“Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.” – Alan Turing
A season that has been full of ups for the Golden State Warriors, has been mostly downs for David Lee.
A hamstring injury caused Lee to miss the first 25 games of the season and gave Draymond Green a crack at the starting power forward spot. Then the Warriors ran out to a 22-3 start which sealed Green’s position ahead of Lee in the pecking order, forcing him to the bench. But Lee didn’t fit in with the Warriors frenetic switching defensive scheme that worked especially well with the second unit. His minutes fell throughout the season and come playoff time, he was firmly out of the rotation.
This season, the conversation around Lee has seemed to focus on all of the things he couldn’t do well and how they would hold the team back. His limitations. His defensive shortcomings (though he has improved on that end under assistant coach Ron Adams). His big salary. All of the things he excels at were not what the Warriors needed (and losing his mid-range touch didn’t help). Looking just at this year, it becomes easy to forget that Lee was the first Warriors All-Star in 16 years (making the West squad in 2013) and a guaranteed double-double machine who has shot over 50% from the field every year of his career.
Not helping things was the fact that Lee made $15.5 million this year. That is more than Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Andrew Bogut. You could even throw Green’s salary on top of any of those guys and it would still add up to less than what Lee is getting. It’s the biggest contract on the Warriors roster without the production to match it, and it’s the main reason that the Warriors tried to move him at the trade deadline (and will continue to do so once this season ends).
The playoffs began and another injury kept Lee out of the first round series against the Pelicans. When he did get healthy, he still didn’t play, averaging 7.5 minutes and 2.0 points on 32-percent shooting from the floor throughout the Western Conference playoffs. In the seven games prior to Games 3 and 4 of the finals, he didn’t crack more than five minutes of playing time, or score more than two points. In three of those games, he didn’t make it on the floor at all.
But after dropping Game 2 of the Finals at home, with the offense looking discombobulated, Green rattled and injured, Bogut ineffective, and a championship run on the line, head coach Steve Kerr looked far down the bench and summoned Lee. He answered.
His Game 3 line: 11 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and +17 in 13 minutes on 4-4 shooting. He switched onto LeBron for a few possessions and held his own against the King.
Before Game 4, Kerr said to expect to see more of David Lee, and we did. In what amounted to a must-win game for the Warriors, he chipped in 9 pts, 5 rebs, and 3 assists with no turnovers and a +4 in 15 minutes as they evened up the series.
Every interview you see with Lee this year, he’s been asked the same questions: How hard has it been for you to come off the bench? Is it difficult to not be in the rotation? Don’t you want to play? These questions come especially after he plays a good game, like the one last night.
He’s answered the inquiries all season with the right cliches about being a professional, staying ready, and staying hungry at all times. But those words seemed hollow–right up until they needed it to be true to save the Warriors.
Warriors fans have long memories; a 40 year championship drought and several consecutive decades of abject futility will do that to you. We remember those who were with us in the muck of the losing years. That’s why Monta Ellis always gets an ovation every time he comes back to Oracle. Same with Baron Davis and Jason Richardson. Even Adonal Foyle is beloved in Oakland. And David Lee was on that list, even before this series.
That rampant sentimentality is why I have enjoyed seeing David Lee find his way again the past two games. If this Finals is the coda for Lee’s time with the Warriors, it is a fitting one. Instead of a $15.5 million boondoggle, the man nobody expected anything of could be the one who helps deliver the thing no one imagined at the start of this season: a title to the Bay. And if that’s the price of a championship, we’ll take it.
Cover photo via the Mercury News.
BRIAN WONG | @bigbwong
Brian Wong is a third-generation Chinese American and Bay Area native. NBA fan, Golden State Warriors fanatic. Brian is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.