David Lee is about as thoughtful an NBA player as there is. He’s guarded in his comments to the media and seems keenly aware of how he can use his intelligence to shape the way he’s perceived by the public. Watch any interview with him, and you’ll notice he’s firmly in control, never giving up more than he wants to while speaking with a uniquely refined and somehow polite dismissiveness.
In his career so far, he’s used his media savvy to foster the perception that he’s a hard-working player who just wants to win. And to Lee’s credit, his play on the floor has reflected that image…to a degree.
You see, Lee definitely plays hard. There’s no question that he’s exerting as much effort as anyone when he’s on the floor. He has also played through injury, returning too soon after the grisly gash he got from Wilson Chandler’s tooth became infected in 2010. And he has often been forced to guard bigger players when used as an out-of-position center. Although he was awful in that spot and was essentially destined to fail, he never complained about having to play it.
But in addition to all of that, Lee was a puzzlingly poor defensive player who only seemed interested in putting forth his trademark effort on one end of the floor. Fair or not, that earned him the ire of many writers and NBA analysts.
That’s why it’s so interesting that David Lee is starting to say some different things—some things that reveal he’s not only self-aware, but that he’s cognizant of some of the public’s negative perceptions of him.
Like, for example, that he often cares a little too much about his stats. Or that he believes he’s got to put up big numbers for his team to be successful.
In an interview with CBS Sports’ Matt Moore, Lee’s change in philosophy was on full display.
I wouldn't be surprised this year if my numbers go down a little bit just because there's more balance on our team. I don't think me scoring 22 points a game, 25 points a game, shooting all the shots is necessarily going to translate into us being a playoff team. I welcome the fact that whatever my numbers end up being, that we can get a whole lot more wins on the board.
Now, to be fair, Lee has had the ability to say the right things for as long as he’s been in the league. As we’ve established, he’s no dummy. But what he’s saying now is different, because it indicates a realization that he has to change in order for his team to be successful.
In the past, it was clear that he always believed he simply had to do more. This is a big step for Lee.
Because there’s a huge difference between trying harder to do the same thing and trying to do something different. Based on the shared history of David Lee and the Warriors, it’s abundantly clear that it’s time for both parties to give up on doing “more of the same.” Instead, it’s time to try something new—like sacrificing for the team, doing the intangibles and playing a little help defense for heaven’s sake.
Maybe we’re reading too much into Lee’s comments, and maybe reading anything into what he says is a fool’s errand. After all, he’s a shrewd interviewee who understands how he can manipulate public perception.
But there’s no denying that Lee is at least somewhat aware of a segment of critics that have chastised him for putting up misleading, meaningless numbers that don’t necessarily lead to wins. He said it himself: “The biggest thing is to be on a winning team. I’ve done a lot of things individually with numbers. I think we’re a playoff-caliber team…I think all the individual stuff will come.”
Whether Lee is serious about his numbers taking a backseat to winning or not, at least he knows people think he probably should be. For a guy so aware of—and concerned with—what other people think of him, that’s a start.
We may very well be witnessing the basketball maturation of David Lee.