Nelson says his plan for the 2010-11 season was to play David Lee at center, because he considers Lee a good power forward and an All-Star center. — Scott Ostler, SF Chronicle April 18, 2011
David Lee played 5 seasons for the New York Knicks, most of which he spent at the center position. In 2009-10, his last Knicks season, he averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds a game, playing exclusively at center. This earned him a well-deserved trip to the All Star game.
So why is it that since Joe Lacob has taken over the Warriors, David Lee has been considered strictly a power forward?
I guess that’s obvious, isn’t it? Joe Lacob’s most frequent refrains in the press concern the Warriors’ “need to get bigger” and become a team that “emphasizes defense first.”
David Lee is not “bigger.” He’s only 6’9″ 240. We all know that’s not big enough to play center, don’t we? When David Lee went to the All Star game, he was playing out of position! Just think what he should be able to do at power forward, his “natural” position!
I have been astonished in the past year at just how easily not just Warriors fans, but the mainstream Warriors media have accepted this received wisdom from Joe Lacob. Do you ever recall reading a peep from someone in print that maybe the Warriors should consider giving Lee more time at center?
Never. Not once. It is gospel in the Warriors front office, and major media outlets, that David Lee is a power forward. He is too small to play center.
I’m sorry, but this is absolute baloney. And this Warriors team is far worse, not better, for Joe Lacob’s mistaken orthodoxy.
The Myth of the Seven Foot Center
We all know that having a Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaq or Dwight Howard is the easiest ticket to the finals you can get. But what if you can’t get your hands on one of these freakishly gifted behemoths? Are you better off looking for the next best seven-footers you can find, any seven-footers, or should you look to fill the center position based on basketball talent, and ability to play the position?
I believe history has answered this question, in unequivocal fashion. Let’s take a look at some of the Championship front lines in NBA history.
Beginning with this one:
Boston Celtics, 11 championships, 1957-1969:
- William Felton Russell 6’9″, 215 lbs.
- Tommy Heinsohn 6’7″, 218 lbs. (Don Nelson 6’6″, 210 lbs.)
That’s right. Bill Russell, the man who battled Wilt Chamberlain unto death for 11 championships in 13 years, was 6-9, 215.
Here’s a few others:
New York Knicks, two championships, 1969-71:
- Willis Reed 6’9″, 235 lbs. (Jerry Lucas 6’8″, 230 lbs.)
- Dave Debusschere 6’6″ 220 lbs.
Boston Celtics, 2 championships, 1974-76:
- Dave Cowens 6’9″, 230 lbs.
- Paul Silas 6’7″, 220 lbs. (Don Nelson)
Golden State Warriors, 1975 champions:
- Clifford Ray 6-9″ 230 lbs.
- Derrick Dickey 6’7″ 218 lbs.
Washington Bullets, 4 finals appearances, 1978 champions:
- Wes Unseld 6’7″, 245 lbs.
- Elvin Hayes 6’9″, 235 lbs.
Detroit Pistons, 2004 champions:
- Ben Wallace 6-9″, 240 lbs.
- Rasheed Wallace 6’10” 225 lbs.
I’m leaving out a few other championship centers, like Moses Malone 6-10, 215 and Jack Sikma 6-11, 230. And I’m leaving out last year’s Miami Heat, who left their centers home for the playoffs, going with a frontline of Joel Anthony 6-9, 245, Chris Bosh 6-11, 220, and Udonis Haslem 6-8, 230. I think my point is clear enough.
Perusing this list can you tell me with a straight face that David Lee is too small to play center?
Other Objections to David Lee at Center
1) Most of those examples you cite were from a different era.
You’re damn straight. The centers I’ve named above had to go through Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaq, to get their titles. See any of those around the league right now?
How about Olajuwon or Duncan? Are they still in the league? The fact is that there is only one truly dominant 7 footer in the league today, Dwight Howard. And like Wilt Chamberlain, he has not figured out how to win, and may never do so.
2) Most of those examples you cite were better defenders than David Lee.
I’m going to answer this first by saying that David Lee doesn’t give up anything in either toughness, rebounding, or desire to win versus most of those listed centers.
And then I’m going to concede that you’re probably right. Most of those centers were better defenders, particularly in the shot blocking department.
Which means that David Lee should be paired with a terrific defender at the power forward. Preferably one with great shot-blocking skills.
Like Ekpe Udoh, perhaps? Drafted by Don Nelson for exactly this reason.
It also means that Lee must be played in a system that emphasizes his great strengths. Just as Dave Cowens (the player that I believe Lee resembles the most, historically) was when playing with the John Havlicek Celtics.
An uptempo system. If Dave Cowens could run Kareem Abdul-Jabbar right off the court for his first championship (and he did), then so could David Lee.
Why Should David Lee play Center instead of Power Forward?
Now we are at the crux of it. Why Don Nelson called David Lee a good power forward, but an ALL-STAR center.
1) Because he guards centers far better than he can guard NBA power forwards.
Lee has the power and the determination to keep bigger players out of the lane. I was courtside last year for this game, when Lee went mano-a-mano with Dwight Howard for virtually the entire second half. He didn’t concede Howard an inch.
Lee struggles, on the other hand, when guarding the superior floor quickness of many of the league’s power forwards. Ekpe Udoh is far more effective than Lee against these players. Udoh can guard any power forward, even the quickest, right down to Gerald Wallace.
2) Because it preserves his best defensive attribute, his rebounding ability.
Many of today’s power forwards spread the court all the way out to the three point line. Is that where you want David Lee to be located? Out on the wing where his phenomenal rebounding ability is neutralized?
3) Because with the exception of Amare Stoudemire (6-10, 245), Lee is the best pick and roll center in the league.
There has been a lot of grumbling among Warriors fans and even the media about how little Keith Smart used David Lee in the pick and roll last year. But no one has really identified the crux of the problem.
To run David Lee effectively in the pick and roll he must be playing center. Why is this? Because opposing centers are the best targets for the pick and roll. They are the players you want to bring away from the basket. They are the players with the slowest feet, who have the most trouble guarding pick and roll. They are the players who are most reluctant to leave the lane to guard it.
Centers are the players who get lit up by the pick and roll.
When Lee is being guarded by power forwards, it just doesn’t work as well. Power forwards have the quickness to swarm the ball handler, and get back to challenge the entry pass and the shot.
4) With his great passing ability, Lee is possibly the best high post center in the league.
What is so great about a high post center? Here’s what: it pulls the opposing team’s center away from the basket, and opens up the basket to penetration.
A high-post power forward is not nearly as valuable.
5) Because like Dave Cowens, Lee can run.
David Lee can outrun virtually any other center in the NBA, beat them up and down the court. That is a tremendous weapon on a running team like the Warriors.
You’re probably asking yourself now if I believe that David Lee should be the Warriors’ starting center. No, actually I don’t. There is an enormous amount of wear and tear to the NBA season, an enormous amount of pounding. I am fine with the idea of starting (the good) Andris Biedrins, or even Kwame Brown, as cannon-fodder and minutes eaters.
What I am suggesting is that Joe Lacob should not be wedded to the idea of having a 7-foot center in the middle at all times, and particularly in crunch time.
David Lee should be the Warriors center in crunch time, alongside Ekpe Udoh. That is the Warriors best lineup, by far. And if Udoh actually happens to turn into the great all-around player that he’s shown promise of becoming, that is a front line that can take the Warriors very, very far. Perhaps even into contention.
It also happens to be the only front line the Warriors have that can make a key crunch time free throw.
I am also suggesting that the Warriors look to make David Lee their center in the middle of the game whenever the opportunity arises, as when their opponent is playing small-ball. That is why, in my previous post, I brought up the Warriors’ lack of a small-ball power forward who can spread the floor. I bring you back to Don Nelson, from the same Scott Ostler article quoted above:
“I told (management), ‘Look, I want (Anthony) Tolliver. I’m gonna need a power forward who can shoot.’ They wouldn’t give me Tolliver. He was pretty cheap (Tolliver signed with Minnesota for $2.2 million). I didn’t ask for much. That’s when I knew I was gone.”
If the Warriors could put a three-point shooting power forward on the court with David Lee, they could have one of the best small-ball units in the NBA. Unless that player is Dorell Wright, the Warriors don’t have that now.
Finally, I’m suggesting that if the Warriors are fortunate enough to make the playoffs — which will mean, in my mind, that Ekpe Udoh has made phenomenal strides — then Joe Lacob and the Warriors coaches should consider the model of the 2011 Miami Heat.
If Joe Lacob wants David Lee — and by extension, the Warriors — to be the best player that he can be, the All-Star that is worth every penny of his $80 million contract, he needs to open his mind and start thinking outside the box.
David Lee is a center.
(Also in this series of 2011-12 Golden State Warriors previews: