The Golden State Warriors owe David Lee $57 million, more than any other player on the roster. (Andrew Bogut is due $27 million. Recently signed Stephen Curry is due $47 million.) Yet, when you think of what many consider to be a bright (or brighter) future for the Warriors, just about no one associates Lee with that. It's all about the growth from the young wings like Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, and the highly valued potential defensive impact of Bogut (who continues to fight injury). Lee hardly registers.
But Lee isn't quite bad. He might not even be a bad value at $13 million per year. It's all a matter of figuring out how important the things he does well are, and assessing how much the things he does poorly hurts Golden State. When you look that deeply, it turns out painting a fairly unfortunate picture of the Warriors' heavy investment in Lee.
Lee is a good offensive player. In New York, he regularly was among the most efficient players in the league. That was aided by his role; he was good enough to score in heavy doses, but was only called on for lighter contributions. Studies have shown that players who take shots less frequently tend to get better shots and indeed, much of the growth in shot frequency comes at the expense of quality. Lee's career matches that theory. His individual offensive rating (points per possession used) was highest in the years in which his usage rate (percentage of possessions used while on the court) was the lowest. His usage rate has been higher in Golden State, and his efficiency has fallen.
That is a completely normal skill curve. In Golden State, Lee's been asked to do more, and is surely being paid to do more. And because of the increased responsibility, his efficiency has dropped. But note that it's still above average, which is important. He's not nearly as efficient as he'd been when he got paid, but he's still a good offensive player. That's important.
It's the other side of the court where that value takes some dings.
By scouting report, Lee is a defensive disaster. His only marketable defensive skill is rebounding, where he's quite strong. But he has such a poor defensive reputation that when he once received an All-Defense vote the internet nearly imploded in disbelief. On-off data seems to back up the common perception. Last season, the Warriors' defense was five points per 100 possessions better with Lee on the bench. With Lee on the court, opponents had an effective field goal percentage of .505. With Lee on the bench, it was .478.
The numbers were virtually identical in 2010-11: the Warriors' defense was five points better with Lee sitting, primarily because of shooting. Using on-off data, Lee's offensive contribution has been nearly the exact converse of his defensive impact: the team has typically been 4-5 points better offensively with Lee on the court.
This is where things are exceptionally tricky. Using this type of data, it appears Lee is as good offensively as he is bad defensively. He has no net impact in total. There's a value in that, of course, because there are plenty of players who have net negative impacts. But for a player making the level of coin Lee is due, that's underwhelming.
It's hard to suss out how much of the defensive issue is due to Lee, and how much can be attributed to the fact he's a starter (playing against typically better offensive players), plays with a weak defensive lead guard in Curry and hasn't had a consistent defensive presence next to him at center due to injuries to Kwame Brown and Bogut. Of course, this is where the qualitative analysis helps us admit that, yes, Lee is pretty bad on defense.
In the end, I'm pretty confident that because of his defensive struggles and his inability to, like true offensive stars, maintain high efficiency at higher volumes, Lee isn't close to worth his salary. It'll be interesting to see how the capital outlay on his contract will affect the Warriors' ability to transform from a squad on the edge of the playoff race to, possibly, someday, a contender. That could depend on finding another team convinced that Lee's offense outweighs his defense. Based on NBA transaction history, that shouldn't be too hard to pull off.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.