Warriors Have Been Better Without David Lee

The Golden State Warriors have been the biggest surprise of the post-season—if you’re a neutral fan and you’re not on their bandwagon, you’re definitely in the minority. There may not be a more exciting player to watch right now than Steph Curry, and his team plays a brand of high-tempo basketball that’s very easy on the eye.

Although Mark Jackson’s side won 47 games in the regular season, and reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, very few people were predicting that they’d triumph over the Denver Nuggets in the first round. And the few people that did favour the Warriors would’ve had their faith severely tested when Andre Miller hit the winning lay-up for the Nuggets in Game 1, and David Lee tore his hip flexor, seemingly ruling him out of the playoffs.

But fast-forward a couple weeks and the Warriors, led by the breathtaking shooting of Curry and Klay Thompson—already being dubbed the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history—and fantastic contributions from their rookies, are tied with the mighty San Antonio Spurs, having dispatched the Nuggets in six.

Although Lee inexplicably returned to action in Game 6 of the Nuggets series, his minutes and contributions have been minimal—offering his team emotional, rather than tangible on-court benefits. Lee had a fantastic regular season on the offensive end. That much is true. He led the league in double-doubles and was the only player to come close to averaging 20 and 10. But the Warriors are winning games without him; and more than that, they look like a better-balanced team in his absence.

With Lee going down after Game 1, Mark Jackson made the inspired decision to play small-ball. Jarrett Jack was moved into the starting lineup, Klay Thompson shifted down to the 3, and rookie Harrison Barnes played the power-forward position. Against the Nuggets, a team that doesn’t post-up its big-men, the change worked like a charm. Barnes, and the Warriors’ other talented rookie, Draymond Green, weren’t overawed by Kenneth Farried on defense, and were able to drag him out of the paint on offense, as both men are a threat from downtown. Eventually Jackson forced George Karl to match his small-ball by playing Wilson Chandler at power-forward.

Jackson’s small ball lineups have continued into the Spurs series—Carl Landry started at the 4-spot in Game 4, and his ability to hit from mid-range also drags the Spurs’ big-men away from the rim. And while the likes of Barnes and Green do a great job stretching the floor—Lee can hit the midrange jumper, but not the 3—their defense has been a big reason why the Warriors haven’t missed Lee. Although Lee snags his fair share of rebounds, he’s a distinct minus at the defensive end; so much so that analytics aficionado, Kirk Goldsberry, gave a presentation at the Sloan Conference dedicated to the general awfulness of Lee’s interior defense.

And on the subject of defense, the rejuvenation of Andrew Bogut has also been a major factor in the Warriors not missing Lee. Bogut has looked like a different player in the post-season. Not only has he defended the basket the way he did at the high point of his Milwaukee days (check out his recent D on Tim Duncan), but he’s been able to offer something at the offensive end too. Bogut has taken over from Lee as the screener in the Warriors’ pick-n-roll, and has shown they he can roll to the rim and finish when the defense tries to close on the ball-handler (primarily Steph Curry).

And as Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently pointed out, Bogut is a much better screener than Lee, whose screens are weak and often fail to create enough separation between Curry and his defender. Bogut is a brute of a man—when he sets a hard pick most defenders have a tough time recovering, and Curry with the smallest amount of time and space is deadly.

In Lee’s absence, Curry and Thompson have taken advantage of the extra space on the floor and come into their own. They’ve taken Lee’s shots and thrived with greater offensive responsibility. Ultimately, for an NBA team to flourish, two scorers are sufficient. The Warriors have more than enough offense with Curry and Thompson scoring 20-30 points, and the likes of Jack, Barnes, Green, Landry, and Bogut all contributing. With Lee’s pourous defense, and the emergence of Golden State’s young-guns, it would seem like the Warriors all-star has become somewhat expendable.

This all may seem a tad bit unfair on Lee. He’s a good offensive player and has had a great year. And sometimes it’s fashionable to claim that a team is better when one of their stars go down—those they said the Celtics were better without Rondo look a little foolish now. But the Warriors’ less than impressive second half of the season, and 10 high-pressure post-season games, is a pretty decent sample size with which to make a case.

As is the case with Amar’e Stoudemire in New York—another terrible defensive player—it’s hard to see a scenario where the Warriors get better with Lee playing big minutes. In all likelihood Lee will still be a Warrior come November—his contract, about $45 million over the next 3 years, would be prohibitively expensive for many teams—but it will be fascinating to see how Jackson attempts to work Lee back into the starting line-up, and how it affects their overall balance.

Lee’s play undoubtedly helped the Warriors get to the post-season, but without him, they’ve reached another level.

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