There are a lot of stars at power forward in the NBA. You have your Nowitzkis and Gasols, your Amar’e Stoudemires and Paul Millsaps; your Josh Smiths and Zach Randolphs and the newer stars like Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge set to take the position into the next decade.
Some guys are tweeners between the four and five (like Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett, who both suit up at the center spot for their squads), but all of them can rebound and score. Except not one of the aforementioned players is averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this season. There’s only one guy currently averaging those figures so far this year: David Lee. And you should think twice about nominating someone else as an All-Star starter in the West, even if you think you can score on him in the post.
A lot of the power forwards mentioned can play with their back to the basket and can mix it up in the lane. Not only that, but many of them have added three-point range to their arsenal to stretch a defense and open up driving lanes for teammates. Maybe he’s not a three-point threat, but David Lee has never had a problem scoring or even rebounding. He’s as consistent a 20-10 guy as you’ll find in this league, but like our own Sean Cochran wrote before the season started when evaluating the top power forwards in the game, “…his lackluster defense is what keeps him out of the top 10.” Yet this season, Lee’s not the defensive sieve we saw in the past, and that’s why he should start for the West in February.
Last night, going against a hot Clippers team trying to avenge their loss to Denver, the Golden State Warriors hung on after a 62-point first half to win going away, 115-94, with Steph Curry going for 31 and Lee going 9-for-16 from the floor for 24 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Not only that, but Blake Griffin was held to just two field goals all game. Yes, it’s true that Lee was guarding the less offensively inclined DeAndre Jordan in the first half, and Andris Biedrins plus Carl Landry did most of the post defense necessary to limit a force like Griffin in the block, but Lee was still plus-24 on the night, and it continues a trend for him this season: opponents score less when he’s on the court.
That fact shouldn’t be so surprising, but it is. In Lee’s first two seasons by the Bay, he was still getting a lot of minutes, but the team was giving up more when he was on the court then when he was off. In Lee’s first season after signing as a free agent before the 2010-11 season, the Warriors opponents scored an average of 113.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court (82games.com); that would be the worst defense in the league this year. Conversely, when he was off the court, they only gave up 108.9, which is still really bad, but less than when Lee was stuck guarding opposing power forwards and centers. During last season’s lockout-shortened season, the Warriors gave up slightly less with Lee on the court than the year before, at 111.4 points per 100 possessions (82games.com). But it would still be the worst defense in the league this year, and when Lee was on the bench, the figure dropped to 107.6 points. As you can see, Lee’s defense was lacking, and definitely unworthy of All-Star consideration, especially when combined with how awful those Warriors teams were.
But, like their victory over the Clippers last night, Lee has been borderline solid on defense, at least in terms of the team’s overall production when he’s on the court (he’s still not someone they want guarding Blake Griffin if they can help it). This year with Lee on the court, the Warriors are still scoring more as a whole. They put up nearly eight points more per 100 possessions, via 82games.com. With Lee on the court, the Warriors averaged around four points more per 100 possessions in 2010-11 and 2011-12, so he’s helping them score even more this year as well. But, again, scoring was never David Lee’s issue. Defense was, which is what makes this year’s numbers so stupefying, at least for those of us used to seeing Lee burned on the defensive end. For the season, the Warriors are holding opponents to 105.8 points per 100 possessions with Lee on the court, and 106.5 with him off. That means they’re actually giving up less on defense when Lee is playing! Golden State fans are now collectively screaming “HUZZAH!” The Achilles’ Heel of David Lee’s game appears to have been circumvented, at least for now.
This a great sign for Golden State fans, and it should presage continued excellence moving forward. But Lee is still not a very good defender. He’s slow on his rotations, and that’s because he’s just not that fast, laterally. Opposing bigs can get around him with relative ease. He gets his buckets on the offensive end with deft footwork, size and a really soft touch around the rim, not because he’s lightening quick. Opposing teams are still shooting a higher effective field goal percentage when he’s on the court, too, and those same opponents still rebound at a slightly higher rate while he’s playing. But it’s nowhere near the discrepancies of previous seasons.
Whether it’s Mark Jackson‘s defensive gameplanning to hide Lee on defense, sort of like how the Clippers do with Jamal Crawford (who wanted no part in defending Harrison Barnes on the block last night), or it’s that Lee is making a more concerted effort on the defensive end. Whatever it is is working because the Golden State Warriors are actually giving up fewer points when David Lee is playing and they’re still scoring a lot more with him too.
For a player that struggles so mightily on defense, those defensive numbers with Lee on the court are a huge part of the reason the Warriors are 22-10 and in the thick of the Western Conference Playoff race. The Warriors are a much better team than many predicted entering the season, and David Lee is a big reason why.
Now go ahead and vote for him for the All-Star Game this February. He deserves it.
Should Lee make the All-Star Game?
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