August 1, 2010

Mr. Lee

The misbegotten Chris Cohan era will be neatly bookended by a pair of 80-million-dollar power forwards. The rookie deal Chris Webber opted out of in 1994 was slated to earn him $84 million over fifteen years, numbers that sound bizarre now for all sorts of reasons. And the signature act of the last-ever Summer of Cohan was the trade for David Lee, who came equipped with a freshly inked six-year, 80-million-dollar contract. If Lee plays out that contract in the Bay Area, he'll end up being paid more money than any player in Warrior history. As such, the guy merits a pretty close look under the statistical magnifying glass.

Here are ten good things about David Lee:

1) He scores often and efficiently. Lee's 20.2 scoring average placed him 15th in the league last year, two slots ahead of Corey Maggette, and one slot behind the dearly departed Stephen Jackson. He shot .545 from the field last season, the ninth-best mark in basketball. His .584 True Shooting Percentage was the lowest of his five-year NBA career, and he still just missed the league's top twenty by a nose.

2) He rebounds like a beast. Lee averaged 11.7 rebounds a night in each of the last two seasons, placing third and fourth in the league for his efforts. The Knicks' pace inflated his numbers, but only by a tad: Lee's 17.9% Rebounding Percentage was the eighth-best mark in 2009-10. His work on the defensive glass is particularly impressive... only Dwight Howard grabbed more defensive boards than David Lee last season.

3) He's becoming an excellent passer. After putting up pedestrian assist totals in his first several seasons, David Lee found religion on the passing front in 2009-10, leading all centers with 3.6 nightly assists. This wasn't mitigated by a boatload of turnovers, either... Lee posted a 1.56 A/TO ratio, well above most big men and comfortably ahead of (ahem) Monta Ellis.

4) He makes his free throws. Lee shot .812 from the charity stripe in '09-'10, the third time in four years he'd topped 81%. A big that can ice free throws late is a valuable thing.

5) He stretches the floor. While he made his name as a banger, David Lee has quietly become a marksman from inside the arc. From 10-15 feet, he hit 49.6% of his shots last year, just a shade below Kobe Bryant... from 16-23 feet, he made 43% of his shots, just a shade below Stephen Curry. Lee hasn't made a three-pointer in an NBA game yet, but given the rate at which he's improved his range, that day isn't far off.

6) He excels at the pick and roll. There are no real numbers to codify this, but trust us, he does. The Warriors run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Andris Biedrins, whose inability to shoot from distance limits the play's versatility. With Lee, the play becomes much more difficult to defend, and both Curry and Monta figure to profit significantly from his presence.

7) He avoids foul trouble. Lee averaged just 4.1 fouls per 48 minutes last season, one of the lower marks among bigs. (Anthony Randolph averaged 5.9, and Andris Biedrins averaged a nightmarish 7.4.) This allows Lee to stay on the floor... he averaged 37.3 minutes a game in 2009-10, trailing only Zach Randolph, Dirk and LaMarcus Aldridge among NBA big men.

8) He's durable. David Lee has missed exactly one game in each of the past three seasons. Since 2007, Don Nelson has missed more games than David Lee has.

9) He's likely to age well. Good rebounders that score efficiently tend to have long careers. Last year's Basketball Prospectus annual listed Lee's best statistical comps as Tyrone Hill, A.C. Green, Drew Gooden and Michael Cage. The skills of Gooden, who's two years older than Lee, have shown no diminution of late... Hill, Green and Cage were all effective players through age 32. Lee will be 32 when his Warriors contract runs out.

10) He parties with Snooki. I think I speak for all of us when I say I want to see Snooki come out of this thing okay. If David Lee is willing to help her complete her squeaky drunken ride through life, more power to him.

These are not trivial pluses we're talking about, here. The Warriors just acquired a sturdy rebounding machine who scores and passes well and makes necrotic Chileans feel good about themselves. Against David Lee's many massive positives, there is only one meaningful negative: his poor defense. And yet, that one negative may be malignant enough to render the whole exercise of acquiring him pointless.

The 2008-09 New York Knicks had a -3.4 point differential with Lee on the floor and a -0.7 point differential without him. The 2009-10 New York Knicks had a -4.1 point differential with Lee on the floor and a -2.8 point differential without him. Lee was the alpha and omega of that team, its unquestioned star, and yet the Knicks played more competitive basketball when he was on the bench. This wasn't a distortion caused by an unusually effective bench, either... Duhon, Chandler, Gallinari and Jeffries, the Knicks' other primary starters last season, all posted positive net plus-minuses. The team just didn't seem to profit from the guy's presence. And the reason why isn't exactly mysterious: the Knicks' defense just collapsed with Lee out there, giving up three or four more points per 100 possessions when he played in the last two years. When David Lee plays, opposing teams tend to shoot better and record more assists. Most troubling, they seem to grab just as many offensive rebounds when he's in there, despite his prodigious totals.

This description will sound familiar to the more grizzled Warrior fans out there. We once had another power forward who combined scoring polish with eye-popping rebounding numbers, a guy who seemed like a good building block for a playoff team on paper. Problem was, Troy Murphy absolutely murdered, and continues to murder, any chance his team has of competing defensively. He doesn't affect shots, he doesn't body up hard, and he doesn't smack guys who dare attack the rim near him. He just sets up shop and waits for that defensive rebound. If it comes, he's likely to get it. But it often doesn't come, because opposing players realize they can get to the hoop by going, well, straight at Troy Murphy. Murphy continues to post sterling production stats, and his teams continue to lose, because you can't win if one of your big men won't make any noise on defense. Lee is a better player than Murphy, but he is cut from the same cloth. And if that scares you, it should.

Dub fans, we have to pray that Lee's defense will improve from "team-killingly horrible" to plain old "horrible" when he returns to his natural position of power forward. His plus-minus numbers were solid from 2006-08, when he mainly played the four... he hurt the Knicks' D then too, but not enough to outweigh his contributions on offense. It's possible that with enough help defense from Andris Biedrins, David Lee can be as big a contributor to winning as his numbers suggest he is. If he can, our newest postseason drought will be a short one. This could very well work out.

But this could very easily be a disaster. The idea that David Lee can help you win is just theoretical at this point... no team he has played for has ever won 34 games in a season, let alone 44 or 54. A Curry/Monta backcourt is going to let boatloads of guys drive to the hoop, and the Warriors have just sold the farm for a player who may not slow them down when they get there. All the pick-and-roll polish in the world isn't going to save you if your team can't stop anybody.

Paying a good-but-not-great high-scoring non-defender more than anyone else is willing to, in a season where you should clearly be rebuilding, is a mistake. Warriors fans recognized that two years ago when the team signed Corey Maggette. It's mind-boggling that they've forgotten that lesson so quickly.

David Lee has not yet shown that he can be the centerpiece of a decent team. Can he? Maybe. But it wasn't worth parting with Anthony Randolph and eighty million dollars to find out.


Biff said...

Solid breakdown, O. I have the biggest fear that if Nelson stays as coach, he'll do two things: 1) alienate and further kill Biedrins' confidence, which will lead to 2) playing Lee at center for an absurd number of minutes. After the euphoria of this ownership change, we dub fans need a healthy dose of skepticism.

Owen said...

You nailed it, Biff -- the David Lee experiment will almost definitely fail under Nellie, which is reason #7,420 why the Warriors need a new coach. Lee needs to be hidden on D, and that'll take some hard work and creativity. Cocktail-laden smallballmania ain't gonna do it.

BASG said...

Great breakdown. There are enough positives that the team employees will have plenty of things to talk about publicly, but the fact remains the guy who's set to be the highest paid Warrior of all time has never been the reason an NBA team has won. Sure, the Knicks haven't have a lot of talent around him, but he's never sniffed the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and the Warriors are paying him like a franchise player.

To expect Lee to somehow lead the Warriors to greatness with defensive skills that are so lackluster is incredibly optimistic and probably irrational. They need to pray for the No. 1 pick in next year's draft, and hope the best guy available is better than Joe Smith.

Philip said...

If we say that Lee is overrated, over paid, or doesn't help is team win, I think that we have to say that about some of the other top PF's on the market this offseason:
David Lee:
09-10 Net +/-: -1.54
2 yr. Adj +/-: -2.45
09-10 Win Shares: 10.3
09-10 WARP: 13.2
09-10 Wins Produced: 17.3
Age: 27
Contract: 6/80 Mil

Carlos Boozer:
09-10 Net +/-: -1.95
2 yr. Adj +/-: -1.75
09-10 Win Shares: 9.9
09-10 WARP: 11.7
09-10 Wins Produced: 16.32
Age: 28
Contract: 5/80 Mil

Amare Stoudemire:
09-10 Net +/-: -1.23
2 yr. Adj +/-: -3.54
09-10 Win Shares: 10.7
09-10 WARP: 10.8
09-10 Wins Produced: 8.63
Age: 28
Contract: 5/100 Mil

Basically, there's very little difference between the three except we're paying Lee less (although we did give up some nice pieces to get him). The biggest key to this team is Stephen Curry, because the biggest difference between the Suns, Jazz, and Knicks this past year was the Suns had Steve Nash, the Jazz had Deron Williams, and the Knicks had... um... Chris Duhon and Toney Douglas.

Owen said...

It's a fair point, Philip... thing is, I don't think moving Randolph for Boozer or Amar'e would've been a great idea, either. This team's core is too weak to merit adding a big-money guy unless he's definitely good enough to take you places, and I don't think any of those three guys is a sure bet to do that.

feltbot said...

Owen, on a losing team like the Knicks, wouldn't a high minutes player tend to have a higher negative point differential than the team as a whole during the time he was off the court? Not a stat phreak, just asking.