Plenty has changed for the Golden State Warriors since their season ended and Mark Jackson was replaced by Steve Kerr, but David Lee's offseason will probably be a little like Groundhog Day. Once again, mainly because of his massive contract that will pay him over $15 million a year this season and next, Lee will be the subject of trade rumors.
And once again, a young backup forward will be the one projected to take over his starting role after a great playoff series. Last year it was Harrison Barnes. This year it's Draymond Green.
This isn't mentioned to say that Green will suffer the same fate as Barnes and fail to earn more playing time, but rather to point out that the Warriors and Lee have been down this path before.
Warriors general manager Bob Myers has been pretty defiant toward those critical of Lee, and he defended his power forward to Zach Lowe of Grantland before the postseason. Myers said:
Our starting lineup is off the charts in terms of points and points allowed per possession. And to assume you can replace someone who is a part of that — well, you don’t just replace someone like that. A lot of his detractors have been proven patently wrong, and they should admit they jumped the gun.
Lee didn't particularly perform out of character this past season on either end, but Barnes took a massive step back in his development and failed to apply any real pressure. Some of the measures that may have been used to justify replacing Lee, such as real plus/minus, come out heavily in Lee's favor.
According to ESPN.com, real plus/minus, or "RPM" for short, is a player's estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents and additional factors.
This season, Lee was plus-1.25, 24th among power forwards.
Barnes, meanwhile, was minus-2.90, 65th among small forwards.
While single-number metrics can be overly depended upon, the number matches the eye test. The Warriors, despite expectations to the contrary, were better with Lee on the floor than they were with Barnes.
That shouldn't be viewed as an indictment on going small at the 4, however. The whole reason we're having this discussion once again, save for Lee's contract, is because there's a player who looks like he could fill Lee's production and then some on a rookie-scale deal instead of the $15 million Lee will take up next year.
That player is Green, who ranked fourth among all small forwards with an RPM of plus-3.51.
It's important to remember that Green looked even better in the postseason. No one covered Blake Griffin as well as he did, and his ability to snuff out Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls was a real asset for the Warriors. Jackson finally caught on and started playing Green more than Lee late in the series, but now with Kerr taking over instead of Stan Van Gundy and with Jackson out, it's hard to say what will happen.
Ethan Sherwood Stauss at ESPN.com explains more:
How this influences Golden State’s defense is a giant mystery. Mark Jackson and his since-exiled assistants combined to finally foster a defensive culture in Golden State. There exists the possibility that it’s impossible not to have a great defense with Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green in tow. We’re about to find out how much of their success on that end was attributed to Jackson’s brand of motivational coaching.
One loser in this hiring process might be David Lee, someone Stan Van Gundy regularly, publicly complimented (Van Gundy once called Lee the league’s most underrated player on the Dan Le Batard radio show). There’s an open question as to where Lee fits going forward. He’s skilled offensively, but struggles defensively and doesn’t space the floor with strong outside shooting. Kerr’s Suns teams used spacing as the fuel for their offense.
While Green is a good passer like Lee, he still has a ways to go when it comes to shooting the ball before he's considered a better floor-spacer.
The primary benefit of going with Green over Lee is that he's vastly superior defensively, which is an area the Warriors could really leverage with a frontline of Andre Iguodala, Green and Andrew Bogut. Klay Thompson is a really good on-ball defender as well, and so it's not hard to see Golden State being a top-5 defensive team if that group played the majority of the minutes together, even with a rookie head coach.
That alone should be enough to make the Warriors explore trade opportunities for Lee, especially since they'll almost certainly be devoid of any cap space until his contract expires in 2016.
Again, this isn't a new development. Ethan Sherwood Strauss at ESPN.com was all over this, even before the season:
Lee gives the Warriors a distinct ceiling: Neither the defense nor the offense is at its best when he's on the floor.
To aim higher than “playoffs” as a goal, the Warriors likely need to push the 3-point attack as much as possible on offense and do whatever it takes to get a little better on defense. If Lee can join that party, maybe he can be a key part of a special team. But counting on players to change seldom pans out. And if Lee doesn't change, the Warriors must find a way to trade their All-Star -- because talented and hardworking though he is, he's making far too much money not to make the team better.
While there may be some fear that Green regresses like Barnes and isn't ready to handle the 4 full time, it's easier to place faith in a strong defender continuing to defend than it is a mid-range shooter continuing to hit shots. Barnes just couldn't get his shots to fall this season, as he finished with an abysmal 48.6 true shooting percentage. He failed to find other ways to contribute, as well.
Unlike Lee, however, Barnes isn't a known entity. He'll turn 22 this offseason, so he'll be the same age as some of the draft prospects coming into the league. There's plenty of time for him to turn it around, and perhaps he'll find better ways to leverage his size, speed and vertical as he gets more comfortable.
It may be difficult to trade Barnes on his own, as it's not often you see two rookie-scale players swapped for one another. It's more likely that he'd be used as a sweetener in a bigger deal, if at all.
There will be avenues for the Warriors front office to explore once again. With no cap room or first-round draft pick on deck, looking to the trade market may be the only way to upgrade an already talented roster.
But what do the Warriors need? Stephen Curry is locked in at point guard, Andre Iguodala is holding down one of the wing spots and Andrew Bogut is on a long-term deal at the 5. Klay Thompson may not be a perfect fit, but he's a valuable 3-and-D guy on a cheap contract, and those skills aren't to be taken for granted.
You'd assume that any trade for Lee or Barnes or a combination of both would bring back either a wing player or a power forward, so let's start there.
An interesting trade partner could be the Washington Wizards. Both Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza are eligible for free agency, and if either gives Washington the inkling they want to sign elsewhere, perhaps a sign-and-trade deal could satisfy all parties.
Ariza could potentially add even more perimeter defense and three-point shooting to Golden State's roster, or Gortat could provide valuable insurance for Bogut and reunite with Kerr, who worked in Phoenix's front office when Gortat was playing there.
Washington is in a vulnerable position with Nene being the only big signed on long-term, so Lee could immediately step in and help a team that struggles to score regularly in the half court.
Another option could be the aforementioned Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons. While the Pistons will have to sort out Greg Monroe's restricted free agency first and foremost, perhaps a swap of Lee and Josh Smith would be viewed as beneficial both ways.
Both are on rough contracts, but if Van Gundy really loves Lee and Golden State wants a more athletic version of Green as a starter, that could work. Smith is capable of being the superior player because of his defensive impact, but he surely wasn't last season, and his contract runs a year longer than Lee's.
Denver would turn Faried into Barnes, buying another year of rookie-scale time and a different type of player, while also shedding a year of Gallinari's salary, who might not be the same player after missing all of last season with an ACL injury.
The Warriors would add some potential shooting in Gallinari, a rebounding and transition fiend in Faried, and some important bench shooting and backup guard play in Foye.
These are hypothetical scenarios, but the Warriors would be wise to explore the market for a better fit than Lee. While the primary hope will be that Kerr can maximize the roster better than Jackson did, carving out more playing time for Green and shedding such a large contract would seem to be a smart strategy.