clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

David Lee’s retirement leaves him as an underappreciated mark in NBA history

New, comments

Lee officially retired on Sunday. His career involved two historic moments and was better than you might remember.

David Lee officially retired from the NBA on Sunday after a 12-year career. This is my favorite Lee play ever.

This is, to my knowledge, the only game-winning shot with 0.1 seconds left since Trent Tucker did it, which prompted the creation of the Trent Tucker Rule. The rule prohibits jump shots, or anything except a tip-in, with less than 0.3 seconds left on the shot or game clock. Here’s how the official rule is defined:

The only type of field goal which may be scored if the game clock and shot clock are at :00.2 or :00.1 is a “tip-in” or “high lob.”

The New York Knicks were in their second overtime, tied at 109, and everything pointed to a third overtime coming up. The odds were literally zero that the game would end there, since it never had in that scenario.

That’s Jamal Crawford making the pass into Lee, and it did the job, even though Lee had to reach behind his head to corral the pass. His tap-in cemented the game, and his shot, as an outlier.

It was a metaphor for Lee’s terrific career.

Lee outperformed all expectations

Coming into the league as the No. 30 overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, Lee certainly wasn’t expected to score 11,232 career points. His career is an impressive one, given his pedigree and that no one even knew what position he was supposed to play. He was listed as an SF his first season, a PF the next two, and a center in the two seasons following that.

Lee ended up beloved in New York, first for his scrappiness and then because he was legitimately good — he once had 37 points, 20 rebounds, and 10 assists in a 2010 game. When Lee was signed and traded to Golden State in the 2010-11 season, he was actually dominant. In his first four seasons, he averaged 18.2 points and 10.0 rebounds on 51 percent shooting.

But Lee’s spot in history is more of a footnote

In the grand scheme of basketball history, Lee’s most important role is the answer to this trivia question: “Which Golden State Warriors player was hurt before the 2014-15 season, allowing Draymond Green to take his starting spot?”

Golden State had been hinting at breaking out, but Green’s increased role began the dynasty. By the time Lee returned in late December, with the Warriors sitting atop the Western Conference at 22-3, it was clear Green’s place was solidified.

Lee still played 18 minutes off the bench that season, and he even had a brief moment in the Finals. (He sparked one huge run in a game that the Warriors still lost, and had minimal impact the rest of the series.) But, like Monta Ellis before him, the NBA had passed him by.

Lee never needed to have a modern game

That Lee’s career went off the rails so quickly can be attributed to the space-and-pace explosion. He never shot three-pointers — just one career make — and his defense was always below average.

His San Antonio reclamation is somewhat of a miracle, then. Of course the Spurs could take a player like that and turn him into someone who averaged 18 minutes in 79 games last season. San Antonio might have had Lee back if not for a complex cap situation. It didn’t seem like Lee seriously pursued going anywhere else.

In that, Lee had a gratifying coda to a career steeped in history and wackiness. Lee could notch 37-point triple-doubles without ever needing a three-pointer, and he’s also the only player to ever score a game-winning tip-in with a fraction of a second left on the clock. That’s as unlikely as a 30th pick with low expectations doing what Lee accomplished. It was a hell of a career, and Lee should certainly be remembered as more than a trivia answer.