David Lee disappeared quietly from the Warriors’ roster this summer. A back-page item, unworthy of a single quote. An after-thought to the Warriors’ championship.
He was never treated with much respect as a Warrior by media or bloggers. Was in fact the subject of frequent ridicule — just as frequently wrong, as I’ve noted too many times to count — for his defensive shortcomings, while all of his many abilities and accomplishments as a player and a teammate were dismissed and denigrated. At the end of last season, some of the kid bloggers out there even started a joke internet meme at his expense, calling him “your dad’s favorite player.”
Hmmm. As someone of a certain age who has a modest notoriety as a David Lee admirer, you might guess that I’d have something to say about this. And I damn well do.
When Lee was traded to the Warriors, he immediately tweeted at Stephen Curry: “Get ready to run thousands of pick and rolls.” A very sensible thought, expressed by one of the very best pick and roll centers in the NBA, to a player who still has a chance to become one of the very best pick and roll point guards in NBA history, if management would ever allow it. But at the same time, viewed in retrospect, it was a very poignant thought, wasn’t it?
Because it never happened.
Immediately after Lee was brought to the Warriors, he lost his preferred system and role to an amateur GM, Joe Lacob, who saw him as a post-up power forward, clogged the paint with non-shooting centers, and gave Lee a succession of rookie coaches subservient to the GM’s vision. He lost his health to the exigent demands placed upon him by the Andrew Bogut trade, and the stripped front line of Lacob’s two-year tank job. And in the end, he lost his starting job to the only true lineup solution to Andrew Bogut finally regaining his health — playing with a stretch-four. (And, to be fair, to the emergence of the remarkable Draymond Green in that role.)
Lee’s tenure with the Warriors was star-crossed from the start. And yet, by some strange twist of fate, four years down the road the Warriors have an NBA championship, and Lee has a ring on his finger. Did David Lee have anything to do with the Warriors winning that championship? Most in the media have already scoffed at that thought. Have, in fact, opined that he held them back. But as per usual, I couldn’t disagree more.
I’m not going to rehash Lee’s offensive and defensive ratings when played at center in pick and roll alongside Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in the 2014 crunchtime unit. How that unit exceeded the ratings of this year’s championship Warriors team on both sides of the ball. How that unit, in Bogut’s absence, was good enough to beat the World Champion Miami Heat on their home floor twice in consecutive years, the only team in the NBA to do so. How under-appreciated Lee was as a post defender against bigger opponents. How he was in fact statistically the best power forward in the Western Conference in defending the pick and roll a couple of years ago (attributable to the amount of time he spent playing center in Bogut’s absence). How when he got “healthy” this past season, he was again denied his true offensive system by yet another rookie coach, and jammed into the low post of the triangle. Right up until Game 3 of the NBA Finals, that is, when out of sheer desperation Steve Kerr finally reached for Lee at center, and the high pick and roll. And was rewarded with a +17 in 11 minutes, and the smallball blueprint that turned the series around.
No, I’ve already written about all of that stuff too many times to count, and I’ve always known it was a literally hopeless task to convince anyone in the Warriors media of the truth of any of it. Indeed, the day after Lee put a +17 on the Cavs, Greg Papa stated on the radio that Lee “gives up more than he gets.” The timeless mantra, timelessly false.
What I want to write about today is not so much David Lee the player, but David Lee the man:
In the four years it took the Warriors to win a championship since acquiring him, David Lee was their truest professional. The big man they desperately needed to show up every single game. The workhorse who, when there was no other big man left standing behind him, shouldered the load and gave his team 40 productive minutes night in and night out, home or away, to the point of sacrificing his health. The team player who let rookie coach after rookie coach jam him into ridiculous secondary offensive roles, without a word of complaint, even though he knew what he could do when featured in the right system. The quiet tough guy and role model who insisted on taking the floor in the playoffs, for his team and teammates, when his abdominal muscles were hanging ripped from the bone. The humble mentor who took the young Stephen Curry under his wing, and Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli after him. The consummate teammate, always with a smile and a pat on the butt or word of encouragement for his teammates, even when those teammates started supplanting him in the lineup.
Would the Warriors’ young players have progressed as rapidly as they did, formed the chemistry they did, won the championship when they did, if David Lee had never been a Warrior?
I hope Lee wears his championship ring with pride. He earned it as much as anyone. And I thank him for the pleasure of watching him do it.
And as for those young pup bloggers out there, giggling over their insulting “your dad’s favorite player” meme? Listen up, you little punks.
Sometimes Daddy knows best.