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The David Lee Conundrum

Written by Matt Barbarasch
With the Knicks trailing the Sixers 90-91 in the second week of January, David Lee calmly hit a fifteen foot jump shot with forty-three seconds left in the 4th quarter. Lee would later ice the game with a lay-up, off a feed from Duhon, propelling the Knicks to a 93-92 road victory, one they needed after letting a game slip away in Houston, and then getting blown out by Oklahoma City two nights later. It’s the fifteen foot jump shot that Lee has added to his arsenal that has transformed him into one the most efficient offensive players in the league. When the Mike D’Antoni era began, Lee was perceived to be expendable. A player as limited on the offensive end as he was could not thrive in a system that requires five players who have the ability to spread the floor and shoot. Lee’s first year under D’Antoni was a breakout success. Being equally adept going to his right and left, Lee was able to get easy lay-ups in D’Antoni’s wide open offense. This season, Lee has once again exceeded expectations. The addition of a mid-range jump shot to Lee’s game has made him one of the best offensive forwards in the NBA. Based on data from Hoopdata.com, Lee has made 45% of shots between 16-23 feet. The league average for forwards and centers hovers around 40%. Lee’s offensive game may just be peaking, but it is his play on the other end of the court that has stunted his development at becoming one of the best all around forwards in the NBA.
With the Knicks down by one and needing a big stop against Toronto in the closing seconds of the 4th quarter Thursday night, it wasn’t Lee out on an island guarding Bosh, it was Wilson Chandler, who despite his efforts, was unable to stop the more powerful Bosh from converting on a left-handed lay-up. Lee is a liability on the defensive end. He’s too small to battle forwards low in the paint, too slow to cover small forwards on the perimeter and lacks any instinctive awareness on defense to protect the rim. In his career, he has averaged a mere .3 blocks per game, and this year he has not fared any better, averaging only .35 a game, ranking 8th on the team. Basketball Prospectus rates Lee as a -5 on defense, the worse ranking for any player. It’s hard to rationalize signing a player to a huge extension that is a detriment to his team on one end of the court.
If the Knicks decide to ultimately give Lee an extension, they need to have a plan in place to make up for his defensive deficiencies. They need to give Lee a defensive caddie, someone who may not provide much on offense, but contributes on defense and protects the rim. They need a Jared Jeffries. Jeffries leads the Knicks rotation in blocks and in the +/- category at + 1. The numbers at 82.games.com also support Jeffries importance to the Knicks. Out the Knicks top ten lineups based on minutes, Lee is a figure in all of them, while Jeffries only plays in half. When Lee and Jeffries are paired together, the Knicks have a +31 point differential, compared to -71 when Lee plays without Jeffries. Walsh and D’Antoni cannot give Lee a worthy extension based on his ability to convert easy baskets and grab rebounds. In order to construct a complete team they need to focus on what Lee can’t do, and find a player who can fill his void defensively.

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