It was little over a year ago when the Golden State Warriors made a bold move to acquire David Lee in a sign-and-trade deal with the New York Knicks, sending away key reserves such as Kelenna Azubuike, Ronny Turiaf and the untapped potential of forward Anthony Randolph.
Lee flourished in Mike D’Antoni’s system with his solid mid-range jumper and superb pick-and-roll game, earning a trip to the All-Star Game in 2009-2010. Lee finished fourth in the league that season with 53 double-doubles, along with 20.2 points per game and 11.7 rebounds per contest.
Then, Lee inked an $80 million, six-year contract with the Warriors to play alongside the likes of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry.
Fast forward to 2012, and Golden State is still a sub-.500 team struggling to contend for a playoff spot. Fans and analysts alike have been highly critical of Lee’s role on the team, citing his lack of efficiency, mediocre defense and hefty contract as crippling factors to the Warriors success.
There are many explanations for why the Warriors aren’t winning, but is Lee the rightful scapegoat?
Simply put, the answer is no. In fact, he’s quite underrated. Let’s go over the numbers.
Lee is currently averaging 18.6 points per game along with grabbing 10.6 rebounds in the 14 games he’s played in this season. While these are down from his 2010 totals, it is important to keep in mind that Lee is not the No. 1 option on this Golden State squad like he was with the Knicks.
Averaging a double-double a game is no easy feat in the NBA, and Lee is doing it as the second, third (behind a healthy Curry) and sometimes fourth (behind Dorell Wright if he can ever get his shot together) option.
While Lee’s 51.2 percent field goal percentage is down from his career average (.545), note that the types of shots Lee has been taking with the Warriors are a tad more arduous. Golden State favors using Lee as a mid-range catch and shooter.
While he does possess a deadly 20-foot jumper at times, his shooting efficiency has adjusted accordingly from taking more shots from that distance.
Lee does more for the team than score and rebound, however. He’s an excellent distributor out of the post, ranking fifth among power forwards in assists last season at 3.2 assists per game and has averaged a steal per game for the past four seasons.
Lee, also takes care of the basketball as well, turning the ball over just 1.7 times per game over the course of his six-year career.
While it is true that the 6'9" Lee’s defense can be suspect, Lee does fairly well when matched up favorably. In the Warriors 99-91 upset win over the formidable Chicago Bulls at Oracle earlier this season, Lee shut down Carlos Boozer, allowing the Bulls high priced forward just six points on 3-7 shooting and just three rebounds.
Last season, Lee snapped Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love’s 53-game double-double streak in Oakland, holding the former Bruin to just six points.
Now, this by no means certifies Lee as a consistent post presence. However, Lee is not a helpless defensive handicap that his critics make him out to be. Lee tends to have mild success defending the more finesse big men around the league (such as Love) and can hang with more physical guys, so long as they are around his size.
As far as his contract goes, Lee does carry a lavish price tag for what he brings to the table. He eats about $11.6 million of the team’s $58 million salary cap, but that isn’t enough to prevent the team from signing other big-name free agents.
Lee is overpaid, but it’s hard to find an established veteran in his second contract that isn’t.
If cash is really the concern, Warriors fans need not look further than Andris Biedrins ($9 million, two years remaining) and Kwame Brown ($7 million, one year) to exert their woes on.
Lee is no complete player by any means, but is a great forward nonetheless. Paired with the right supporting big man, the Warriors could play the stalwart defensive style of basketball that head coach Mark Jackson dreams of.
For now, bay area basketball fans are better off patiently waiting for the arrival of another piece to the puzzle, rather than extricating Lee and demanding that he be traded. Every team could use a low post scorer and vicious rebounder like Lee, and should be in the future plans for the team’s success.