The David Lee Problem
The Warrior’s roster as it is currently constructed makes sense except for one player, who sticks out like a sore thumb both financially and schematically: David Lee. The Dubs are team made up of players either still on their cheap rookie deals (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Festus Ezili), veterans on smart(ish) contract extensions/free agent deals (Steph Curry, Andrew Bogut, Andre Igoudala, Mo Speights), or veterans on cheap one year contracts (Jermaine O’neal, Toney Douglas). The only player on the roster that doesn’t fit into one of these categories is Lee, who is owed 13 million this year and then a staggering 30 more over the next two years. On a team with an otherwise very lean roster, Lee’s bloated contract is the biggest obstacle to the Warriors becoming an elite team.
It certainly doesn’t help that Lee is having the worst season of his career either. His 48% shooting is a career low (he’s never had a season under 50%), and his rebounding and assist numbers are the lowest since his ’08-’09 season on the Knicks. His elbow jumper, once so deadly and reliable, just hasn’t been there this year, and its hurt the warriors spacing (their offense is way too cramped for a team with this many good shooters) as well as his own effectiveness. Big men guarding Lee are hanging back in the lane, daring Lee to take jump shots and clogging things up for drives from perimeter players. The Curry-Lee pick and pop, such a staple of the offense last year, just isn’t resulting in points this year, as teams will double Curry and force the ball out of his hands, to an open Lee who can’t hit the shot from where he receives the ball. Lee is still a crafty offensive player, and can post up and get to the line against athletically challenged bigs, but having a possession that results in a David Lee shot is increasingly becoming an undesirable outcome, especially with high percentage three point shooters all around him.
Lee’s value as an offense weapon has declined, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if that wasn’t the only thing that gave him any value in the first place. His defense is just so atrocious at this point that it’s almost impossible be even an average defensive team when he’s on the floor. It’s not for lack of effort, I think Lee really does want to be a good defensive player, he just doesn’t have the tools to do it. He’s an undersized power forward that can’t jump, so he offers almost zero rim protection (seriously, I think Klay Thompson offers more). Opponents can drive right by or into David Lee and get great looks at the rim, which just can’t be the case with your starting power forward. He can get bullied down low by bigger power forwards, and isn’t fast enough to range out to the stretch 4’s becoming ever more popular in today’s game. In any and every defensive scheme, scenario, or situation, David Lee is bad at it. Having your highest paid player be completely inept at half of basketball is a problem.
It’s likely Lee will improve as the season goes on and find his jump shot, which at the very least will give an added dimension to the Dubs offense; I think it’s much more likely that he’s in a shooting slump than that he just simply can’t hit an elbow jumper, which he’s made his whole career, anymore. But Lee is 30, and his already minimal athleticism will only decrease from here. His contract will keep the Warriors from adding any new players in free agency, and is basically single handedly preventing GM Bob Meyers from improving the roster. Trading him straight up for somebody is going to be nearly impossible, as his contract is so toxic and the Warriors lack the first round picks (given up in the Biedrins/Jefferson salary dump) to make it palatable to any team. The dubs basically have two options, convince a desperate team (read Nets or Knicks) that is trying to contend this year to take on Lee for an expiring contract, or package one of the Warrior’s desirable young assets to move with Lee. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be the latter, and unfortunately, I think that young asset is Klay Thompson.
It might not happen this year, as the Dubs won’t have to extend Thompson until after next year, but it makes a lot of sense. If they pay Thompson and keep Lee, they’ll have no financial flexibility until the ’16-’17 season, when Lee’s contract comes off the books, and I don’t think the Warrior’s will be content to sit in a holding pattern of being good but not quite good enough for three seasons. Moreover, I think a lineup of Curry-Igoudala-Barnes-Green-Bogut might be their best 5 right now, and that’s before incorporating whatever the Warriors get back for Thompson. That aforementioned 5 (as well as Festus Ezili and Nenamja Nedovic) are locked up through the ’15-’16 season at deals ranging from bargain (Curry, Barnes, Green) to reasonable (Igoudala, Bogut), so the Warrior’s would have a ton of cap space (10-20 million) to add to that core. To me, that’s more desirable than trying to win a championship each of the next three years with their current roster.