The Fundamentals: David Lee returns to Warriors team that grew in his absence
When David Lee suffered the injury that would shape the Warriors’ 2013 postseason, his face was marked by an evident confusion. An awkward landing had sent him to the floor in a heap, but his knees were stable, his ankles fine. Instead, Lee grimaced, wide-eyed, as he grabbed his upper-right thigh — clinging to a torn muscle and the first playoff appearance of his eight-year career.
Once back on his feet, the ensuing free-throw attempts were painless enough. But it all changed for Lee when his steps quickened as he turned to jog down the court.
“It was very strange because it was painful, but more than that it was just feeling like I had no strength in my leg,” Lee said. “When I was running, taking any kind of stride, it felt basically like my leg was numb — like I had no muscle to pull my leg through.”
The sensation brought him to a halt. Lee doubled over, arms extended in search of support as he lurched toward the sideline. From there, the narrative is well-established. Lee would return to the court in a mere 11 days to hobble his way through spot minutes in three more playoff games, all while the team’s rotation and offense took an evident turn. Golden State leaned into the injury first by giving Stephen Curry the fullest offensive freedom, then by opting for small ball out of seeming necessity. The five-man lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes didn’t log a single minute for the Warriors in the regular season, yet it was their most-used group in the playoffs. Curry soared, the Warriors thrived and the public consideration of Lee’s role with the team swelled.
The root of that doubt was established long before the tear. Lee had (deservedly) been roasted for his poor interior defense, and even his offensive production comes with some caveat. Still, it’s amazing how quickly it was forgotten that Golden State was demonstrably better (+5.5 points per 100 possessions) with Lee on the floor in the 2012-13 regular season, as the flashbulb brilliance of the Warriors’ playoff run seemed to obscure all else. The postseason was not a statement of Lee’s obsolescence, but an expansion of Golden State’s team-wide capabilities.
“A guy like Harrison got an opportunity to step up not only at the power forward but also at the small forward spot,” Lee said. “And Carl Landry stepped up — he’s another guy that we’ll miss this year [after his free-agent departure]. They played very, very well. That’s only going to help us this year when we have an even better chance, in my opinion, to go further.
“It creates an interesting matchup for both teams when we go small. If a team has a center that’s not a big-time scorer, then it might be something we can go to knowing that we’ll have the advantage on offense and defensively we’re not going to lose much.”
What’s most important with the small-ball Warriors is selective implementation — both to exploit opponents in the way Lee prescribed, and to avoid the wear-down that comes in asking undersized players to compete on the glass, help defensively and defend bigger opponents on a nightly basis. Even the Heat, small-ball luminaries that they are, have faced issues of sustenance. They’re inherent to the format, which makes Lee’s role as an offensive intermediary all the more important. He’s a more traditional big man in terms of skill set, but he’s more than capable of straining defenses in similar ways with his high-post work and mid-range shooting.
Plus, there’s no mutual exclusivity between the small-ball Warriors and a fully involved Lee. He doesn’t offer those lineups much of a defensive backbone, but Lee is certainly capable of filling minutes as a small-ball big man, particularly as favorable matchups allow.
“Offensively, I can exploit — a lot of times — the center a lot more in pick-and-roll or isolations from the perimeter,” Lee said. “Defensively, I’m oftentimes up against a much stronger, taller player [when playing the small-ball 5], so I really have to do a lot more fighting down low and be more conscious of [not] picking up cheap fouls.”
With Lee, though, the greater concern is not his ability to defend a center but to play the field. Lee does fine when locking on to a single opponent; he doesn’t put the clamps on his mark by any means, but he does a serviceable job of keeping up and contesting shots when his man has the ball. The trouble comes when the assignment gets more nebulous, such as when defending space or pinning down the precise timing of help and recovery.
What makes Lee’s defense especially painful is that opponents know that he’s a player worth targeting. Teams game-plan around the possibility of getting Lee involved in as many pick-and-rolls as possible, and that aspect of the game is likely to be problematic for the Warriors on some level regardless of what position he plays. The burden is thus on him to find ways to improve. Lee will never have the instincts or physical attributes to be a proper rim protector, but he can still benefit from the process of consistent refinement in a familiar defensive system.
“We’re mostly just continuing to improve on the [systemic] changes we made last year,” Lee said. “I think one thing we learned was [the value of] having a consistent system and drilling every single day on the things we want to accomplish. So much of the NBA now is team defense and helping one another defensively. We’re just continuing to shore up those principles and get guys up to speed who maybe played things different for different teams last year.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Lee is visibly lighter and more mobile than in years past, having put in a full offseason of work to improve his conditioning and maximize his mobility.
“The number one thing this summer — and I believe my defense has been much better, for the preseason — is being in better shape,” Lee said in an interview before the start of the regular season. “I think it’s huge. A lot of times when you’re not as in-shape as you could be, the first place you’re looking to rest is on defense because you have a moment.
“In watching film of last year, I felt that was the case with me. So being in better shape and being stronger is really going to help me defensively, as well as continuing to be better positioning-wise. A lot of that is team defense, but it’s also individual skill making up that team defense. Being better, position-wise, and knowing my conditioning is even better this year is going to help me and the other guys a lot.”
So far, Lee has fared a bit better. He won’t become an impact defender just by shedding a few pounds, but being lighter on his feet and sharper on his defensive angles could help him inch toward overall competence. The sample sizes are far too meager to be telling, but lineups with Lee on the floor during Golden State’s 3-1 start have done well — spectacularly so, in some cases — on defense regardless of whether he’s playing alongside Bogut or working as a self-sufficient center.
It’s good to see coach Mark Jackson experimenting, too, with the best ways to help Lee schematically. Golden State’s smaller lineups have already run a touch of zone with Lee filling the middle, and the Warriors’ pick-and-roll coverage has periodically shifted to have the more nimble Lee hedge harder on ball handlers rather than lie in wait around the free-throw line. Both are trends worth keeping an eye on, as Golden State’s interests in running small should only increase when Barnes — who was the fulcrum of the team’s small-ball turn in the playoffs — returns soon from a toe injury.
Of course, Andre Iguodala’s transformational presence should also make Lee’s defensive work easier. Golden State’s high-profile acquisition is a fiend in coverage, and a first-line imposition unlike any Lee has played with previously. He’ll largely handle the most challenging perimeter assignments for the Warriors, which by extension puts Thompson and Barnes in more comfortable matchups and makes it far easier for the Warriors to hide Curry if need be. As good as Iguodala is on the ball, it’s those trickle-down implications that mean most for Golden State. Team defense is an exercise in managing an opponent’s entire threat, and Iguodala’s arrival puts the complete formation of Warriors in a better position to defend reliably. With fewer blow-bys — from Iguodala and the teammates he’s aided in adjustment — comes less pressure on Lee, and the basis of a wonderful basketball synergy.
“We’re already starting to pick it up,” Lee said of his on-court chemistry with Iguodala. “He’s a guy that provides a lot of versatility for us. He can guard multiple positions, and offensively he can give us some different looks. He’s going to help make everyone around him that much better.”
Their relationship has room to be almost equally beneficial on offense, where Iguodala will provide the cut to Curry’s and Thompson’s curl — a dream combination for a high-post player with Lee’s vision. Conversely, Iguodala is a slasher who defaults as a passer, making him a perfect primer for Lee’s slippery dives to the hoop. Between them there’s both the concerted effort and the court awareness to yield an incredible partnership. It’s taken only this long for the pair to pull off this:
Those are plays made out of intuition, not familiarity. What Lee and Iguodala might be able to accomplish when they’re actually in tune to one another’s tendencies could be downright frightening. They’re less immediately threatening than Golden State’s high-profile shooters, positioned as an augmentation of sorts for all that Golden State established in the postseason.
The playoffs taught opponents to fear Curry — to understand that he’s a threat from the moment he steps beyond half court, and that he needs to be denied every bit of open air. This season, though, the Warriors have the personnel to evolve more rather than dwell on a Curry-dependent model. Whether they run small or not is almost secondary to the fact that the threat of Curry’s shooting has escalated dramatically. Much has been made about Golden State’s spacing with Lee on the floor compared to that with his small-ball counterparts, but the fact that he doesn’t have three-point range matters markedly less when opponents are forced to attach themselves to the Warriors’ point guard well beyond the three-point line and eye another shooter (Thompson) as he streaks around the court.
“The NBA is all about spacing,” Lee said. “It’s all about reading defenses and taking what the defense gives you. I’ve noticed that as Steph and Klay have really made their mark as elite shooters in the league, it’s changed the whole spacing of when I have post-ups and when I set pick-and-rolls. There are certain things that a defense can do when there are non-shooters out there that they can’t even think of doing when Steph and Klay are out there. It’s really a step and a half difference in how much help [the defense] can give, and that opens me up.
“A lot of times that means in the first half I’m going to go to work a lot more, and then as they make the adjustments in the second half, that’s going to mean open shots later for Steph and Klay. The big thing is just taking what the defense gives us and realizing that we’re going to make each other better.”
Lee has returned to a team propelled by a decidedly different dynamic — one brought on by his very absence. If Lee had played more in the postseason, it’s uncertain whether Curry would immediately project the same lethal, limitless range or command so much consistent attention. But from that development, Lee’s role has shifted. He’ll do largely the same things for the Warriors this season that he always has: the post-ups, the pick-and-rolls, the smart passing and bulk rebounding. What changes are the implications involved for a more balanced roster creeping toward actualization.
Small ball, it seems, was only the beginning.
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