Despite his offensive contribution, David Lee’s overall value is limited. Simply put, Lee is a very bad defensive player. While the entirety of his defense could use improvement, here are the aspects of defense David Lee could feasibly improve that have the greatest effect on the Warriors.
According to mysynergysports.com, David Lee allowed 0.94 points per possession against isolations, 277th in the league. At this point in his career, it is highly unlikely that Lee becomes an above average defender. He is limited by athleticism and mobility. Despite his physical disadvantages, many of Lee’s defensive issues are a product of poor fundamentals. His footwork and initial positioning is often flawed and he has a tendency to bite on most pump fakes.
Here David Lee is defending a big man, LaMarcus Aldridge, in an isolation situation. First off, Lee’s initial stance is problematic. He is completely vertical on the catch and barely bends his knees once Aldridge turns to the basket. Lee’s positioning is also an issue. He is positioned as if to force Aldridge to his right towards the baseline, as most defenses would. Lee has his body oriented correctly but is not actually denying Aldridge any lane. He should be a step closer to the elbow, completely preventing Aldridge form getting to the middle of the court. There is not enough space for Aldridge to turn the corner going right.
Instead, Lee allows Aldridge to go left into the middle of the lane. Lee is not quick enough to cut off Aldridge’s progress, displaying his physical deficiencies. As Aldridge turns back, Lee reveals another one of his defensive flaws. When he should simply hold his position, Lee jumps forward. This could prevent Aldridge from taking a shot, though Aldridge had a nice counter move, but moving into rather than holding position against an offensive player generally results in a foul. According to mysynergysports.com, Lee commits a shooting foul on 8.6 percent of the isolations he faces. This, along with non-shooting fouls, increases individual foul trouble and brings opponents into the bonus.
Lee’s positioning and footwork issues also affect him against perimeter players.
Here, Lee is switched onto Tony Parker following a pick and roll. Against Parker, he should focus on not allowing an open jumper. Parker will be able to get a relatively easy jumper regardless of Lee’s defense, while allowing him into the lane allows a layup and opens kick out opportunities to higher value threes. Once switched onto Parker, Lee should immediately sag towards the paint, as it is highly unlikely that Parker takes an off-the-dribble three. Also, Lee does not position himself well to keep Parker out of the middle of the court.
Lee follows Parker towards the sideline, allowing Parker to cross back over and get to the middle of the key. This is obviously easier said than done, but Lee should attempt to force Parker to drive baseline, where Parker can be corralled without forcing help defenders to leave wide-open shooters.
Despite several years in the league, Lee does not have the defensive recognition and fundamentals necessary to compensate for his limited athleticism.
In post up situations, Lee’s poor defensive awareness and positioning is the main culprit of his struggles, while limited leaping ability serves to exacerbate these issues. According to mysynergysports.com, Lee allows 0.84 points per play to post-ups, 159th in the league. Lee’s on ball post defense is poor. He does not have the length to contest most shots and, as his unnecessary step towards LaMarcus Aldridge shows, he generally practices poor individual defensive technique. He commits a shooting foul on 12.2 percent of post up situations and often will place both hands on the back of an offensive player, warranting an automatic whistle.
However, despite his significant on-ball struggles, David Lee’s post-up weakness is likely a product of poor positioning and off-ball defense.
On this possession, the Warriors’ are playing zone. Though many defenses utilize weak side zone principles anyway, a zone defense typically requires increased defensive awareness from big men, who must now deal with baseline cutters and post movement in addition to help responsibilities. Here, Lee loses track of Kosta Koufos as he stands out of bounds (an action that may soon be disallowed). Even after noticing Koufos, Lee does not fully engage, allowing Koufos to cut to the middle of the lane for ideal post position.
Even in man-to-man defense, Lee often allows deep post position, especially to roll men and after cross screens. He does not often appear to recognize the importance of post position and is rarely gives the effort necessary to force opponents out of this position. Again, Lee’s effort and positioning lead to defensive struggles.
Pick and Roll:
According to mysynergysports.com, Lee allows only 0.6 points per play to roll men, 10th best in the league! However, this disguises the damaging effect of Lee’s pick and roll defense. In the last couple seasons, the Warriors have reconstructed their defense to compensate for Lee’s poor pick and roll defense. I covered the reconstruction of the Warriors’ pick and roll defense when describing how assistant coach Mike Malone affected the Warriors:
“To limit the damage wrought by their big men’s lack of lateral mobility, the Warriors often defend pick and rolls with the “Ice “coverage.
In Ice, the guard attempts to prevent the ball-handler from using the screen, while the big man stays below screen-level on the side to which the ball handler is being forced. Notice how Stephen Curry has jumped in front of Tony Parker to prevent him from using Tiago Splitter’s screen while Andrew Bogut stays in the paint to contain penetration. Miscommunication may lead to wide open driving lanes and more defensive pressure is placed on the guards, but Ice allows the Warriors’ big men to effectively contain pick and rolls.
Another addition to the Warriors’ pick-and-roll defense under Malone’s tenure is increased help from wing defenders. In the image, Klay Thompson has dropped into the paint, leaving his man in the corner open, in an attempt to contain Splitter’s role. This strategy has been effective in limiting the productivity of opposing roll men. According to mysynergysports.com, the Warriors allowed only 0.9 points per play to role men, the second-best rate in the league.
The results of this strategy are entirely beneficial. The commitment to shutting down role men often leaves opposing shooters open in the corners. Imagine Parker driving a few steps towards the left elbow, forcing Bogut to commit to containing him. Parker could then pass to a rolling Splitter. Thompson would attempt to deny Splitter’s path to the basket, and Kawhi Leonard would likely be wide open in the corner. That and similar scenarios play out several times per game versus the Warriors, who surrendered the most three-point attempts and corner three point attempts per 48 minutes this season”
David Lee is slow laterally and practically immobile when changing direction. He often struggles to contain ball handlers in “Ice” coverage, a strategy used to limit his weaknesses, and is slow to recover to his man, forcing the Warriors to compensate by having help defenders rotate down to the roll man.
Though a lack of athleticism may be the root of his defensive issues, much of Lee’s defensive futility is generated by poor positioning, footwork, and awareness. It may be unlikely that any significant changes occur at this point in his career but even minor improvements to the non-athleticism based components of defense will increase David Lee’s value to the Warriors.