While he was a key contributor in leading the Warriors to 47 regular-season wins and just their second trip to the postseason since 1994 (league-best 56 double-doubles, 19.2 player efficiency rating), he wasn't around long enough to help them lengthen their playoff stay.
A torn right hip flexor in Game 1 of Golden State's opening-round series with the Denver Nuggets cut the eight-year veteran's playoff debut drastically short. While initial reports ruled him out for the remainder of the postseason, he miraculously battled his way back onto the floor.
It was an admirable move to say the least, but the damage had clearly already been done. The injury largely restricted him to spot duty, never playing more than 13 minutes or reaching double-digit points.
But the crushing blow to Lee was in no way a death sentence for his Warriors. In fact, they won four of their next five games, eliminating the sixth-seeded Nuggets in six games.
Their playoff run was upended six games later by the San Antonio Spurs, but their season was still seen as an overwhelming success.
The question on everyone's mind was how this team was able to not only survive in Lee's absence, but thrive without its fallen star.
History has produced a number of teams that have drawn an emotional lift from the loss of a premier participant.
But the Warriors' success saw more tangible factors coming to the surface.
The loss of Lee gave coach Mark Jackson some flexibility with his starting five. Against the speedy, athletic Nuggets, he added Jarrett Jack and later Carl Landry to his opening lineup. Once the bigger, more physical Spurs came on the schedule, Jackson shuttled Landry, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green into the starting 4 spot.
Jack and Harrison Barnes (16.1 points per game in the postseason) added to the team's offensive firepower. Ezeli and Green helped build a formidable defensive front alongside Andrew Bogut. Landry brought a familiar touch, scrapping for offensive rebounds and dropping in mid-range jumpers out of pick-and-pop sets.
Had Jackson discovered an unlikely silver lining in Lee's loss? Were the Warriors even better off without him?
Golden State's front office certainly hopes not. Lee's on the books for the next three seasons, owed more than $44 million over that time, according to Hoops Hype.
The Warriors have enough financial problems to worry about as it is.
Seldom-used reserves Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins are set to collect more than $20 million combined next season. Bogut's nagging ankle injury has the potential to make the $14.2 million left on his contract become a tremendous burden.
Could Lee's scoring (18.5) and rebounding (11.2) averages have just been a mirage—empty statistics over impactful substance?
There's a smattering of evidence that seems to suggest yes but a 79-game sample screaming a resounding no.
Lee has his problems. His defensive deficiencies were often glaring, even when Bogut was healthy enough to watch his back. His offensive outbursts had a tendency to fizzle in late-game situations or when he was paired up with a defender capable of meeting (or exceeding) his strength and athleticism.
But his presence on the floor could have meant the difference between watching the Western Conference Finals and actually participating in them.
The Warriors clearly needed another scorer on the floor when the Spurs figured out ways to silence the Splash Brothers (Curry and Thompson shot just 35.5 percent from the field after Game 2). They craved any kind of interior presence to relieve some pressure from the perimeter.
Lee's not a natural post scorer, but he knows how to free himself near the basket and has a soft touch with either hand. Once the defensive attention shifts his way, he's a gifted spotter and spent the season developing a keen eye for his sharpshooters. He's an emotional leader, the kind to instill confidence even when faced with a pair of elimination games.
Is he overpaid? Probably, but the ink has long ago dried on his contract, and those salary figures won't change. Is he valuable to this franchise? Absolutely, he's a veteran leader capable of lightening the offensive load placed on Curry's fragile ankles.
The Warriors' future is bright, and Lee will play a prominent role in helping them maximize their potential.
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