In acquiring two-time All-Star David Lee from the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics didn’t light off the fireworks they wanted, but they at least believed they were making a move towards improving on last season’s 40-42 record.
In what was essentially a two way salary dump, Boston sent forward Gerald Wallace to Golden State in return for Lee, and Golden State used the modest salary relief to extend superstar Draymond Green. The Celtics were receiving a talented veteran for virtually nothing, and the trade was seen almost unanimously as a win for Boston.
The early returns have not been what general manager Danny Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens had hoped for. It was not a stretch to believe that Lee could slide into a starting lineup that was losing Brandon Bass and immediately provide scoring, rebounding, and basketball IQ that surpassed what would be lost with Bass.
And yet for one reason or another, Lee has not succeeded. He was given an opportunity to start in the early stretch of the season, but after the Celtics dropped two of their first three games, Stevens shook up his lineup by moving Lee and Tyler Zeller to the bench and Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson into the top of the rotation.
There are a couple of possible factors that could be impacting the wily veteran’s production. Perhaps he is not well suited systemically within Stevens’ pace-and-space offense. Lee thrives with his back to the basket and the ball in his hands, and his range doesn’t extend beyond the arc. He passes well out of the low post and has good court vision and instincts, so it seems far-fetched that his struggles would be resulting (at least in their entirety) from poor fit.
Another possibility is that the 10-year veteran, who does not have a spotless bill of health, has reached a point of decline. But this too is hard to believe, given the fact that he is still just 32 years-old and doesn’t play a game that relies on physicality. Lee has always thrived on his skillful footwork and ability to use finesse to get to the hoop and score. Typically, players in his mold have not entered decline until much later in their careers (see Tim Duncan).
But the third possibility, and the one that most could foresee heading into the season, is role. With Lee, Johnson, Zeller, Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, the team has five viable players to fill four roles. This doesn’t even take into account that players like Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko were used so effectively last year in the frontcourt in small ball lineups. In the six seasons in which Lee averaged at least 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, he was also averaging at least 29.0 minutes of floor time.
It’s also worth noting that these three detracting influences are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that all three of these possibilities are leading to Lee’s worst season in his career. But there is only one of those that can be rectified. It was a surprise when Ainge didn’t move one of his bigs prior to the season, and now it appears as though he will have no choice. The logjam is hurting the teams win totals as well as the development of its young players. To have depth is a good thing, but this team could still have depth and turn a luxury into an asset.
By drawing from surplus to fill a need, Ainge can better equip Stevens to position his team to win. The big question is, what can Lee bring back in a trade? The unfortunate answer is “not a whole lot.” Or at least presumably, given the declining value of expiring contracts and his poor performance thus far. The best the Celtics could hope for would be a second round pick (likely protected), a role player or under-performing lottery ticket (think Thomas Robinson or Derrick Williams types, don’t get your hopes up), or a player in a similar situation that better fits the team.
“Trader Danny” will have to work his magic in order to bring back anything of substance for Lee at this point, but we’ve certainly seen him do that before. On the other hand, given that the Celtics gave up very little for Lee in the first place, one can hardly fault him for simply moving Lee for the sake of moving him. It could be an addition by subtraction situation, as his 15 minutes would be better served if they belonged to Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk. It also opens up the possibility of seeing promising second-rounder Jordan Mickey in the spring.
David Lee’s time in Boston may not have gone the way he and Celtics fans envisioned it would, but given what we have seen of the experiment, it’s safe to say someone needs to pull the plug sooner rather than later.