In the midst of the Kevin Love saga, the Golden State Warriors’ David Lee has been reduced to an asset that many Warriors fans and front office members are eager to ship away to Minnesota. Lee’s description as an asset is comprised of two things: a $14 million contract and poor defense. Lee’s perennial 20 points and 10 rebounds fail to get mentioned when discussing his value.
Why is this? Other offensively-oriented power forwards in today’s NBA are praised for their offensive production and are thus forgiven for their relatively poor defense. The chart above shows two players who fit that description – Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin and Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph – during their 2012-13 seasons. Lee performed at a comparable level to both players, but unlike Griffin and Randolph, Lee is thought of primarily as a defensive liability rather than as an offensive threat.
Part of the answer may lie with Golden State’s reputation as a team that does not care for defense. Even though the Warriors ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency last season, the Warriors have not played strong defense for a long enough period to shed the prevailing assumption that the Warriors are an offense-only team. The Clippers, led by strong defensive point guard Chris Paul, and the grit-n-grind Grizzlies, of which Randolph is considered to be an integral part even though he is not a great defender, are teams with defensive reputations that may shield their power forwards from criticism.
The primary reason for Lee’s dismissal as an above-average power forward, however, is that his type of power forward is a dying breed of which he and Randolph are two of the final members. Think of all of the most esteemed power forwards in the NBA – Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Love, David West, Lamarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki and Anthony Davis – all are either elite defenders at their position or can stretch the floor almost to the three point line and shoot over a defender with a 7-foot-tall jump shot. Lee and Randolph are neither, and Griffin has worked incredibly hard to get a jump shot this past season. Players in Lee’s mold are now viewed as roadblocks preventing newer, shooting-happy offensive styles from emerging and are looked upon with distaste. A prime example of this is the four-out system that many wanted the Warriors to implement with Love, as the system’s crux is a power forward who can stretch the floor to the three point arc.
Lee should be looked on as an above-average NBA player on the same level as players like Randolph and pre-jump shot Griffin. Lee is now a relic, however, with a play style that no longer fits today’s NBA, especially on a team like the Warriors. Players with his skill set – Carlos Boozer and Randolph – have found homes on throwback teams that emphasize getting the ball in the paint and playing staunch defense. Maybe Lee will find a home on one of those teams and will be appreciated.