With 19 wins to show for their first 21 games, the Warriors have proved they are just fine without him. As he inches his way toward a return from a hamstring injury, the team must figure out what to do with its highest-paid player.
Golden State's starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut has thrashed opponents by 28.0 points per 100 possessions. That is easily the most efficient mark of all five-man lineups to have played at least 100 minutes together.
So there is no motivation to shove Lee back in with the starters. The problem is that finding him a home on the second team isn't much easier. Marreese Speights has produced nearly every time his number has been called (27.2 points, 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes), and the Warriors offense has thrived with a stretch forward like Barnes or Green on the floor.
As talented as he is, Lee is now an awkward fit with this roster. He has the ability to perform in head coach Steve Kerr's system, but Golden State would need to rock the boat to free up enough minutes for Lee to have a significant role.
And at 19-2, riding a 14-game winning streak, holding the NBA's best net efficiency rating of plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions, the Warriors have no reason to think about shaking things up.
Time won't solve this problem, either. In fact, it will only make things more difficult.
Lee has a $15.0 million salary for this season and another $15.4 million headed his way next year, per ShamSports.com. With the supremely valuable Green speeding toward restricted free agency next summer, the Dubs need to free up enough cash to keep him around.
That means hitting the trade market, a place that should be familiar to Lee at this point. Possessing top-six efficiency rankings on both sides of the ball, the Warriors can enter negotiations with the freedom of knowing they don't really need anything.
A little more shooting off the bench would be nice. A low-post scorer could contribute, provided he didn't clog up the interior too much. Interior insurance is always smart to have on a frontcourt anchored by Bogut.
But these are all essentially luxuries, sort of like Lee would be if Golden State kept him around. The only necessity in all of this is that the Warriors must not take back long-term money in any trade.
There is nothing wrong with holding on to Lee as an offensive catalyst for the reserves. However, the Warriors need to jump on a deal that wipes his money off the books if that option is available.
If they pursue the following three deals, that just might become a possibility.
Shopping in Brooklyn for Toughness and Experience
Warriors Get: Kevin Garnett
Nets Get: David Lee
The Brooklyn Nets are open for business.
Sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk recently that Brooklyn has "begun reaching out to teams to let them know that former All-Stars Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson are available via trade." Shortly thereafter, the Nets agreed to send Andrei Kirilenko, a 2020 second-round pick and the right to swap second-round picks in 2018 to the Philadelphia 76ers for Brandon Davies and "likely" Jorge Gutierrez, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported.
The Nets are ready to deal, but they aren't looking to bottom out. "Brooklyn's hope, sources said, is to construct a deal or two that brings back sufficient talent that enables the Nets to remain a playoff team," wrote Stein and Youngmisuk.
For Brooklyn, the 31-year-old Lee is younger, more productive and, at this point, more talented than the 38-year-old Garnett. The Nets badly need offense, and Lee is more than capable of providing a spark as a scorer and a setup man.
"He's a double-double machine when healthy as well as a crafty playmaker who offsets Brook Lopez's lack of court vision," wrote Bleacher Report's Dan Favale. "... Nabbing a stats-piler like Lee helps the Nets remain competitive for the next two seasons."
Inside the lines, Garnett doesn't offer the same type of reward, though he could have value if Kerr can find him a spot. He's a 40.0 percent jump-shooter this season, so he could help maintain proper spacing. And in a limited role, he can still provide good glass work (12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes), complementary scoring (11.9 points per 36) and willing passing (2.6 assists per 36).
But the real draw for Golden State is Garnett's expiring $12 million contract. That has more value than anything he or Lee can provide on the court.
Three-Team Frenzy Between NBA Elites
Warriors Get: Tayshaun Prince, Dion Waiters
Grizzlies Get: David Lee
Cavaliers Get: Kosta Koufos, Quincy Pondexter
The Cleveland Cavaliers need a rim protector. The Memphis Grizzlies could still use another scoring option, particularly if Courtney Lee and his .536/.519/.871 shooting slash ever come back to reality. And again, the Warriors need salary relief.
All three could find what they are looking for in this deal.
Despite making defensive improvements of late, Cleveland still sits 28th in field-goal percentage allowed inside of five feet at 63.4 percent. Kosta Koufos has held opponents to 49.4 percent shooting at the rim, per NBA.com's player tracking data, a lower number than the ones yielded by Cavaliers bigs Tristan Thompson (50.8), Anderson Varejao (51.1) and Kevin Love (61.0).
With that information in hand, the Cavs, sources told Stein, have "been inquiring...about the availability" of Koufos. And, sources added, the Cavs "have let a number of teams know they are prepared to surrender" Dion Waiters "if they can acquire a difference-making center in return." Koufos, who has averaged 10.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes, could be that interior anchor.
Quincy Pondexter is still getting back into shape after being limited to 15 games last season by a stress fracture in his right foot. But if he can work himself back to his 2012-13 levels (6.4 points, 39.5 percent three-point shooting), he could give Cleveland a better three-and-D option on the wing than it currently has.
But Lee, a career 15.2-points-per-game scorer, could be a perfect fit in Memphis' offense. He can shoot or pass from the elbows like Gasol or grind his way to interior buckets like Z-Bo. Lee could play with either big, and his talent level extends well beyond that of the three players the Grizzlies would be giving up. Lee could also help ease the workloads being shouldered by both Gasol (34.6 minutes) and Randolph (31.0).
The Warriors would get immediate relief in the form of Tayshaun Prince's expiring $7.7 million contract, plus another long, versatile defender on a team that uses such players as well as any. Dion Waiters has struggled to find his rhythm with Cleveland's reshaped roster, but he's only one season removed from averaging 15.9 points and 3.0 assists.
The Dubs haven't gotten much production out of Leandro Barbosa (5.5 points, 1.1 assists) or Brandon Rush (0.8 points on 19.0 percent shooting), so the second-team backcourt could benefit from Waiters' versatile skill set. And if Waiters doesn't pan out, the Warriors could keep him locked to the bench, since they have figured out how to make it work despite Lee's absence and the struggles of Barbosa and Rush.
All three teams are playing well enough that they might hesitate to make any changes, but this swap should benefit each party involved.
Saving the Warriors' Books, the Raptors' Interior and the Pacers' Offense
Warriors Get: Amir Johnson, Landry Fields
Raptors Get: David West
Pacers Get: David Lee, 2016 first-round pick
At 16-6, the Raptors seem ready to rub elbows with the NBA's top teams. But sitting just 19th in defensive efficiency and 17th in rebounding percentage, Toronto has a couple potentially fatal flaws with its current roster.
"We're capable of locking in," coach Dwane Casey said recently, per SportsNet.ca's Eric Smith, "but it seems to be one area, just something that always breaks down in our execution defensively."
The cerebral David West could help put a stop to those collapses.
The 34-year-old has started to show his age (11.6 points, 5.9 rebounds), but perhaps that stems in part from suiting up for a 7-15 team. Just last season, he went for 14.0 points on 48.8 percent shooting, 6.8 boards and 2.8 assists on a nightly basis. His toughness and commitment to playing both ends of the floor would both be welcome additions to Casey's club.
Between Lance Stephenson's exit and Paul George's broken leg, the Pacers are going nowhere fast. But they'll need to keep a competitive roster in place for whenever George is ready to go, and Lee offers an offensive upgrade over West with two fewer years of mileage on his NBA odometer.
Indiana would also pick up the 2016 first-round pick the Raptors own from the New York Knicks. Toronto may not feel the price tag is too steep, though, as it will be the less favorable selection of either the Knicks or Denver Nuggets.
And guess what the Warriors are getting? More financial relief, of course.
Both Amir Johnson ($7.0 million) and Landry Fields ($6.25 million) are playing on the final year of their contracts, per ShamSports. Should Golden State hope for some on-court relief, Johnson's hustle could be a nice platoon option for Kerr, assuming Speights starts to tail off. Fields hasn't had a player efficiency rating above 11.7 since 2011-12, so he'd be nothing more than emergency insurance on the wing.
Still, the Dubs would walk away from this deal with exactly the kind of financial flexibility they so desperately need.
The Warriors' Best Option
It's hard to say with any certainty if Golden State will feel compelled to make any type of move.
When status quo involves the best record in basketball, it's not such a bad thing. Plus, the Warriors could theoretically improve once Lee's many offensive gifts are added back into the equation.
But these deals aren't about improving this season. The Warriors look every bit as good as they need to be right now, so they might be willing to sacrifice a present with Lee for a future without his weighty contract.
And these three trades would allow them do just that.
While the three-team trade with the Grizzlies and Cavaliers offers the least amount of financial relief, that's the one the Warriors should think hardest about. Waiters is the best player they would get back in any of these deals, and they liked him heading into the 2012 draft. Plus, Prince offers both salary-cap savings and the ability to contribute, which can't be said about every player mentioned above.
As long as the Warriors are considering dealing Lee, they're on their way toward making the right move.
Anything that increases the likelihood of retaining Green is a path worth pursuing. The Warriors have a special group of players together right now, and it would behoove them to try to keep it together for as long as possible—even if that means sacrificing Lee's skills for an economic boost going forward.