Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News presents a fascinating argument on how the absence of David Lee has freed the Golden State Warriors' offense to reach new heights. Kawakami argues that with Lee playing all of two minutes since tearing his hip flexor in Game 1 of Round 1 -- an injury that should have ended the All-Star's season -- Golden State has blossomed into a faster, more efficient, more confident club.
It's hard to argue with the results. The Warriors are 5-2 since the initial injury, and have seriously outplayed the San Antonio Spurs over the bulk of the two games that have begun this series. Lee hasn't played against the Spurs.
But this is the line that struck me.
Really, the Warriors have moved beyond a dependence on Lee.
It reminds me of another Warrior: Monta Ellis.
Not that Lee is Ellis. Lee is and has always been a more efficient scorer while taking far fewer possessions. The forward is an ace rebounder, better at collecting caroms compared to peers than Ellis is at setting up players. (It seems fair to compare relative effectiveness of the primary secondary offensive skillset for big men and guards, even though rebounds are far cheaper than assists and the value of assists is a big ol' mystery.) Neither is known for their defense. In fact, each is known for pretty poor defense. But they are good players -- All-Star level, in Lee's case.
The twist here is that Ellis, a veteran player who would soak up as many offensive possessions as needed (and then some), was a rock that Keith Smart and Mark Jackson could depend on. Again, not a particularly efficient rock. But a sponge who could take the ball and produce points credibly no matter what went on around him. Stephen Curry's injured? Give the ball to Monta. Curry's been defended well? Give it to Monta. Klay Thompson is taking some time to adjust to the NBA game? Monta. David Lee is out of sorts? Give it to Monta. He was like a parachute for the Warriors: the team didn't have to leap out of the plane relying on the young Curry, the younger Thompson and a player in Lee uncomfortable at high usage rates. If something went wrong, pull the cord and Monta pops out to at least allow you to avoid looking like the Bobcats.
But Curry got so good by the end of his second year that the team didn't need to pull the Monta cord so often. Adding Thompson -- a player you could stick at two-guard on both ends -- last year helped, too. And there was the not inconsequential fact that once the playoffs became out of reach in 2011-12, it was in the team's best interest to lose in order to keep their lottery pick. (Golden State needed to earn the No. 7 pick or higher to keep it. They ended up with the No. 7 pick after some fairly obvious tanking activity.) Curry, the promise of Thompson and a realization that crashing to the Earth for the back half of the 2011-12 season wouldn't be necessarily bad allowed the Warriors to free Monta. And free him they did, swapping him for an injured Andrew Bogut at the deadline.
If Monta was the parachute to prevent an ugly crash for a rebuilding team, Lee is the training wheels that helped teach Curry and Thompson -- and to a different but important extent Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green -- to play crisp team offense. Lee is very good in the pick and roll; he and Curry were devastating in the combination. As Kawakami notes, Curry is now so good he can pick and roll with anyone. (He could pick and roll with Andris Biedrins, OK?) Thompson has come into his own even beyond that absurd first half explosion in Game 2 against San Antonio (29 points, six threes); he's already one of the best young two-guards in the league, and we'll all be wondering how he fell so deep into the lottery in a bad draft for years to come. Barnes, a rookie, is contributing is important ways. And Bogut is finally back and doing Bogut things: setting good screens, passing the ball well and providing enough defense to get Golden State by.
Injury forced the training wheels off for the Warriors, but honestly, I'm not sure Curry and Thompson wouldn't have blown them away by now anyway. Golden State may still be better with a healthy Lee than without. Carl Landry is basically Lee lite, and while Green has been a revelation, there are enough things Lee does than Draymond doesn't to give the advantage to the incumbent. But the Warriors no longer need Lee to stay upright. The kids can do that all on their own.
(In some ways, Jarrett Jack served as training wheels for the Curry-Thompson backcourt in the first part of the season. Now I see him solely as a valued third guard. Keep in mind that he's a free agent in July.)
The Warriors are lost in the moment of success, but as Kawakami foreshadows, trading Lee could become a conversation worth having in the offseason. He's an All-Star, he's on a non-killer contract and there will be a real market for him. The question is whether the Warriors (who don't currently have any draft picks) can land a replacement or feel comfortable starting Ezeli or Green on opening day. (Landry has a player option.) It'll be difficult to trade an All-Star from the best Warriors team in perhaps decades without upsetting fans, but I'm not sure there's a case that Lee is all that needed anymore.
That is, unless Mark Jackson and his crack staff can find a way to retool Lee's role to take the club even higher once he's healthy.