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.

Speculation On Rose Needs To End

The highlight of Tuesday night’s Pacers-Knicks Game 2 was undoubtedly Iman Shumpert’s thunderous put-back dunk. While the monstrous throw-down had the immediate effect of pumping up the MSG faithful, and acting as a catalyst for a much improved Knicks performance, it also put the spotlight straight back on Derrick Rose—not that it had been off him for very long. The fact that Shumpert, who tore his ACL on the same day as Rose, was able to exhibit such explosive power and athleticism, was seen by some as another indictment on Rose’s unwillingness to suit up and play—hey if he can do it, why can’t you?

Whether or not Rose plays this season has been the dominant NBA storyline for the past few months. He’s been cleared to play by team doctors, warmed up with the team prior to games, and has participated in full-contact scrimmages for months now. But still, he doesn’t feel ready to return. Rose has stated repeatedly that he won’t return until he feels 110 percent—until he fully recovers the muscle memory in his left knee. All perfectly rational.

When Rose tore his ACL last April the worry among many was that, given his hypercompetitive nature, he would try and return too soon and run the risk of reinjuring his knee. The idea of him taking the whole season off wasn’t offensive to anyone, in-fact, it seemed like the sensible idea. Since that point, however, Adrian Peterson won the MVP and almost broke the single-season rushing record, Shumpert returned, and David Lee came back—albeit briefly—after tearing his hip flexor. None of this, however, should have anything to do with Rose returning. His knee isn’t Shumpert’s knee, nor is it Peterson’s, but the success stories of others have contributed to a growing public perception that Rose is somehow cheating his team.

That notion is ridiculous and unfair. There’s nothing weak or irrational about a player wanting, not only to be psychically ready to return, but mentally ready too. Only Derrick Rose knows how his knee feels, and he’s the only one who can truly make an educated decision about when he should return. No player took more punishment over the last three years than Derrick Rose. No player since Allen Iverson has put his body through more. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt on this one. The Bulls, with or without Rose, aren’t winning a championship, or even getting past Miami, despite their valiant efforts thus far. It makes no difference to their overall chances this season whether he plays or not.

If Rose decides to sit out the season, then it’s probably the correct decision. His big mistake, however, has been his failure to end the ‘will he, wont he’ speculation by not coming out with a definitive answer regarding his status. If he’s not going to suit up for the playoffs he should just come out and say that’s he’s done for the year. The lack of a concrete statement probably reflects the fact that in his own mind he’s still not 100% sure that he isn’t coming back, but telling the media that he’s shutting his season down, wouldn’t prohibit him from making a U-turn and coming back later. What it would do is mercifully end the constant chatter and distraction in the short-run.

The Bulls aren’t blameless in this saga either. It’s hard to understand why the media were told that Rose was cleared to play when he was clearly not ready to return. They did the fans and Rose a disservice in that regard.

If Rose makes a shock return in these playoffs, then great, the playoffs will be better for his involvement. If he waits until next season, then that’s fine too. Again, he’s earned to right to come back on his own terms. But as long as there continues to be no definitive statement on his status—as long as he’s game-to-game, or his return is ‘up in the air’—the discontent among Bulls fans will continue to grow, and the focus will remain firmly on him and away from events taking place on the court.

Rondo’s Temper Is Hurting His Team

Remember when NBA players were actually good at fighting? Nope, me neither. But I’ve watched plenty of grainy YouTube clips featuring the on-court exploits of those notorious pugilists from a by-gone era; an era when throwing hands was reluctantly tolerated, and the likes of Willis Reed, and, unfortunately, Kermit Washington made today’s tough guys seem a lot less scary.

And please, don’t tell me that Shaq can fight, or was a tough guy—I’ve seen him try to punch Brad Miller.

Wednesday night’s brawl between the Nets and Celtics reminds us that, thankfully, most recent NBA fights end up in awkward pushing/wrestling matches, with no one getting seriously hurt—and that there is zero tolerance for those kinds of on-court shenanigans nowadays.

Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace were ejected, Kevin Garnett should’ve been, and of course, Rajon Rondo, the player who did the most to escalate the brawl, left to have an early shower.

Rondo’s ejection, of course, snapped his somewhat pointless streak of 37 straight games with double-digit assist numbers, but more importantly, it again highlighted the irritating, and worrying (if you’re a Celtics fan) discipline problem that the uber-talented point-guard seems to have.

For some die-hard Celtics fans/ex-players, Tommy Heinsohn included, Rondo’s involvement in last night’s fracas was admirable. He was standing up for his teammate Garnett, and fighting a much bigger man in Humphries—sending the message that the Celtics won’t be pushed around.

Okay, sure, he went after the bigger man, but anyone that Rondo chooses to scuffle with is going to be bigger than him—unless he wants to fight J.J. Barea or Nate Robinson.

More to the point, Rondo’s behavior was self-destructive, bad for his team, and generally in keeping with the petulant side of his personality we’ve seen too many times since he’s been in the league.

Rondo undoubtedly has an ‘eff-you’ kind of edge to his game, which is great, if it’s channeled in the right way. He’s one of the most gifted players in the NBA, and one of my favourites to watch for the way he can take your breath away with moments of pure genius. But he can also be a liability at times. Forget the basketball stuff, the lack of a jump shot or criticisms of that kind, for now. It’s the shoving officials, throwing balls at officials, and starting fights, that should worry Doc Rivers right now.

Rivers said of Rondo after the Nets game: “You want to be on the edge, but you don’t want to take it over the edge. And he’s done that a couple times”.

Therein lies the conundrum for Rivers and the Celtics: How do you keep Rondo in check without completely stifling his competitive edge? It’s a delicate balancing act, for sure. Really, however, part of that should be on the player himself.

Pick you moments, Rondo. Sure, get in Dwayne Wade’s face during big games, even trash talk LeBron James if you dare, but fighting Humphries because Garnett flopped is not picking your moments.

Rondo’s lack of smarts when it comes to this stuff is more infuriating given the states of his team’s offense when he’s not on the court. Forget the Big-3, Rondo is now the Celtic’s franchise superstar. Everything revolves around him, and his team relies on him more than ever right now. They need him on the court playing like the transcendent, amazing player that he is, not playing the tough guy.

Sorry Rondo, this isn’t 1975.