Courtney Lee smiled as he approached the pack of reporters, extended his hand to greet some of the familiar faces and said he was genuinely excited to see the media members at a late-summer event. All of which perplexed those with tape recorders, because, let's face it, we're simply not used to such an enthusiastic greeting.
To Lee, the presence of reporters and all the basketball questions meant the 2013-14 season was inching closer. After a disappointing first season with the Boston Celtics, the 27-year-old guard is eager to prove he can offer more than what we saw during an inconsistent 2012-13 campaign.
"It does humble you," said Lee, who inked a five-year, $21.4 million contract as part of the sign-and-trade deal that delivered him from Houston last summer. Boston gave up little more than end-of-the-roster clutter to bring back a player who many thought could have been the steal of the summer.
But Lee never quite delivered on his "3 and D" reputation, his long-distance shooting off target early in the year and his defense uneven at times. Lee managed to compensate, shooting a career-best 46.4 percent from the floor overall, and he was a starter when Boston played some of its best basketball of the season. But his production dipped nearly four points per game, his turnover rate skyrocketed and by the playoffs he was largely a spectator, logging just 39 minutes in four appearances during Boston's first-round exit.
To his credit, Lee never sulked, even as he slipped out of Doc Rivers' rotation late in the year. He put in his work, dutifully answered reporters' queries about his own struggles and pledged after the season to bounce back.
"It does humble you," said Lee. "The first thing about it is just knowing it and owning up to it. That's what I tried to do. I know I wasn't consistent at all last year, so that's why I've worked, put in numerous hours this offseason getting my confidence back, watching film from previous years. Like I said, I just want to make that transition to this season."
When a reporter tried to delicately word a question about last season's struggles, Lee tried to put him at ease.
"First of all, you don't have to be scared to ask that question. Last year was probably one of my worst years I've had being in the NBA," said Lee. "I spoke about it all the time and said I had to find that consistency. That's one thing, I got back in the gym, I worked on a lot of ballhandling, a lot of shooting, getting my shot back.
"Again, a lot of it had to do with confidence at times, and I feel my confidence has skyrocketed right now, so hopefully it's going to make that transition into the season and into games and keep it at that high level so I can get back to playing the way I've always played."
The book on Lee upon his arrival was that he was a skilled corner 3-point shooter, shooting better than 40 percent beyond the arc in three of his first four seasons. Along with fellow newcomer Jason Terry, who likewise struggled to consistently impact the game, Lee was supposed to ease the loss of Ray Allen. And while Lee's defensive numbers have never been particularly glossy, he was regarded as a gritty perimeter defender with the size to guard three positions.
Lee never found consistency as a spot-up shooter and throttled his long-distance attempts a bit, finding better success while driving at the hoop (including a solid midrange game). Defensively, his individual numbers were decent, but the most damning number saw the Celtics own a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 102.5 when Lee was on the floor, and that dipped to 98.3 when he was on the bench.
Back to the present: Lee enters camp amid a crowded shooting guard field that includes offseason additions MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans, along with Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford (both of whom could see minutes at point guard while Rajon Rondo finishes his rehab from ACL surgery). There's competition for 2-guard minutes, and Lee has to prove himself again.
"Every year, it's always a competition," said Lee. "You're going to have guys at your position on the roster and trying to make the roster. One thing about the offseason: You have to hold yourself accountable and you have to come in ready. Like I said, it's going to be a competition."
With Rondo expected to be sidelined for the start of the regular season, you wonder if the Celtics would again consider pairing Lee in the backcourt with Bradley.
According to the NBA's lineup data, that pair spent 612 minutes together last season over 45 games, one of Boston's most frequent guard pairings of the season (this after Bradley returned in January, and Rondo was lost for the season later that same month).
In terms of wins and losses, it was also one of Boston's more successful combos. The Celtics won seven in a row immediately after Rondo tore his ACL and 14 of 18 overall. Boston was a season-best seven games over .500 after a March 8 win against Atlanta, and a backcourt of Lee and Bradley, dubbed The Pitbulls for their defensive tenacity, were showered with much of the praise for spearheading the surge.
But things fell apart quickly. Boston lost seven of its next nine and, during that stretch, Lee tweaked his ankle in the closing moments of a loss in Dallas. He subsequently lost his starting job as the Celtics shuffled a thriving Jeff Green into the lineup and essentially moved Paul Pierce to a guard spot.
Lee and Bradley played sparingly together over the final 11 regular-season games after Lee returned and lost whatever spark they had. The combo was a minus-19.1 per 48 minutes in plus/minus during that span, and the team's defensive rating when they were on the floor skyrocketed to an unfathomable 116.5.
As new coach Brad Stevens digests tape, he's going to be intrigued by the Lee-Bradley combo. While Bradley struggled with pressure at the point guard spot in the postseason, Stevens has hinted a desire to use him at the point until Rondo returns. Unless Boston gets creative at the 2 spot, Lee can make a solid case for minutes next to Bradley.
One change he is certain to make is in the locker room. Entering his sixth season, Lee wants to take on a greater leadership role on a young team.
"I feel my role as a leader has changed a lot, because we had [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], and [Jason Terry] that have been in the league for a while," said Lee. "Those guys are gone, and now you look around: We still have guys that have experience, but as far as years-wise, it kinda crumbles down. A lot of it is going to be on Rondo, Jeff [Green is] going to have to step up, Brandon Bass and myself. As far as being a leader, I think I'm going to be more of a vocal leader, and I've always been a leader by example, so I'm going to continue to do that."
He just hopes he sets a more consistent example this season.