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The trouble with David Lee

12/17/2013
David Lee was the Warriors' lone All-Star last season, but is he now what's holding them back? Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors’ logo changed when Joe Lacob bought the team. It went from what looked like a blue, mouthless man electrocuting himself to the yellow silhouette of a lovely bridge. Many mistake it for the famed Golden Gate, but no, it’s the old reliable Bay Bridge, the structure that connects the rusty ports of Oakland to San Francisco’s shiny skyscrapers.

It looked like a smart gambit to advertise San Francisco while throwing a bone to the actual home city. By way of a few curved lines, San Francisco and Oakland might both feel included. You could argue it was of the pandering spirit that caused this franchise to opt for “Golden State” over a location that might potentially alienate people. Were the Warriors trying to, as Monta Ellis might put it, have it all?

Turns out the logo wasn’t just an appeal to both sides of the Bay; it was a bold statement of the owner’s aspirations. In the summer of 2012, the Warriors held a news conference in San Francisco, at the mouth of the Bay Bridge entrance. David Stern, Lacob and others heralded the eventuality of a cutting-edge Warriors arena in that very spot. David Lee was appointed as the player to give a speech on behalf of the players and organization. He said all the right things, as Lee always does.

But why Lee, of all players on the roster? Why did he have anything to tell fans about an arena set to finish in 2017, long after the end of his prime? It’s easy to forget, but, before Stephen Curry captured national attention, Lee was the guy chosen to ferry Golden State over that bridge and into the future.

Lee was Lacob’s first roster move, his initial stamp on this giant undertaking. While negotiating over the franchise sale, Lacob approved the dealing of Anthony Randolph for Lee and Lee’s massive contract. Who could better symbolize a goodbye to the Chris Cohan era than morose Anthony Randolph? Who would better symbolize the new era than an athlete somehow capable of winning over the New York media?

Lee was perceived as “Lacob’s guy” from the beginning, his “text message buddy” as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News put it. The dynamic caused many fans to scorn a player so close to management, especially given that there was little trust in anything Warriors. “I think the initial criticism of Lee in the Bay Area was based on the disbelief in the Warriors,” Bay Area News Group columnist Marcus Thompson said to me. It wasn’t his fault, but Lee was tainted by the team’s bad reputation.

That all turned around when the Warriors opened last season with a shocking run of wins. Shaq called Lee, the “White Chris Webber,” and actual Chris Webber didn’t object to the moniker. Warriors fans embraced a player they often had derided for “empty stats” because, well, stats don’t seem so empty when they come with victories. In February 2013, Lee was named the first Warriors All-Star since 1997.

That All-Star nod was Lee’s Golden State peak, except that much of the fan base would have preferred Curry make the team. That’s a subjective judgment, to be sure, but it didn’t take a decibel meter to figure out that Curry was getting the loudest cheers in introductions. Curry’s redemption tale was running concurrent to Lee’s, and Curry’s extraterrestrial 3-point shooting thrilled fans in a way Lee never could. Although the basketball world had officially knighted Lee, the All-Star distinction occurred almost simultaneously with a decline in support at home.

When you look at how that local support ultimately eroded, it’s hard to imagine why any player in a suit would cheer on his teammates. For an athlete missing time, the accomplishments of his co-workers can easily become an indictment. Lee was suspended for the game that became Curry’s opus. Charged with creating shots in Lee’s absence, Curry lit up Madison Square Garden for 54 points on national TV. Suddenly, the All-Star was absolutely dwarfed by his point guard’s stardom.

It got worse for Lee. A Sloan Conference paper and presentation by Kirk Goldsberry mocked Lee’s defense to uproarious laughter. That would have happened without Curry going off in MSG the week before, but the study fueled the building sense that this All-Star wasn’t crucial to his team’s success. Perhaps that sentiment would have cooled off if not for Lee’s postseason misfortune.

On April 27, the Warriors were in the process of losing their first playoff game in seven years. Denver was up seven in the fourth quarter and taking control when Lee landed awkwardly, tearing his hip flexor. Golden State battled back after Lee went down, only to lose on an Andre Miller buzzer-beater. A spirited effort, but, with Lee’s injury, the season was assumed to be finished. They weren’t favored to win the series in the first place, and they certainly weren’t after Lee fell. Unless, of course, Lee was far less valuable than even Goldsberry might have posited.

The ensuing Warriors playoff upset made Lee look like a role player at best and an accidental saboteur at worst. Golden State played a breathtaking style of spreading four 3-point shooters around Andrew Bogut and bombing away. It harked back to fond We Believe memories of the past while offering a glimpse into a brighter Warriors future.

As this year’s preseason hype machine cranked up, it became easier to forget or dismiss what happened in the playoffs. It was the matchups; it was small sample size. It was whatever rationalizations you might have heard after the success of Memphis without Rudy Gay or Indiana without Danny Granger.

A Warriors slump has killed those rationalizations. Fans are disappointed by a 12-10 start, and disappointment quickly becomes blame.

“The volume of pro-DLee fandom seems to have winnowed down more than a bit over the last few months,” Kawakami writes over email. “But those remaining DLee purists are just as loud as ever, or louder, maybe due to some sense that this is turning against them and they need to make a stand. From a general view, what I'm getting is more of this reaction: He was important to the team before they got good, and now his weaknesses might be a major problem.”

Many fans are seeking solutions to that perceived major problem.

WarriorsWorld editor Rasheed Malek tells me, “There was a day last week where all the posts were about Lee trade ideas and proposals.” Rasheed is referring to the site’s active fan forum, where passionate Warriors supporters post their opinions. There’s no wholly accurate measure of a fan base’s mindset, but the forums are about as good an indication as exists. “Lee for (blank)” has become a running joke among forum posters.

Andy Liu of SB Nation’s similarly fan-powered Golden State of Mind offers me a similar take on fan opinion. “I know the majority [of fans] are sick of his defense but they dwell more on how to trade him than talking about him specifically. I've seen some absurd trade proposals like Ryan Anderson for him. There's only a minority that believes in his double-double-ness.”

Advertisements for Wednesday night’s game against Dallas slap “Splash Bros” across the screen. Curry and Thompson’s 3-point shooting define the team to people these days. There was no mention of Golden State’s 2013 All-Star in the ads. All the double-doubles in the world won’t make him a Splash Brother.

What’s interesting about the rapid shift in Lee’s reputation is the consistency of his game the past couple of years. His early-season efficiency numbers are down a bit because of a midrange shooting slump, but he’s averaging more than 20 points and 11 rebounds per 40 minutes, just as in seasons past. Lee hasn’t changed nearly as much as people's opinions of him have.

Mere months after Lee's coronation as a team leader, if not a league star, a majority of Warriors fans want him out. It’s a bit incredible when you factor in how Lee avoided controversy. There are no bar fights, no home arrests, not even an unkind word about a teammate. It’s just his presence on the floor, combined with what happened in the brief time he spent off it.

Lee was crucial in getting the Warriors their first playoff berth in seven seasons. He helped carry Golden State across the bridge from mediocrity to competence. And now that the fans have had a taste of success, they crave a place beyond where Lee can take them.