Larry O’Brien trophy atop his float during the parade, one can’t help but feel happy for him.
Lee gave the franchise his all and was rewarded with the ultimate goal: a championship. He’s now a Celtic, which should open the door for a larger role and potential starting spot, but his contributions to the Warriors can’t be overlooked. His presence waned, but only in the eyes of those outside the team.
From savior to scapegoat to sympathy figure, Lee ended his career with important contributions at the highest possible stage. Lee will be remembered fondly as one who sacrificed and ultimately succeeded on levels not considered possible with this franchise a few years ago.
From rallying cry to reality, Lee helped make this full squad one to remember.