No one knew what to expect from the Spurs’ new frontcourt coming into this season. At the center of it was Pau Gasol signing as Tim Duncan retired, but there were also concerns with the exits of Boris Diaw and David West, two bigs who each filled out important roles on the bench.
Of the two losses, Diaw’s was the one that hurt the most sentimentally. His signing in 2012, following a release from the lowly Bobcats, coincided with the rise of the Beautiful Game Era, as he endeared himself to Spurs fans with his personality and heady, unselfish play. In San Antonio, Diaw’s career underwent a bit of a renaissance, as he found the right system and culture to tap into his abilities.
It’s not entirely different from what’s happening with David Lee this season.
In summer 2014, the Warriors sent Lee, who’d become obsolete in their splashy new system, to Boston for a piece of paper with Gerald Wallace’s name on it. Things didn’t last long with the Celtics, though, as he went from the starting lineup to the fringes of the rotation. The former All-Star didn’t take well to his diminished role, but the advanced numbers all backed up the fact that the team was better when he was off the floor. This piece from Mass Live laid out a number of their frustrations, noting Lee had the worst net rating among regular rotation players, and that the Celtics were being outscored by 10 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Ultimately Lee was a bad fit in Boston — a young team with a clogged frontcourt and a need for bigs who could provide the shooting that many of its wings lacked. Waived by the Celtics midway through the year, he was quickly picked up by Dallas, where he performed in a better-defined role, averaging 8.5 points and 7 boards in just 17 minutes a game. The Mavs’ per-100 numbers with him on the floor (125 Off, 102 Def Rtg) underscored the fact that he could still make a positive impact on a team with the right system.
The Spurs got the veteran on a David West-like discount this summer, signing for $3.2 million over two years, and what was at the time an unheralded move is looking great early in the season. While his counting stats aren’t eye-popping — 6.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game — his advanced numbers, including a 22.5 PER (currently second on the team), suggest his flash in Dallas was no fluke.
Lee’s defensive shortcomings are well-known — he doesn’t offer much resistance against the pick and roll, and he’s fairly ground-bound around the rim — but he’s been quick at learning his role and getting into position. His 104 Def Rtg is fairly middle-of-the-pack on the roster right now, but he’s actually making opponents shoot 10% worse from the field at the moment, best on the team (note: I do not think that’s sustainable, but we’ll take it for now).
But it’s on offense where he’s really made an impact. The team’s scoring a ridiculous 135 points per 100 possessions when Lee’s on the floor. While the starting five has has sputtered at times while coping with injuries (Parker and Green) and the integration of Gasol, lineups with Lee have looked much better. The team’s third-most-used five-man group features Lee with Manu Ginobili, Dewayne Dedmon, Jonathon Simmons and Patty Mills, and it’s currently tops in net rating at plus-42.3.
Take a look at his shot chart and you’ll see that Lee isn’t in there to spread the floor:
But lineups are all about making sure enough skillsets are represented on the court, regardless of position, and the Spurs’ bench has enough guys that shoot and cut to make up for potential spacing issues. And the skills he does bring — interior scoring, screen-setting and deft passing — fit nicely into the second unit’s style of play. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that he’s a boon to a group that looked its best when peak Boris Diaw was out there, being active, playing with purpose, exploiting mismatches, and finding teammates for open looks.
The ball doesn’t stay in Lee’s hands for long. Only Davis Bertans and Dewayne Dedmon hold the ball for less than his 1.3 seconds per touch, per NBA.com. Keeping it moving and getting it to the right teammate allows San Antonio’s offense to maintain pressure on second-unit defenses that are usually lacking intimidating stoppers.
The Spurs haven’t gone to Lee in the post much as of yet, but it’s an option as well, and his ability to finish with both hands means he can go to work on either side of the hoop.
It’s early is a mandatory caveat with everything you think you know 10 games into the season. Teams will begin to scheme better once they — and San Antonio — understand exactly what’s going on with this roster. But we do know that the Spurs have had success in turning marginalized talents into the meaningful contributors they once were. Lee could be another of those pleasant revelations.