Can Warriors' Playoff Hopes Survive David Lee's Season-Ending Injury?
There's no getting around the fact that Lee made the Warriors a better offensive team. On the season, Golden State scored 109.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, but just 102 when he sat.
Plus, the versatile power forward figured to play a particularly large role in the Warriors' first-round series against the Denver Nuggets. George Karl's club made a concerted effort to blitz Stephen Curry in Game 1, forcing the ball out of his hands in the pick-and-roll at every opportunity.
That defensive decision left Lee open a number of times between the elbow and the top of the circle, an area where he normally excels. A reliable mid-range shot, an excellent passing eye and the ability to drive with either hand have made Lee a dangerous option there all season.
That figured to be the case during the playoffs as well.
He certainly didn't take advantage of the opportunity in Game 1, but every Golden State player (except for Klay Thompson) looked a little gun-shy in that contest. Lee would've played a major strategic role in this series.
Mark Jackson's Options
When looking for clues about how coach Mark Jackson will fill Lee's minutes, there aren't many to be found from the regular season because Lee missed just three games this past year.
On Jan. 19, Golden State beat the New Orleans Hornets without Lee, and it's no surprise that Carl Landry, an able backup all season long, played 38 minutes and posted a double-double in the effort. He'll start and absorb the vast majority of Lee's playing time.
In support of Landry, expect to see a few more minutes from Draymond Green, who's a favorite of Jackson because of his basketball IQ and competitiveness. Green finished plenty of games for the Dubs in 2012-13 and was on the floor for the final stretch in Game 1. He'll probably be there again.
On Feb. 27, Lee sat out again after being suspended for tangling with Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert. Green got the start in that one, but only because the Knicks played small. Landry still logged 32 minutes, scoring 15 points while getting to the line a team-high 10 times.
Oh, and Curry erupted for 54 points in the narrow loss.
Finally, on March 9, Golden State compensated for an absent Lee by again starting Landry and getting 25 minutes off the bench from Green. Landry was dominant in that one, scoring 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting and grabbing 10 boards.
Clearly, Landry is the man at the 4 now. He's almost certain to log at least 30 minutes in relief of Lee for the balance of the series. But that won't surprise any regular viewer of the Warriors, and frankly, it shouldn't be cause for concern either. Landry was easily one of the very best backup forwards in the NBA this past season, and his PER of 17.6 isn't all that far behind the 19.2 that Lee posted.
However, while he's a solid replacement because of his superior physicality and understanding of team defense, Landry is certainly not the dynamic offensive force that Lee was.
Outside of Landry and Green, don't expect the Warriors' rotation to undergo any significant changes throughout the rest of their playoff run.
Andris Biedrins has been an afterthought for months, having played a grand total of 20 minutes in the Warriors' final 23 regular-season games. His total unwillingness to involve himself on offense for fear of being fouled makes him virtually unplayable. That's been the case for the better part of three years, so don't expect it to change now.
Jackson also can't play rookie Festus Ezeli alongside center Andrew Bogut, as that duo would give up too much on the offensive end and would never be able to keep up with the Nuggets' pace. Plus, Ezeli has to be able to give Bogut at least 20 minutes of rest in order to keep the Aussie big man fresh.
Going small is always an option for the Warriors, but it's certainly one the team has tried to avoid as much as possible this season. Aside from the commonly used Lee-Landry frontcourt tandem, Golden State has kept a center on the floor as much as possible. After ranking dead last in the NBA in defensive rebounding for five straight years, the Warriors led the league in that stat this past year precisely because they stayed big.
How Much Will Lee's Absence Really Hurt?
Logically, the Warriors will miss Lee, but it may not be as simple as looking at the numbers and concluding that Landry and Co. will represent a downgrade from Lee.
Points probably won't be hard to come by for either team during the balance of the series; the sub-100 outputs by both clubs in Game 1 seemed to be caused more by nerves than any kind of trend we're likely to see repeated.
Both the Nuggets and the Warriors ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency during the year, so there's no reason to believe that buckets will be at a premium.
Golden State will score points no matter who it trots out in the frontcourt as long as Curry and Thompson can get open looks, so perhaps the fact that Landry will provide a little grit down low counts for more than it otherwise would.
Put another way, Lee gave the Warriors more of what they already get from a number of sources: scoring. Landry gives them something that few others on the roster can: muscle.
We've seen the Los Angeles Lakers suddenly transform into a good defensive team in the absence of Kobe Bryant, by far their worst team defender, so the Warriors may be in for the same kind of metamorphosis with Lee out of the lineup.
Sure, it might seem like a stretch to say the Warriors could actually improve without Lee. But the truth is they really don't have to.
The Nuggets must deal with their own nicks and bruises (not to mention more serious injuries, like the torn ACL that knocked Danilo Gallinari out for the season). With Ty Lawson suffering from a cranky heel and Kenneth Faried listed as probable for Game 2 because of a bum ankle, Denver is hardly at full strength itself.
Also consider this: Lee played horribly in Game 1 and the Warriors would have stolen a victory if not for the incredible old-man resurgence of Andre Miller.
It's safe to assume that the Warriors will get a better performance from Stephen Curry than they got in Game 1, too. The sharpshooter started the contest by missing his first nine shots and looked strangely passive in the early going.
Bank on a bounce-back game in Game 2 from the Western Conference's Player of the Month in April.
Ultimately, Denver is just as vulnerable as the Warriors are, and while Lee's injury probably doesn't make Golden State's chances to pull off an upset markedly better, it really doesn't make them a whole lot worse either.
The Warriors can still win this series without Lee.
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