The Golden State Warriors need the steady scoring, rebounding presence and setup skills that David Lee can bring. But fitting the two-time All-Star back into the fold once his strained left hamstring heals won't be as simple as it sounds.
Despite getting only seven minutes out of Lee so far, the Warriors (10-2) are off to their best start in franchise history. While that fact should not be held above his head, it does show the admirable job done by those who have taken on an expanded role in his absence.
Someone—or some people—will have to sit to clear the way for Lee's return. As well as the guys behind him have played so far, coach Steve Kerr has made it clear he has a substantial role set aside for Lee, per Diamond Leung of Bay Area News Group:
The Warriors should be better off if they can successfully work Lee into the game plan, but it could be a clumsy transition to start.
What Lee Adds to the Mix
The Warriors need a lot of what Lee can bring.
Some decline was expected as the team's starting power forward spot went from being filled by the 6'9" Lee to the 6'7" Draymond Green. Truth be told, Green's relentless on the glass (7.5 rebounds in 31.9 minutes per game) has helped keep this from becoming the glaring issue it could have been.
But the Warriors are missing more than just a big body. Lee is one of the top glass-cleaners in the business. Golden State's Windex man has a career 9.76 rebounds-per-game average, the fifth-highest among active players.
Of course, calling Lee a good rebounder is like labeling Stephen Curry as a sharpshooter. Both are technically correct, but they severely undersell everything else they bring to the table.
Lee, who averaged 18.2 points and 3.0 assists during his first four seasons with Golden State, can serve as the offensive hub this second team currently lacks.
The Warriors' attack completely collapses when Curry leaves the floor. With him, they put up elite offensive numbers: 110.0 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied for second overall. When Curry sits, that figure nosedives to 94.6, a number cleared by every team outside of the blatantly tanking Philadelphia 76ers.
Golden State's reserves need a go-to scoring option. And that role should be earmarked for Lee.
"We miss his scoring. We miss him being a low-post threat," Kerr said of Lee, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle (subscription required). "We're different without him. ... It will be great to have David back with the rebounding, low-post scoring and passing."
The offense definitely misses Lee's presence, but the defense has reached a different level without him.
The Warriors have surrendered a league-low 94.4 points per 100 possessions on the season. Green, in particular, has been a pest, holding opposing 4s to a paltry 12.7 player efficiency rating, per 82games.com.
Green has a career-low 95 defensive rating, which easily trumps Lee's personal best of 103. Last season, Lee also yielded a 14.9 PER to power forwards last season. That's identical to the PER enjoyed by 5s going against Marreese Speights this season, so there isn't much of a defensive difference between him and Lee.
But the defensive gap between Green and Lee is cavernous. That alone could help Kerr limit Lee's exposure by slotting him into a role perfectly suited to emphasize his offensive skills.
A bench gig might be a tricky sell for someone who has started more than 75 percent of his career games. The fact that Lee's $15 million salary is the highest on the team's books could further complicate the matter.
But all signs seem to point toward Lee settling in with the second team.
After the Warriors jumped out to a 4-0 start, Kerr declared that Green had been "playing well, so I'll keep starting him," per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. It's hard to imagine that stance has changed, since Kerr has been praising Green's ability to space the floor and the impact that he has on this offense, per Leung:
While Lee will need to sign off on the idea, he may not have much of a choice given the sacrifice already made by longtime starter Andre Iguodala. The skilled swingman had never come off the bench before this season, but he has accepted a sixth-man role to add playmaking to the bench and help Harrison Barnes find his way back with the starting lineup.
Iguodala's example provides an exact blueprint for Lee to follow.
"The sacrifice that he has made for this team establishes everything that we are about and that this team is buying into," Kerr said of Iguodala, per Comcast SportsNet's Monte Poole. "If we want to win at an elite level, it's about sacrifice."
Getting Lee's approval might actually be the easy part. Figuring out the logistics of working him into the rotation will be the real challenge.
The 33.2 minutes a night Lee logged last season were the fewest he had played since joining the Warriors in 2010-11. That number may come down considerably, but even a part-time role is hard to create.
Green has done nothing to warrant a drastic reduction in playing time. The Warriors are 16.8 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when he plays and 1.0 points per 100 possessions worse than the opposition when he sits. Only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut have a higher net-point differential than Green's plus-17.8.
Green gives this group an extra gear on both ends of the floor. His motor, which is strengthened by his genius-level basketball IQ, is like few others in the game.
Still, Green is going to give up some of his minutes. The same goes for Harrison Barnes, despite his career-high .489/.433/.816 shooting slash. Barnes won't be buried on the bench, but he could go back to seeing more action on the perimeter (93 percent of his minutes have come at the 4 so far).
The person really complicating the situation is the seventh-year journeyman Speights. If the 6'10" scorer had brought his typically expendable game this season, his 14.5 minutes allotment could be divvied up between the other bigs.
But Speights has been far from normal. He is putting up an absurd 29.4 points per 36 minutes on 63.1 percent shooting. Both of those would shatter his previous career-high marks of 18.9 and 50.2, respectively.
"He's amazing," Kerr raved, per Simmons. "He just keeps producing every time we throw him out there. ... The production he has given us is remarkable."
And Speights shows no signs of slowing down.
He pumped in 28 vital points during the Warriors' otherwise sloppy 91-86 win over the depleted Oklahoma City Thunder their last time out. Two games before that he went for 24 points on 72.7 percent shooting and nine rebounds in less than 21 minutes of work.
This is Speights like we have never seen him before. Well, like most of us have never seen him, at least.
"The talent's always been there," said Iguodala, who previously played alongside Speights while both were Philadelphia 76ers, per Leung. "It's just a matter of confidence and him just getting an opportunity. Those two things are there right now."
That opportunity isn't likely to go away. "He's earned that backup role," Kerr said. "He's going to play a lot for us."
It's quite possible that Kerr has a different definition of "a lot" than everyone else. There just aren't enough minutes for Lee and Speights to get "a lot" of run, while Green, Barnes, Bogut and possibly Festus Ezeli (the team's only rim protector behind Bogut) are all factoring into the same frontcourt rotation.
This is a tremendous problem for Kerr to have, provided everyone is willing to set their egos aside in pursuit of a shared goal.
A Wealth of Options
The Warriors have already cemented themselves as ranking members of the NBA elites.
They are one of only four teams with top-eight efficiency ranks on both sides of the ball. Their .833 winning percentage is the third-highest in the league.
All of this has happened (essentially) without Lee. Getting him back should only make this a more dominant force, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explained:
This team...now has to figure out what to do when an All-Star power forward gets healthy enough to warrant a backup role.
It's a little like this: The Warriors have constructed a mansion with a 12-car garage, and they now realize there's a chance they'll have to knock out a wall between the wine cellar and the bowling alley to fit that 13th Lamborghini Veneno roadster (which they might only drive once every couple of weeks but would still like to keep out of the rain if possible).
You know what, it's exactly like that.
If these players aren't hung up on minutes, Kerr could have an arsenal at his disposal as powerful as any across the league.
Lee, like his frontcourt mates, gives this club options. If the Warriors need scoring, rebounding and passing from the post, he's their guy.
But they should have a tandem for any situation. If floor-spacing is a priority, then Barnes and Green should get the call. If defense is a must, that puts Green, Bogut and Ezeli into the rotation. When the offense hits a snag, Speights and Lee can bring it back to life. And the Warriors' new commitment to ball movement could have even more impressive results once Lee and Bogut are both initiating sets from the elbows.
The Warriors can put Lee to good use, just as they can with their other frontcourt weapons. Playing time could fluctuate based on matchups, but as long as that is seen as a necessary sacrifice, it should not be an issue.
Kerr will need to proceed with caution, and his players must buy what the first-year coach is selling. But this delicate situation could turn into a gold mine for the Warriors quickly if everyone plays their part.
The Warriors look like full-fledged championship contenders without Lee. The double-double machine should only help strengthen that position.