From starter to benchwarmer: David Lee's fall has been swift, but that hasn't kept the veteran from being ready to play in the NBA Finals.
CLEVELAND—He’s the Warriors' highest-paid player, pocketing $15 million million this season with another $15.5 million due next season. Two years ago, he was an All-Star. Last season, he had more double-double’s than Tim Duncan, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
This season: David Lee can’t get off the bench.
It’s a strange story. In October, Lee was immersed in an uneventful preseason. He started, produced and looked ready for another solid season. Since 2010, Lee has never averaged fewer than 16 points and nine rebounds. As training camp wound down, there was little reason to believe Lee wouldn’t, again, duplicate those numbers.
Then, in the preseason finale against Denver, he tweaked his hamstring. A week later he rushed back and tweaked it again. He sat out for more than a month. By the time he was ready to return, the Warriors were rolling (22-3), Draymond Green was firmly entrenched as the starter while Marreese Speights had earned Steve Kerr’s trust coming off the bench. Suddenly, Lee was a pricey insurance policy. He started picking up DNP-CD’s in March and by the end of the regular season he was little more than an afterthought.
In the playoffs, Lee is averaging 7.6 minutes per game, most of which came during a three-game stretch against Memphis. In the Finals, Lee hasn’t played a minute.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s very frustrating not to play,” Lee told SI.com. “It doesn’t matter when the buzzer sounds and we’re up, if I were to tell you anything differently I wouldn’t be a competitor. I wouldn’t be being honest with you. It’s very frustrating not to play and who knows if I will play in this series? That’s just the reality of it.”
Kerr has no beef with Lee. In fact, he likes him. Kerr brought Lee into coaches meetings when the big man was injured early in the season. But he has a rotation that works. Green—the runner up for Defensive Player of the Year—has been the catalyst for the Warriors' jump from fourth in defensive efficiency last season to first this year. Like Lee, Speights is an offensive-oriented forward who can play both power spots.
Trying to shoehorn Lee into a successful lineup made little sense—and Lee knew it.
“It’s kind of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’” Lee said. “It’s tough to disagree when you are winning close to 70 games. I want to be out there. I think everyone in the building knows that I can play. But it’s not about me right now, it’s about the team. Steve Nash was around [last week]. He played 19 years and he has never been to the Finals. I’m making myself enjoy every moment of this. If we win a championship, that’s all that matters.”
Lee knows he has to stay ready. In the conference semifinals against Memphis, Speights strained his calf. With the Warriors down 2-1, Kerr turned to Lee off the bench. Lee didn’t put up big numbers—his best game was a six-point, seven-rebound effort in 17 minutes in Game 5—but he played credible defense on Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. More importantly: Golden State won the next three games.
“I’m always on my toes," Lee said. “I’ve told [Kerr], ‘Whatever you need, if you need me to play one offensive possession, if you need me to get a rebound, I’ll do that.’ I always have to be ready. There have been times when I haven’t played in the first half and he will throw me in during the third quarter.
“Mentally, knowing what my mindset is, I’m going to be ready at all times. If I don’t play 10 games in a row, in that 11th game if I get two minutes I am going to be aggressive and playing the hardest of anyone on the floor. I’m going to stick to my identity as a player. It’s easier said than done. But I’m going to do it.”
For Golden State, Lee’s attitude has been invaluable. Lee easily could have taken a different tact. He’s an All-Star and one of the highest-paid players in the league; a little grumbling to reporters about minutes wouldn’t be unusual—or all that out of line. But it would have spoiled the Warriors' team chemistry, and Lee wasn’t willing to risk that.
“I think for me, it’s about being who I am,” Lee said. “I’m a good teammate. I’m a good character guy, chemistry guy. That’s all tested in a situation like this. I’m not sure I could see myself ever disrupting a team, but it would be easy for me to get down and not be ready. For me it’s more important to be ready and do my part. Let it be known that when my number was called [against Memphis] I was ready.”
These could be Lee’s final days in Golden State. The Warriors have to pay Green this summer, have Klay Thompson entering the first year of a lucrative extension and have to start thinking about the cash they have to dole out to Curry for a max deal in a few years. This summer, Lee could be a luxury Golden State can’t—or won’t—be able to afford.
Lee knows all this. But to him, it’s an issue for another day.
"I’ve been on some very challenging teams,” Lee said. “To be a part of something like this, winning makes you happy. I want to get a championship. That’s all there is to it. When you win, it makes everyone smile and it smooths over a lot of the frustration.”