The two-time All-Star forward has missed seven straight games with a hamstring injury that's been compounded by nerve irritation in his back. The Warriors are 4-3 over that stretch, with Thursday's head-scratching 100-99 home loss to the Denver Nuggets giving an uncomfortable glimpse into what the Warriors are missing without him.
The Nuggets thrashed the Dubs 63-38 on the glass, led by a career-high 29 rebounds from Timofey Mozgov and another 17 by Kenneth Faried. The numbers, while a bit mind-numbing, weren't all that surprising. The Warriors have been a below-average rebounding team since Lee went down (50.1 rebounding percentage, 17th) and have struggled all season to replace his presence on the glass (52.2 rebounding percentage when he's playing; 49.5 percent when he sits).
"We got out of character," coach Mark Jackson said, via Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group. "We lost to team that played desperate, outworked us and hurt us on the boards."
Rebounding woes will likely be an ongoing theme in this Warriors' story until (if?) Lee returns to the hardwood.
Like last season, when Lee went down with a torn hip flexor early in the playoffs and never really recovered, the Warriors have replaced him with a smaller, more versatile player. Harrison Barnes got the nod then; Draymond Green has gotten the call this time around.
There's no way to make these players taller. Size is sacrificed in the equation—unless Jackson goes with his Andrew Bogut-Jermaine O'Neal frontcourt that seems to tempt fate every time it's deployed—but the switch offers its own perks.
Barnes and, to a lesser extent, Green can space the floor as three-point threats so Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have more room to operate. But Green rarely stays in the same spot for long. If he isn't freeing up a gunner with a bone-jarring screen, he's whipping the ball around the perimeter or driving and kicking to an open shooter.
Lee, part garbageman and part post finisher, can't stretch defenders the same way.
He can create a sliver of space if his mid-range jumper is falling, but he isn't making or even taking as many as he has in the past. His shooting percentage from beyond 16 feet is down more than six points from last season (35.8 from 42.1), and the average distance of his field-goal attempts (5.7 feet) is as low as it's been since 2008-09, via Basketball-Reference.
He's very good at what he does (18.5 points on 52.3 percent shooting) and has a skill set unrivaled on this roster. It's hard, though, to say how much of what he does offensively actually helps his teammates.
Green is just the opposite. The stat sheet rarely puts him in a favorable light (9.0 points on 38.8 percent shooting as a starter), but he's constantly doing the little things to simplify the game for his teammates.
"He's been spectacular," Jackson said of Green, via Monte Poole of Comcast SportsNet. "No matter what situation we put him in, he's stays ready, competes at a high level and is a winner."
Lee has been called a lot of things in his basketball days but "winner" isn't one of them. Maybe that's simply misfortune—he played on some bad New York Knicks teams and has gotten hurt at the wrong time two years in a row—or possibly a sign of something bigger.
Whatever the reason, it's certainly sparked a fair share of critics. Lee apparently hears them all, leaving him now making arguments his numbers say he shouldn't have to make (via Bay Area Sports Guy's Steve Berman).
Lee is by far a more gifted scorer than Green. In fact, he owns the league's 17th-most efficient scoring mark on isolation plays (1.02 points per possession). Green checks in at 180th in the category (0.57), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
But the ball-stopping plays Lee feasts off are the same ones the Warriors need to desperately avoid. They're the main reason a team with this many offensive weapons grades out as nothing more than mediocre in terms of efficiency (105.0 points per 100 possessions, 12th overall).
Green might not have the same caliber of offensive tools, but he understands how to maximize those around him. Although the sample size is small (71 minutes), he's actually produced a higher offensive rating with fellow starters Curry, Thompson, Bogut and Andre Iguodala (116.1) than Lee has managed alongside those four (112.2).
Maybe you're not convinced the offense is better with Green playing and Lee sitting. You don't have to be. As long as the playing field is close at that end of the floor, then Green should keep seeing starters' minutes going forward.
Because down at the defensive side, there isn't even a discussion to be had.
"Green can guard good power forwards, he can guard good wings, Jackson even likes playing Green on very good point guards," Bay Area News Group's Tim Kawakami noted. "That’s different than what Lee gives the Warriors. Just a little."
Green can and does defend wherever he's needed. He uses angles and savvy to keep pace with speedy guards, or draws from his deep well of Big Ten toughness when dealing with a burly bruiser underneath.
Jackson, never one to shy away from hyperbole, has compared Green's defensive versatility to that of four-time MVP and two-time champion LeBron James.
"Those two guys have the size, the strength, the knowledge, the competitive spirit in my opinion to do that," Jackson said of their ability to defend all five positions, via Leung.
That's the first, and probably last, time the two players will be linked in a sentence, but the fact that someone could squeeze it out with a straight face says plenty about Green's talent at that end.
And Jackson isn't the only one gushing about it either. Bogut couldn't say enough about the sophomore, via Bay Area Sports Guy:
Draymond defensively can guard four positions, so that takes a lot of pressure off our defense to have Draymond switch with guys like Andre and so on. When they run pick-and-rolls, we can just switch them, which helps out our defensive rotations.
I played with one of the best, in my opinion, [Luc Richard] Mbah a Moute. I think he’s one of the best defenders in the league. Draymond reminds me a lot of Luc when Luc was younger. He hustles. They say they both can’t shoot the ball well, but they still knock down big shots when you need them. Their rebound rate is phenomenal, and they play good D.
People don't talk like that about Lee's defense. They don't say much of anything about his play on that side of the floor.
The stuff that is out there isn't pleasant:
Andre Drummond just went Allen Iverson on David Lee. Oh wait, never mind, that was just David Lee's defense.— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) November 13, 2013
The Warriors are built to win with defense, a strategy that always seemed strange with both Curry and Lee plugged into the starting lineup. Bogut and Iguodala can correct plenty of mistakes, but why not cut down on the number of mistakes committed instead? If Golden State's offense packs the same punch with Green as it does with Lee, why is this even a debate?
Because sometimes nights like Thursday are going to happen. Sometimes the Dubs will need to be longer, more active around the glass. Sometimes defenses won't break down from perimeter ball movement (see: San Antonio Spurs in 2013 conference semis), and the Warriors will need someone to attack the basket.
And, of course, because Lee is a strong presence in the locker room, a heavier one in the financial books ($30 million owed over the next two seasons, via ShamSports.com) and a favorite of the front office. He's not a player Jackson could bury on the bench even if he wanted to.
The basketball reasons are what really matter, though, and they do capture Lee's importance to Golden State's postseason success. Not in the 33-minutes-per-game role he played before the injury, but in more of a timeshare with Green that tilts a bit toward the sophomore.
He doesn't seem like the type to gripe about a reduction in floor time, particularly if the team performs well without him:
David Lee: "Whether I play 5 minutes a game or 48 minutes, that's coach Jackson's decision."— 95.7 The GAME (@957thegame) April 10, 2014
Lee's injury, for the second year in a row, has opened some doors to new rotations and lineups. Whenever he's healthy, those doors shouldn't automatically shut.
But they have to stay open for him as well. Not for an All-Star's workload but one more suited to his skills: a high-energy big. He could anchor the second-team offense and pack his lunch pail for small runs with the starters.
The Dubs could still get some of his scoring, most of his rebounding and all of his leadership. Plus, they'd have Green's two-way versatility and insatiable energy.
This isn't a Green-versus-Lee debate. It wasn't Barnes versus Lee last year.
This is a challenge for Jackson to find that gray area in between, to know when each player is needed and where. If the Warriors are playing as long as they'd like, there will be plenty of minutes to go around.