The 2015 NBA Finals will be remembered most for hinging on Steve Kerr’s decision to start Andre Iguodala in Game 4 and fully commit to small-ball. But the Golden State Warriors’ eventual crowning success was put in motion one game prior, when the little-used David Lee came off the bench to spark a run that not only put a scare in the Cleveland Cavaliers, but more importantly opened the eyes of his coaching staff.
It’s fitting that Lee played a crucial, if fleeting, role in the Warriors first championship since 1975. Golden State’s road to legitimacy began when it signed the high-scoring lefty away from the New York Knicks in 2010. The much-maligned six-year, nearly $80 million contract the Warriors gave Lee was misunderstood from the beginning. That deal was never about his quality as a player alone, but what the presence of a formidable building block could potentially do a for a franchise that had been a laughingstock for the vast majority of 15 years.
Steph Curry deserves every plaudit he’s getting and will keep receiving as Golden State continues competing for titles. The acquisition of Andrew Bogut spurred the Warriors to the postseason in 2012-13 more than anything else, and the ongoing ascents of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have been met with justifiably crazy fanfare.
But this team’s rise to respectability still began with Lee. He was an All-Star in 2013, the franchise’s first since 1997. He led the league in double-doubles in 2011-12. Most importantly, though, Lee helped bring sustained excitement back to the Bay, a wild, area-wide fandom that culminated in a championship parade five years later attended by nearly one million people.
Despite Lee’s reduced role, Golden State championed his value throughout last season. And just weeks before Lee was finally traded to a team that could actually utilize his unique brand of offensive prowess, his team-first approach paid off with 13 illuminating minutes during a Finals loss that helped spark his team to the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Sometimes a team outgrows a player and vice versa. That development usually grows contentious, leading to locker room strife, harsh soundbites, and trade demands. But it didn’t happen with Lee and the Warriors, a mutual respect and understanding that led to ultimate success and a subsequent cordial parting of ways.
If only all player movement could be handled with such grace from both sides of the aisle.
[Via Golden State Warriors]