To his credit, David Lee took last year in stride. After seven straight seasons playing more than 2,000 minutes, Lee only logged 904 on the floor in the 2014-15 campaign after beginning the season injured.
It wasn't his fault he was phased out for Draymond Green, who was simply a better player. Nor was it entirely a wasted season for the two-time All-Star, who picked up an NBA championship while on the roster. Lee never complained publicly about his situation, but the July trade that sent him to Boston made sense on both sides. Lee is a free agent after next year and trading him to a new situation presumably would give him the minutes he needs to rebuild his value.
But there's still a problem: how much more playing time will Lee really have in Boston?
It's a valid question for a team that already had several big men and added another one, Amir Johnson, on a two-year, $24 million deal this offseason. Tyler Zeller played every game for Boston last year, starting 59 of them at center, while Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk each rotated into front court, too. Coach Brad Stevens often prefers to play small lineups as well, throwing Jonas Jerebko and even Jae Crowder into the big man rotation.
Lee's a natural scorer. He averaged 16 points every season from 2009 to 2014, taking nearly half of his shots within three feet of the basket and hitting 66 percent of them throughout his career, per Basketball Reference. Whether it's a mid-range jumper, a hook shot from the post or just crafty finishes from somewhere inside the paint, Lee will make shots. Though he turns 33 this season, Lee's game isn't dependent on athleticism.
Boston was a middling offense, finishing No. 19 in points per 100 possessions, but they were better defensively, placing No. 12. Lee can help the Celtics score some quick points, but he's no longer a player you can build an offense around at the expense of his subpar defense. Balancing Lee with the other four big men will be key.
Stevens has consistently impressed since taking over in Boston in 2013, but this is another dilemma he'll have to solve. Johnson is a tough-nosed defender that fits the defensive culture he's developing. Considering Johnson was Boston's top target -- they signed him on the first day of free agency -- and considering the fit, Johnson's the likely starter at power forward over Lee. Mixing in Lee behind him has to be done judiciously -- and may end up being less frequently than Lee expects.
Using Lee in a second unit like this could help accentuate his strengths offensively.
|Isaiah Thomas||Marcus Smart||Jae Crowder||David Lee||Kelly Olynyk|
Lee would be involved on every trip down the floor, providing Smart and Thomas a veteran roll man and putting shooting around the edges in case the defense collapses on Lee.
But that five-man unit would be awful defensively. You're left wanting Zeller or Johnson at center so that the other team can't get to the rim unopposed. Yet, if you play one of those two, then Lee is running pick-and-rolls or posting up with the other team's center digging down to clog the lane, since a Zeller or Johnson jump shot isn't particularly dangerous. Let Zeller or Johnson run the pick and rolls instead of Lee and then you're missing out on Lee's one main strength: his ability to score on the move.
Lee's game may just be better suited for a past NBA era. While some teams might find minutes for him anyway, Stevens is one of the most modern coaches in the NBA. Big men that don't play defense or space the floor are becoming more and more extinct as the NBA moves on. This is how progress works.
That's not to say Lee should expect a repeat of Golden State -- he shouldn't rack up as many DNP-CDs. Scoring is still a skill every team needs, and the fact that Lee's a creative veteran who can pass helps his case.
But Lee's unlikely to see a return to his times as a starter taking 14 shots per game. Not with the Celtics, and honestly, maybe not anywhere in the NBA.
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