Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPNBoston [Print without images]

Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Is Lee part of Celtics' future?

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

Courtney Lee tries not to sweat what he cannot control, so despite being traded in three of the previous four offseasons -- the lockout providing his only jersey-swapping reprieve -- Lee isn't concerning himself with whether the Boston Celtics' murky summer plans could leave him with a fifth NBA team in five NBA seasons.

As Lee explained of his ever-changing address when he first joined the Celtics, "It's the NBA. It's a business. Here today, gone tomorrow. The only thing you can do is continue to be professional about it."

With that in mind, Lee, coming off an underwhelming 2012-13 season, said he was planning to take just a week off following Boston's early playoff exit before re-immersing himself in basketball activities with the goal of becoming the player the Celtics swooned over after a creative sign-and-trade deal delivered him here last summer.

Nothing went quite to plan for Lee during his first season in green. Despite starting nearly half the season, Lee never quite carved out a role for himself and shifted back to a bench role late in the year and struggled to get on the court. Lee logged two DNP -- Coach's Decisions over the final three playoff games of the season.

"I expected [the first season] to go smooth, I expected to win and be playing late into June," admitted Lee. "Me, personally, my performance -- I was a little bit inconsistent all year; more than I would like to be. I don't want to be at all, but I was."

The 27-year-old Lee came with a reputation for "3 and D," a two-way combination that was supposed to make him a key complement to fellow offseason addition Jason Terry on a revamped Boston bench, the duo called upon to replace some of what the team lost when Ray Allen defected to rival Miami.

But Lee struggled with his 3-point shot early in the season and experienced some growing pains while settling into Boston's help defense system. Injuries to Avery Bradley (missed the first 30 games due to shoulder surgeries) and Rajon Rondo (missed the final 38 games due to ACL surgery) -- along with a desire to keep Terry in a bench role -- thrust Lee into the starting lineup. He enjoyed his best stretch when paired with Bradley (the duo dubbing themselves the "Pitbulls" for their defensive tenacity), but a late-season ankle injury contributed to him slipping down the depth chart.

It didn't aid Lee's cause that he struggled to thrive in one particular area, something so vital to earning coach Doc Rivers' confidence in a reserve role. Instead, Jordan Crawford and his scoring punch and Terrence Williams and his ball-handling abilities both leapfrogged Lee at the season's finish line. Lee never got much of a chance to show whether he could be an impact defender in the postseason, and he missed four of the five shots (including two 3-pointers) he put up in the 39 playoff minutes.

"I wasn't playing like my normal self," admitted Lee. "Roles changed a little bit, they wanted me to focus more on being a defensive player and spot-up shooter. I have a whole summer to get involved in doing a lot of spot-up shots, and working on my role, what it is going to be next year and whatnot. I'll be prepared for that, a lot better than I was this year."

Lee
Courtney Lee started 39 games in his first season in Boston.

Lee added that he'll work on his ball-handling (he had a career-worst turnover rate this season that offset a spike in his assist percentage). Despite shooting a career-best 46.4 percent from the floor overall, he needs to hone his long-range shooting from above the breaks (Lee shot a sizzling 44.2 percent from the corners, but just 29 percent on all other triples).

But more than anything else, he needs to firm up a role. His versatility is an undeniable asset and his size allows position flexibility, but with an average salary of $5.5 million over the next three seasons, Lee needs to assert himself in a role so that Rivers knows he can call on him.

And it really goes back to the defense. According to Synergy Sports data, Lee allowed 0.858 points per play, ranking in the 54th percentile among all league players. Inside the arc, Lee had solid numbers when he kept his man in front of him and forced to shoot over his size. But Lee struggled to defend the 3-point line (opponents shot 39.6 percent there against him) and was susceptible to dribble penetration.

Despite running with the starters for much of the season, the Celtics had a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 102.5 when Lee was on the floor (and it dropped to 98.3 when he was on the bench.

Now some of that can be chalked up to playing with reserve-heavy lineups to close out games (thin on bodies, Lee often finished lopsided games with end-of-the-bench players). But, overall for the season, the Celtics were minus-91 when Lee was on the court and plus-73 when he was on the bench.

The bottom line is Boston needs more from a player they considered maybe the steal of the offseason (the Celtics dealt away an end-of-the-roster package of JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore, Sasha Pavlovic, Sean Williams and some second-round draft picks as part of a three-team sign-and-trade swap), all while essentially snickering at the collective bargaining agreement as they brought in another mid-level-caliber player (having signed Terry previously).

One thing Lee thrived at was being an excellent teammate and a solid locker room presence. Even when his role was diminished, he maintained his professionalism, including putting in extra work after games to offset his lack of floor time.

Lee also shared a close bond with other members of Boston's young nucleus, like Jeff Green and Bradley. There's something to be said for the continuity and friendship they share moving forward.

Lee addressed the future of the team after Boston's Game 6 loss and when he talked about the Celtics as a whole, it rang true to his own situation as well.

"We've battled adversity all year, and we were able to push through it for the most part, and it caught up with us a little bit," said Lee. "Next year, with everybody healthy, I think we'll be stronger."

Lee has never had a chance to really settle in with a team. He made a big jump during his second season with Houston (a team that initially desired to bring him back again last summer before their offseason plans changed on the restricted free agent market). If Lee can make a similar leap in Boston, there's a potential role for him here, especially with the uncertainty of whether Rondo will be ready for the start of the season (the team hopes he will, but as Derrick Rose proves, there's no guarantees with ACLs).

If Lee desires to stop his career-long jersey swap, this is an important summer to nailing down some NBA stability.