There was only one problem. Lee had painted a lot of that picture himself.
Without him, there's a missing link that effectively revokes this team's contender status. He's far from a perfect player, but he's an irreplaceable piece of this puzzle.
Undeservedly Becoming the Bad Guy
For so long, this was the league's forgotten franchise. Between a decade-plus playoff drought, a 16-year gap between All-Star Game representation and a vague geographical affiliation, this was the team fans either didn't care about or didn't even know about.
But that veil of anonymity has been lifted.
After a spirited run to the 2013 Western Conference semis and a headline-grabbing offseason signing (Andre Iguodala), fans know all about these Warriors. Like them, even.
Who wouldn't? There's a likable character for every type of fan.
Stephen Curry's the superstar, a dead-eye shooter with fill-in-the-blank range. Klay Thompson's the other half of the Splash Brothers, a historically proficient perimeter pairing. Andre Iguodala is the X-factor, Andrew Bogut's the enforcer and Harrison Barnes is the drool-worthy prospect with a drool-worthy highlight reel.
When so much of the roster is bringing five-star entertainment, it's all too easy to overlook the lunch-pail-toting guy doing the dirty work:
With so much Stephen and Klay, you forget the Warriors have David Lee.— Shandel Richardson (@ShandelRich) January 3, 2014
Lee's blue-collar role naturally keeps him out of the spotlight. Even worse, the attention that comes his way is rarely positive.
His contract is burdensome. The 30-year-old is raking in $13.8 million this season and has another two years and $30.5 million left on his deal, via ShamSports.com.
He wasn't around for (most of) Golden State's postseason success. A torn hip flexor sidelined him early in the playoff run, and a shift to small ball without him seemed to give this offense a spark.
He's an impact player at both ends of the floor, but his imprint is only a positive at one side. His good end also happens to be the same side Golden State dominated during its down days. He looks like a player built for those blank-firing run-and-gun teams, not this suddenly stingy squad (98.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, fourth overall).
The team tantalizes with talent and upside. Lee isn't going to get any better—or cheaper—over the life of his deal.
He's an obvious target for anyone trying to nitpick Golden State's rise.
But he's an even more obvious piece of the Dubs' championship plans.
Ideal No. 2 Option
In order to gain relevance, the Warriors had to get defensive. But when this team needs to pad its resume, it makes those statements at the opposite end.
When the Dubs have needed to bring their best, they've let their explosive offense do the talking. They averaged 114.7 points in those three signature wins, nearly six points more than the league's highest-scoring offense (Portland Trail Blazers, 109.0 points per game).
When this offense is clicking, that means Lee is right at the center of the action. He does things that no one else on this roster does.
"Active, aggressive, running the floor, defending, rebounding," coach Mark Jackson said, via Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "When he plays that way, we're a totally different basketball team."
In the simplest terms, he's a safety valve for this attack. Defenses are doing what they can to limit Curry's effectiveness—and having little success judging by his 23.3 points and 9.6 assists—meaning he's getting squeezed on nearly all of his touches.
Lee is the ultimate supportive scorer, someone who consistently punishes teams for paying too much attention to Curry.
He's the perfect pick partner for Curry and Iguodala. He has the shooting touch to pop out for a mid-range look, the strength to finish rolls to the basket and the vision to spot open teammates at any step of the play.
Working as a solo artist, he can do damage from the high post or the low block. He dribbles well enough to drive past slower defenders and has a feathery soft touch over either shoulder in the post. On the season, he's produced at top-40 levels in isolations (1.03 points per possession, 10th), post-up chances (0.90, 35th) and transition plays (1.29, 29th).
For a team so woefully short on creators—outside of Iguodala and Curry, no one else can consistently make their own chances—Lee's ball skills are a tremendous asset.
He can read defenses and knows how to react to them. When the Miami Heat hounded Curry on Thursday, Lee was more than ready for his chances. He torched the two-time defending champs for 32 points (on 13-of-17 shooting), 14 rebounds and three assists, helping power the Dubs to a critical 123-114 road win:
I don't personally remember ever seeing David Lee play a more complete and impressive game than he did tonight in Ws win at Miami.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) January 3, 2014
He's not a good defender by any stretch, but the Warriors are figuring out how to make it work. Golden State's already impressive defensive rating actually gets slightly better (98.3) when Lee is on the floor.
Throw in the fact that he (9.8 rebounds per game) and Andrew Bogut (10.1) have helped lead Golden State to the league's second-highest rebounding percentage (52.3), and this championship picture really starts to take shape.
A picture that not only includes Lee, but almost features him front and center.
Is Golden State Ready for the Big Stage?
It's starting to look that way.
Injuries and a brutal early schedule have left this team with some ground to make up. But an eight-game winning streak has all but erased that damage, pushing the Warriors into a tie for the West's No. 5 seed and leaving them just five games back of the top spot.
Other than Stephen Curry, which player could the Dubs least afford to lose?
The Warriors have the pieces to make a run, but their margin of error is razor thin. One injury could push Golden State all the way from title contention to an early vacation.
There's an "if healthy" qualifier for every team, though. No team is the same without having all hands on deck.
Lee's presence is easy to undersell. His contract is bad enough that something less than a no-brainer offer would still be enough to pry him away.
As long as he's on this roster, though, he'll remain one of its best weapons. Even if he's the one we all forget.
But if the Dubs make good on their championship dreams, he'll be reminding us all just how important he really is.