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The Warriors Are Better Without David Lee

Credit: NY Daily News

Credit: NY Daily News

After the Warriors won their first game against Denver I tweeted at Grantland’s Zach Lowe regarding Golden State’s performance, and he tweeted back. Take a look at our short correspondence:

Zach Lowe Tweet

Ouch. There’s nothing like being publicly “posterized” (as my friend put it) by one of your favorite sports writers. Well, four games later the Warriors have ousted the Nuggets and are advancing to the second round of the playoffs, all without Lowe’s beloved Lee. I’m curious if my original assertion was correct (and if Mr. Lowe was wrong), so I’m going to examine two questions: 1) Have the Warriors actually been better without David Lee? and 2) If this is the case, why have they been better?

Have the Warriors actually been better without David Lee?

First lets compare David Lee’s interior defense, which I referred to in my tweet, to the defense of an elite defender and a league average defender:

Credit: Kirk Goldsberry

Credit: Kirk Goldsberry

As you can see, opponents shoot almost 60% when David Lee is close to the basket, well above the NBA average of about 50%. Furthermore, opponents make almost 20% more of their shots when Lee is in the paint than when Larry Sanders is. What I’m getting at is that David Lee is the worst interior defender in the league. You, your aunt, and your 90 year old grandma can score on him (maybe not your grandma). Unsurprisingly, Golden State’s defensive rating has improved since Lee’s injury, moving from 102.6 in the regular season to 102.4 in the playoffs, per NBA.com. While this seems like a slight improvement at best, we need to consider that GSW played the Nuggets, an offensive powerhouse, in the first round. Their improvement defensively is therefore bigger than the change in defensive rating suggests. GSW’s opponent field goal percentage, and more importantly their three point percentage, have also decreased since Lee’s departure. Opponents shot 34.7% from long range against the Warriors in the regular season but the Nuggets only connected on 31.1% of their three pointers during the first round (I’ll explain later what Lee has to do with three point shooting). While general defensive improvements were to be expected, oddly enough Mark Jackson’s team has had a better reb% without Lee (52.7% in the playoffs) than with him (51.3%). This is surprising because David Lee is a prolific rebounder, grabbing 11.2 boards per game in 2012-2013.

What’s even more astounding is that Golden State has also been better on offense without Lee. Golden State’s effective field goal percentage increased from 50.6% to 55.4% in the playoffs and they’re scoring 3.5 more points per 100 possessions than they were in the regular season. The team has also assisted on a higher percentage of its made shots, which could mean better shot selection. Lee’s rebounding, passing and scoring have all been lauded, but the stats show that the Warriors are better offensively when he’s riding the pine. Thus, the Warriors have gotten better on defense and offense since Lee’s injury. Damn.

Why have the Warriors been better without Lee?

Take a look at this play:

Now this one, in slow motion:

And finally this one, a compilation brought to you by the legendary Kirk Goldsberry (pay attention to the music, which frames the video nicely):

David Lee can’t closeout, can’t play on ball defense, doesn’t rotate well and doesn’t contest shots effectively. In terms of opponent three point shooting, plays like the one in the first video often lead to kick-outs that result in high percentage corner threes. Although Eric Gordon didn’t pass the ball, he still got a decent look at the basket, and one that might have resulted in two points had Andrew Bogut, an excellent shot blocker, not been in the paint. The second video demonstrates Lee’s lack of ability to play defense on the ball and his poor sense of positioning; subsequently, and deservedly, he gets dunked on by Marcus Morris. The last video showcases Lee’s defense in all its glory. I think by this point you understand why the Warriors have been better defensively.

Determining why the Warriors have been better on offense is a much different story. First, it’s important to acknowledge that Golden State’s strength is its guards; the combination of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack is one of the most deadly in the league, both at scoring and at passing. Curry and Jack both average over five assists per game, and Curry and Thompson were top three in three pointers made during the regular season. Despite Golden State’s great guard play, the ball was often in Lee’s hands because he’s a forward who can pass. But his injury has forced the Warriors’ guards to handle the ball more. The team has since shot five more threes per game on average, and we know that shooting more threes is always good. Furthermore, some of Lee’s minutes have gone to Carl Landry, who has been a key to the Warriors’ success and whose usage rate has skyrocketed by 7%. Wait a sec…CARL LANDRY?! Although it sounds crazy, a brief glance at Landry’s statistics give us some insight into why he’s been able to help replace Lee’s scoring. He sported a 54% field goal percentage during the regular season in comparison to Lee’s 52%. He also got to free throw line more per 48 minutes and hit a higher percentage of his foul shots. So, while Landry certainly isn’t the player that David Lee is, in small doses he can be just as, if not more, effective. Basically, Lee’s injury has forced the ball into the hands of Golden State’s guards and high percentage shooters. This has manifested itself into more three pointers and more touches for Carl Landry, a quietly efficient scorer.

Nota Bene

I am well aware that David Lee is a top forward in the NBA. He scores well, is an excellent passer for a big man and is a great leader. Whether or not Golden State is better off without Lee in the long term remains to be seen (especially since he has only been out for five games). What I do know is that Golden State has played better since his injury. Without being able to rely on Lee, Stephen Curry has emerged as the leader of the Warriors and as one of the top players (not shooters, players) in the NBA. The minutes that Lee used to play have been filled by Jarrett Jack, an underrated floor general, Andrew Bogut, a defensive presence, and Carl Landry. David Lee is a great player, but sometimes it takes an injury for a team to figure out its identity and flourish in the NBA.

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