David Lee's arrival in Oakland was the first sign the Golden State Warriors were serious about starting a franchise overhaul, which is what makes the fact he may not be around to see it finished so fascinating—and, perhaps, a little bittersweet.
Lee was owner Joe Lacob's first big get, the splashy 2010 import from New York who signed a huge contract (six years, $80 million) and cost a considerable number of young assets (such as they existed in the bare-cupboard Warriors organization at the time).
Lee was—and has remained—Lacob's guy.
Per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, the Warriors' then-rookie owner was over the moon in 2010:
My first reaction was, ‘As fast as you can pull that trigger, pull that trigger.’ Because David Lee is everything that I love about an NBA team. He is passionate, he is smart, he is a tough, tough guy. He will not take no for an answer. He’s going to go in and get that rebound. He’s a 20 and 10 guy.
Lee was everything Golden State needed at the time: a young, stat-stuffing, squeaky clean face for a franchise desperate to prove the next era wouldn't be like the last one.
He was more than a new acquisition for Lacob and the Warriors; he was a symbol of change.
Four years of improvement and gradually growing expectations have changed something, but perhaps not what Lee expected. Now, Lee—as a symbol—is no longer necessary. Stephen Curry has assumed face-of-the-franchise status, and back-to-back playoff berths mean the new era is already very different.
Practically, Golden State also wants a player at Lee's position who better fits new coach Steve Kerr's basketball vision.
Shortly after he was hired in May, Kerr said, per Monte Pool of CSNBayArea.com:
I evaluated all of the current players for the Warriors. And I evaluated how I see each of those players fitting into my style of play. I didn't say anything about anybody else on the team. I take that back. I did tell them I think the team could use a stretch 4. I think shooting 4 could really make things difficult on the opposition.
That wasn't a casual "oh, by the way" request. It was a plea for the Warriors to catch up with the times. An offense without a floor-stretching big in today's NBA might as well be smoking cigarettes at halftime and lobbing up grannies into peach baskets.
The league's valuation of forwards has changed dramatically of late, writes Grantland's Zach Lowe:
And one player type has become less and less desired, to the point it may already be a market inefficiency: the power forward who can’t shoot 3s and can’t protect the rim or provide real fill-in minutes at center.
It was obvious this offseason, then, that Lee—precisely the kind of player Lowe described—was on borrowed time as a Warrior. Though never a three-point shooter, Lee picked a bad time to completely lose the feel of his previously decent mid-range stroke.
If Lee wasn't in the lane in 2013-14, he wasn't scoring. With him alongside Andrew Bogut, whose range is "dunk," it's no wonder Golden State couldn't find the spacing to get its offensive rating into the top 10 last year.
Nothing came to fruition on the Kevin Love trade front this summer, but it's critical to note that it was Golden State's staunch refusal to trade Klay Thompson—not Lee—that killed the deal.
For all that, Lee remains popular among fans. His defensive ineptitude has been so fully exposed and so repeatedly catalogued that it now seems somehow less problematic. And he still has value to Kerr, even if he can't spread the floor—especially if the Warriors take advantage of his passing skills in a motion-based offense.
Lee has a place but doesn't fit.
He has value but not the kind the Warriors want.
He's beloved but viewed as a hindrance to real progress. (He's in the way of major minutes for Draymond Green, after all.)
In other words, it's complicated.
So, how does this story end?
Probably with Lee leaving before the final two years on his contract expire. There are just too many signs pointing in that direction, and another big one emerged this past summer.
The Warriors' refusal to include Thompson in a trade for Love indicates they see him as an indispensable part of their future. They'll need to free up big money to re-sign him, perhaps to a max-level contract.
Doing anything else would make the way the Love scenario played out completely senseless.
Finding a taker for Lee won't be easy, but as his deal nears its conclusion, it becomes more appealing than it was in the past.
Where Lee will end up in the next two years, and when he'll eventually get there, is anybody's guess. But one thing is certain: His departure won't be messy.
Lee won't snipe at the team or ownership. He won't cause a stir.
Because Lacob was right about a few things four years ago. Lee is passionate. He is smart. He is tough.
He'll be upset when his time in Golden State ends, but he'll understand. And he won't complain because passionate, smart, tough guys don't do that.
The fact that the Warriors don't need Lee to be a symbol of change anymore indicates he served his purpose well. He made the franchise respectable and professional, and if you think that was any small feat, please review the quagmire that was the Warriors organization in the 20 or so years preceding Lee's arrival.
Even if Lee may not have a future with the Dubs, everyone has to agree that his presence helped pull them out of the past. When he departs via trade, or perhaps even as a free agent in two years, Lee will leave the Warriors better than he found them.
Getting David Lee started the Warriors' transformation. Letting him go will complete it.