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The highest-paid player on the NBA's best team isn't good enough to play

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David Lee has been a mainstay with the Warriors for five years, but he no longer has a place on the team. Here's why.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

David Lee was the starter at power forward for the past four years for the Warriors. According to Steve Kerr he would have continued to be, at least to start the season, had he not been injured. His hamstring got him out of the lineup, and Draymond Green's improved play ensured he'd never get back in.

Now it looks like Lee might have lost not only his spot in the starting lineup, but also in the rotation. According to Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News, Kerr sees the Warriors' highest-paid player as injury insurance at this point, as suggested by his lack of minutes in three of the last four games. The highest-paid player on the team, at over $15 million per season, is now an expensive luxury.

The decision clearly has less to do with Lee than with the Warriors' depth and playing style. Lee's individual numbers this season are fine. He averages 8.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game in just 18.4 minutes. As a rim protector, he's allowing a solid 47.1 field goal percentage on shots he defends close to the basket, a reversal of his reputation. His shot chart shows that he's been decent at the rim and from mid-range, the areas from which he takes most of his shots.

Lee shot chart
David Lee's shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com

On most teams, Lee would be getting steady minutes, but the Warriors are unique. Kerr prefers to play lineups with only one traditional big man: Andrew Bogut with the starters, and Marreese Speights off the bench. Next to them are usually big wings like Green and Harrison Barnes, who can check many taller players and switch on pick and rolls, stifling most offenses and forcing them to go away from their primary targets. That versatility allows them to pressure teams into mistakes, which then become fast break points.

While Lee has his pluses, he's not a good finisher in transition and he can't stay with quick perimeter players on switches. That essentially eliminates his chances of playing power forward for heavy minutes.

Lee also can't compete with Green as a defender, though he has a slight edge over Marreese Speights that could allow him to claim the backup center spot. Speights has marginally worse numbers in terms of rim protection, albeit on more attempts against him, and ranks as one of the worst defensive centers according to real plus-minus. He's not a disruptive defender and is a worse rebounder than Lee.

To figure out why Speights gets minutes, it's necessary to look at the other side of the ball and what Kerr seems to be looking for in his bench big man. Speights can essentially do three things better than Lee:

  • He's excellent in transition, with Synergy Sports ranking him in the 84th percentile.
  • He shoots a stellar 44 percent from mid-range, a great mark for someone who takes so many shots from there.
  • He averages almost a point per possession in the post to Lee's 0.7, per Synergy.
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Everything Lee is good at on offense, Speights does a little bit better. That's except for passing, and the second unit has enough of that with Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston there to get the ball moving.

So Lee is not a versatile enough defender to be a power forward in Kerr's defensive scheme, and he's not the specialist that Speights is in the areas the offensive system needs from a backup center. While he's still a good player, Lee is simply not a fit anymore for the Warriors.

He still has a year left on his contract after this season for $15.5 million, which the front office will surely try to move this offseason. Lee has been such a professional for the Warriors, even when the culture of the team wasn't as positive as it is now, that it's unfortunate to see him fall from a being key cog on an emerging team to a casualty of progress, but that's the way things are looking right now.