Who is David Lee? — 2011-12 Golden State Warriors Preview (Pt 3)

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.

Feltbot’s Prescription

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:

34 Responses to Who is David Lee? — 2011-12 Golden State Warriors Preview (Pt 3)

  1. warriorsablaze

    I tend to agree. When Beans was in waste of space mode last season, I really felt like Lee at center with Udoh at the 4 was solid. All of Lee’s (few) successful defensive outings last season were at center…. not to mention how much he can open up the lane with his ability to hit the 17 footer consistently. I hope Jackson sees the potential.

  2. Great analysis; exactly right that optimizing DLee means some time at center. I specifically remember the Howard game and thinking how effective Lee was defensively against a larger player; even one of Howard’s talent. He had another good game or two at center right about the same time last season. I thought we might be seeing a new trend but, poof, it was over before it started. Also, among the great 7-footers you cite, don’t forget Olajuwan was by his own admission 6’10”.

  3. 100% agree. Thanks for underlying your post with some food for thought for all those Nellie-haters who never cared to understand his tactics and principles. Those folks reduced him to “fast and bad D” because they willfully ignored his successes and in case of the Warriors also ignored the reasons for his failures (mostly: insane injuries in bunches).
    I so wished the Nellie could have formed the team and earn the fruits (although you have to wonder if he could last all the traveling and stress in this season).
    Let’s hope our new Preacher has more wisdom and the guts to coach against Lacob if necessary.

  4. Feltbot,

    I want to learn something. Two questions:

    1. You were high on Nene. How would you have played Nene and Lee if we got him?

    2. Who should the next major acquisition be who will take the team to the next level, what type of player (and you know a center will be at the top of the list)?

    Or are you only talking about this year, with the existing squad? My thought is that the season is a grind and Lee will have to limit his minutes. A versatile center would be a plus, no?

    • 1) Nene and Lee are very similar players in some ways, and interchangeable. According to Steinmetz, the Warriors thought they were a bad fit. And they would possibly have problems against athletic spread fours.

      It’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having. I would run my offense through whichever one was being guarded by the center. And I would even consider bringing Lee off the bench as a sixth man, to maximize both players’ time at the 5.

      2) That depends a lot on how good Udoh actually is. I think the Warriors are restricting themselves by only looking to improve themselves at center. Those guys are very tough to get, as we learned. Why not look at versatile power forwards? Like Josh McRoberts, who the Lakers just picked up for peanuts. Or Anthony Tolliver. As I pointed out, we already have an all-star center.

      With his one year deal to Kwame, and minimal contracts to fill out the roster, I believe Lacob is preserving flexibility for the one big deal he knows is going to go down this season. Pau Gasol for Dwight Howard. If the Warriors could somehow get in the mix with that, I would not be surprised to see Monta dealt for Pau. I would certainly do that.

  5. “Malone confirms the gap between what the Lakers offered and the Warriors are paying him to become the lead assistant on Mark Jackson’s staff was “a considerable difference.” But that is not why he chose the franchise trying to build over the glamour operation that has won two of the last four championships and three of the last four Western Conference crowns.

    Malone insists he would have gone to Oakland even if the money had been equal. He says it with a straight face, too. He says it with corroborating evidence.”


  6. Felt, as always, I enjoy reading your take and analysis of everything GSW.

    I’m a big David Lee guy. A team aspiring to reach higher-highs can never have enough players like Lee, IMO.

    I love comparing him to the NFL’s New England Patriots very own Wes Welker. Not the biggest, fastest or most athletic talent in the league, or even on his very own team. But in terms of heart, smarts and skill in playing the game, a more valuable component to the ultimate success of his team cannot be found.

    I love coaches who think outside the box and use all their “tools” in trying to build a winning team and organization. Nelli fit that description to a tee, and hopefully the new Warriors staff will as well. David Lee, at least as part time center, would receive my hearty endorsement. Good read.

  7. I like the analysis, but there’s one thing missing for me: You speak of Joe Lacob as though he were calling all the shots, not just as owner but as head coach. I’d like to think Mark Jackson would have something to say about this strategy. The question is, what would it be? We’ll eventually find out, and that will tell us something about Mr. Jackson and his A-1 assistant, Mr. Malone.

  8. Thanks Feltbot!
    I too would have enjoyed small ball with David Lee at center which would have exploited mismatches against most NBA teams. But Nellie’s a distant memory now and Lee’s not on the Knicks (D’Antoni) anymore.

    I’m for any strategy resulting in more pick and rolls involving David Lee – he is an effective finisher. Marbury/Lee pick and rolls – that’s some beautiful basketball!

    I’m not convinced that a frontline with David Lee at Center could match up well against a Bynum/Gasol or Stoudamire/Chandler or similar big, more physical front line tandems – they’d just get worked down low. I’m not convinced Lee consistently defends or outplays the handful of really good centers, let alone Dwight Howard. Too often, I’ve watched Garnett/Perkins or Smith/Horford or Nene/Martin types physically punish the W’s frontline.

  9. We are talking about Mr. Lacob, the basketball genius with highest BB IQ. If Mr. Lacob decided David Lee is a PF, that’s final.

  10. Hey Felt,
    Great analysis of Lee and his potential with the Nightmare (no reason he should regress because defense is about effort).

    Is there any way that Dorell Wright duplicates last season? He seemed to be out of his mind all year long, and I never thought of him as a big time talent. Is it too much to ask for a repeat of last season?

  11. I can see D. Lee playing effectively offensively against bigs, but question how he would fair defensively. At times last year, Lee did guard big defensive centers, and if my memory is correct, did not do an effective job. There must be some stats from NY and last year that prove or disprove your contention.

    Udoh, playing center, is more effective then D.Lee would ever be providing weakside help.

    Until show otherwise, I’m with Lacob wanting to see D. Lee develop an effective three-point shot.

  12. So Baron Davis grew up in LA, played for UCLA and made a bunch of “I love LA” comments when the Clippers signed him, but now he turns down the Lakers (and Heat) to sign with the Knicks? He talked to players of both teams and likes the idea of playing with Carmelo and Amare and being in the Big Apple. Didn’t want to be team-mates with Kobe, Pau and Andrew? Or LeBron and Chris and DWade? What is going on in this guy’s head?

    • Maybe it’s the coach. The Knicks have a system much like the one where Baron had his greatest success, and probably the most fun.

      There might also be more pressure on the other teams. They both seem to be surrounded by a lot more drama than the Knicks, maybe due to the huge expectations fans have for them.

      Whatever his reasons for picking NY, Baron won’t be playing for anyone until his back gets better and he can get in shape.

  13. “The NBA is Back” (After all this time, thank goodness. Just goes to show what Hope can do for you. I repeat, Hope is where it’s at!)


    • Wow, Steve. When I opened that link I was “Hope”ing for some heavy duty hardcore NBA analysis. Not to be. Did I miss something? Perhaps I should watch again.

  14. This is not good. Forget about the fans’ perspective, what about Monta’s marriage and the heretofore positive affect it’s had on Monta as a person, player and teammate? Obviously, other questions as well. Yuck!


  15. Brytex, here’s some “heavy duty hardcore NBA analysis”. Personally, I’d rather have Hope. :)


  16. “Christmas Day has often marked the beginning of heavy TV interest in the NBA, so don’t expect the lockout to dramatically affect ratings negatively. In fact, the uncertainty and player movement is likely to draw added eyeballs on opening day.

    While the focus will be on the those on the court, we’re here to offer the scouting report on those who will bring you the game, including arguably the biggest NBA free agent this offseason: Shaquille O’Neal, who is now a member of TNT’s Inside the NBA studio show.”


  17. “This shortened NBA season will not be without big surprises. That happens whether teams play 82 games or 66. Somebody overachieves. Somebody bottoms out. Some teams do something we didn’t see coming.

    There are factors that will give this season a different twist, however. The tight schedule will play a role, major for some teams, minor for others, all depending on age and injuries and who’s best equipped to deal with games coming fast and frequent.

    Then, of course, the offseason changes will help and hurt certain teams, with free agency and trades once again being responsible for wicked swings of fortune.

    Who will be the big movers in either direction? Here’s what our crystal balling says”


  18. I didn’t get a chance to watch the game at Oracle but I did see the rematch. Some quick observations………

    Thumbs up:

    Everything David Lee.
    Overall team defense.

    Thumbs down:

    Perimeter shooting, especially from KThompson. http://www.csnbayarea.com/blog/warriors-talk/post/Brutal-shooting-night-for-Klay-Thompson?blockID=616372&feedID=5882
    Curry’s incredibly weak ankles.
    Udoh’s offense. He looks the same as last season, with slow, mechanical moves and questionable hands.

    Really hard to say how the Warriors are going to start out the season with only these two preseason games vs Sac to go by. Lee looks ready to go and you can tell GSW has been working hard on their team defense. Let the games begin, finally.

  19. As bad a shooting night as it was for Klay Thompson – it’s always better to do this in a pre-season game – I did see great promise in Klay’s versatility, ball-handling, passing, and length – I really like what I see so far in the rookie… particularly at the SF if he’s to slow to guard NBA 2’s. I remember Curry’s first few games as a pro – Curry didn’t shoot well either. Not to say Thompson’s like Curry, but Thompson’s STRENGTH is supposed to be his shooting from range, so I’m not worried about that skill.

    • Bad shooting night, yes, but Klay guarded Jimmer for much of the second half, and except for one long-range bomb, Klay held him in check pretty well. That helped keep the game close in spite of poor outside shooting by Monta and not much help from Curry’s subs. If Curry’s out for a stretch, the hope for a good start to the season is dim.

  20. More specifics on Monta:


    I fear we’re going to hear about this one for a while.

    • From the Chronicle a few days ago:

      At last week’s media day, Ellis said he has continued to work on himself. “There are probably a lot of things you’ve seen from Monta Ellis in the past six years that you won’t see this year,” he said.

      Now we may have a better idea of what he meant. Let’s hope it’s true.

      • Maybe not related, but there was a week in January last year–the time of the alleged incidents and his wife’s intervention–where Ellis was playing poorly and acting weird.

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