Does Marreese Speights' Breakout Season Make David Lee Expendable for Warriors?

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2014

USA Today

This early-season Marreese Speights party has been quite the bonanza for the Golden State Warriors.

If you're late to the festivities, feast your eyes on the next Dubs game and enjoy the 6'10" center scoring all over the place. He's become Steve Kerr's go-to big man off the bench, scoring double figures as a reserve in seven of his last nine games.

In the past couple of weeks, he's exploded for 20-plus points three different times, which has been a pleasant surprise for everyone considering his career average is a modest 7.7. His latest masterpiece for the 13-2 Warriors was a 27-point effort against the Charlotte Hornets; he dropped 16 straight to start the fourth quarter and fueled Golden State's comeback triumph.

"Mo has been way better than I expected," Kerr said, according to The Associated Press' Steve Reed (via NBA.com). "He's just having a terrific season."

He's as comfortable and confident as he's ever been in his career, as he sinks outside jumpers, bullies foes in the paint and crashes the boards. He and Draymond Green have done a magnificent job filling the void left by David Lee's hamstring injury.

Has Speights perhaps been good enough to render Lee expendable?

We're not suggesting Speights is as good or better than Lee, as that would be a disservice to Lee's track record and skill set.

However, he can fill a similar role on this high-octane Warriors squad. They don't need a heroic 20/10 version of David Lee anymore, just an inside-out scorer who can regularly hit double digits and sporadically splurge for 20-plus. And they need a dependable board-getter, which is something Speights is more than capable of.

And if you're thinking that Speights has only had a couple of lucky games and is vastly inferior to Lee, think again.

His per-36 numbers have always been solid. He's averaged 16-plus points five different seasons and 10-plus rebounds in four different campaigns. Those stats aren't far behind Lee's.

This year, Speights' productivity and efficiency have reached a new echelon, as he's indulging in a variety of pick-and-pop opportunities and timely dives to the rim. His per-minute output has been sparkling:

Speights and Lee Per-36 Minutes
Speights 2014-1529.210.31.812.1/ 20.1.6035.0/ 6.5.769
Lee 2013-1419.810.12.38.1/ 15.4.5233.6/ 4.7.780

The Splash Brothers are occupying a surplus of opponent attention, and Speights knows how to slide into those elbow-extended and top-of-key spots for rhythm jump shots. Greg Chin of Blue Man Hoop talked about the dilemma he imposes on opponents:

Due to his mobility and natural position as a power forward, Speights is a nightmare matchup for bigger, slower centers. They cannot deal with his mobility, and they are uncomfortable coming out to defend him in the midrange area. Kerr has noticed this and prefers to exploit this matchup despite the issues that may arise on the defensive end.

He's shooting 57.1 percent on all catch-and-shoot two-point jumpers, according to SportVU player tracking. Have a gander at all the greenery in his shot chart:


It's unlikely that this blistering rate is sustainable, but even if he cools off, it's clear that he brings a robust inside-out punch every night.

Speights isn't dominating every facet of the game, however. He's no defensive wizard (more like the opposite, actually). But on that end of the floor, Lee has been expendable nearly his entire career, as he's never been a stout interior stopper.

Passing is one area where Lee is significantly superior. He's averaged anywhere from 2.3 to 3.5 assists per 36 minutes with the Warriors, and Speights isn't nearly as fluid in that department.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

However, that brings us to the point that this "Lee's expendable" business isn't about Speights exclusively replacing him. It's about Speights' emergence and the Warriors' collective rise to elite status.

Thanks in part to the addition of Shaun Livingston and growth of Draymond Green, the Warriors lead the league in assists without Lee. And they're pounding the glass as well, collecting a fifth-ranked 44.8 rebounds per contest.

A year or two ago, it would have been unthinkable that David Lee would be remotely considered as an expendable asset.

These 2014-15 Dubs have changed the landscape. They've catapulted to the top of the Western Conference thanks to an unrelenting backcourt, savvy role players and a breakout year from Speights. Kerr has three high-level bigs at his disposal, along with Festus Ezeli for dirty work support.

Lee is an expensive player at $15-plus million per year. Fortunately, his contract expires in 2016, so he could be an attractive commodity for teams looking to rent a high-level power forward for a year-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Speights makes a tidy $3.7 million with a team option for $3.8 in 2015-16.

Could the Warriors smoothly welcome Lee back into the rotation and continue to play at an elite level? It might be tricky, but yes.

But with the way Speights is playing and the way the team is clicking, Golden State may have the luxury of deeming Lee dispensable. 


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