It says a lot about the rapid rise of the Golden State Warriors when the team's only All-Star might have to fight for his starting job in training camp.
But that's the reality for David Lee. Harrison Barnes emerged as a terrifying threat in the Warriors' small-ball attack during the 2012-13 postseason. Along with his rapid development, the acquisition of Andre Iguodala has created a hankering for an undersized, uptempo starting unit.
Should the Warriors seriously think about sending Lee to the bench? Actually, it's a tougher question than you might think.
Lee off the Bench? Tell Me More...
Jarrett Jack is out of the picture, which means the Warriors won't have a ball-dominating guard controlling things with the second unit. But Lee is a guy through whom the Dubs can reliably run an offense, which makes him a prime candidate to captain the team's reserves.
Admittedly, it's a bit unrealistic to think that Golden State will play many non-garbage-time minutes without either Stephen Curry or Iguodala on the floor to manage distribution duties. But if one or the other isn't on the court, the Warriors could benefit from using Lee as an offensive focal point.
Lee is a dominant, efficient offensive player who would eat reserve defenders alive.
Last year, he was spectacular in every offensive area except for spot-up shooting. Even there, though, he rated as a league-average player. According to Synergy (login required), he was elite as a post-up scoring threat and nearly as good on cuts, on the offensive glass and as a pick-and-roll option.
Overall, he made the Warriors more than seven points better per 100 possessions on offense when he was on the floor, according to 82games.com.
Knowing all that, it seems appropriate to ask what Lee has possibly done to warrant a benching. The truth is that Lee hasn't done anything to deserve a trip to the pine. Instead, any potential demotion for Lee would be based on a need to strengthen an area that looks a little weak.
In a way, that's a testament to his value. There aren't many forwards who could transform a bench unit on their own.
At present, the Dubs have Jermaine O'Neal and Marreese Speights slated to play most of the backup frontcourt minutes. With O'Neal nearing eligibility for his AARP card and Speights providing little in the way of consistency, Lee could give the Warriors' bench a real shot of stability.
The starting lineup will be just fine either way, but Lee's particular skills might be more helpful to the reserves than those of the inexperienced Barnes.
The real benefit to bringing Lee off the bench is the way it would turn the starting lineup into a small-ball wrecking crew. The world saw how effective Barnes could be as an undersized power forward during last season's playoffs. And considering Lee's well-documented defensive shortcomings, it's not as though the Dubs would be giving up much in the way of stopping power.
By going with a smaller starting group, Golden State would force other teams to adjust in a way that might cause some discomfort. The Warriors thrive in an up-and-down game where transition opportunities materialize out of chaos. Starting Barnes at the 4 would create tons of space, up the tempo and lead to lots of open shots for all four of the Warriors' perimeter threats.
Even if it sounds a little scary to send an All-Star to the bench, you have to admit that the prospect of Golden State trotting out such an athletic, dangerous starting unit is intriguing.
Are You Kidding Me?
Time for brass tacks, guys: Lee is set to make almost $14 million next season. Players with paychecks like that don't come off the bench. It just doesn't happen.
There's an idealistic counterargument that runs as follows, though: Lee is also an emotional leader in the locker room and by all accounts an unselfish teammate who just wants to win. Along with Curry, he's the heartbeat of the team. If anyone would be willing to put aside his pride and take a lesser role, it'd be Lee.
Come on, though: Condemning the team's first All-Star in more than two decades to bench duties is a bridge too far.
Plus, the things Lee does well have been a major part of the Warriors' rapid overhaul. In 2011-12, Golden State ranked dead last in defensive rebounding rate, per ESPN. Opposing teams feasted on the offensive glass, essentially playing volleyball and creating second and third chances to score.
Last season, the Warriors put a stop to that, vaulting all the way to No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rebound rate. Lee was at the center of that remarkable turnaround, hauling in a whopping 668 defensive boards, a figure bettered by just two players: Dwight Howard and Omer Asik.
Taking Lee out of the starting lineup would reduce his role in a way that would be detrimental to the tougher interior identity the Warriors worked so hard to forge. Maybe Iguodala and Barnes (an excellent rebounder as a small forward) could make up some of the difference, but Lee practically owned the defensive glass all by himself last year.
Do the Dubs really want to mess with the guy who was responsible for their biggest statistical improvement?
And offensively, where do the Warriors find interior scoring if Lee's not on the floor? Since his devastating elbow injury, Bogut has lost nearly all of his touch inside. Barnes could develop a post game, but it seems a safe assumption to say he won't ever be Lee's equal on the block.
The NBA is moving toward a more perimeter-oriented game, but without Lee in the starting lineup the Dubs would really struggle to score in the paint.
Little to Gain, Lots to Lose
Practically, it doesn't really matter which five players start for the Warriors, because head coach Mark Jackson is going to play his best lineup for heavy minutes no matter what. Some nights, Lee might be part of said best lineup. On others, matchups could dictate that Barnes is a better fit.
Regardless of who starts, Barnes and Lee are both going to play a ton. And both should expect to find themselves on the floor when it matters. The symbolic importance of being a starter will have little effect on Golden State's on-court production.
But one area where that symbolic importance matters is in the locker room.
Lee has paid his dues. He's a veteran, an All-Star and a leader. Ripping the title of "starter" away from him and giving it to a promising but ultimately unproven second-year player could create dissension in the ranks.
Golden State's roster is populated almost exclusively by high-character players, which minimizes the chances of a rift within the team. But why risk it?
From a statistical standpoint, there's nothing to gain by starting Barnes. So there's no sense in taking a chance—however small it might be—on upsetting the team's terrific chemistry. Lee should remain a starter.