There's been a lot of grumbling about David Lee's game lately. This isn't a surprise given that he's a highly-paid player who's rarely dominant. Fans want to see him take over games, but he rarely seems to. Usually when you notice him during a game it's because he forced something ugly that backfired.
To understand why David Lee is both very good and limited, it helps to split players into two categories. For the sake of this article, we'll call them "creative" players and "system" players.
A creative player is a player who you can give the ball to, and expect them to generate their own shot. Almost all of the great players fit into this category: Bird, Jordan, Magic, LeBron. But I'm using the word creative here in a specific way: it's not about how pretty your shots are, or how many different moves you have. It's simply this: if your teammates passed you the ball, were you likely to be able to get a good shot. So even final-season Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who only had one effective weapon (the sky hook) was a creative player.
A system player, on the other hand, relies on the functioning of the offense to get them their shots. This doesn't mean those players aren't very good. Late-career Ray Allen is a system player, for example. Take away players to deliver him solid screens and a point guard to hit him at just the right time, and he becomes much less effective. But with those things, there are very few players in the league who are better at putting the ball in the basket than he is.
How important it is to have creative players is somewhat up for debate. The work of Dave Berri and Andres Alvarez over at Wages of Wins has gone a long way to demonstrate how we overvalue shot creation. Players like Vince Carter orMonta Ellis, who sure manage to score a lot and always seem to have the ball in their hands, but miss a ton of shots, are lionized less than they used to be. On the other hand, many fans feel that there are times during the game when you need a player who can get a shot on his own, in order to break down the defense and open up space for the "system."
The key to understanding - and appreciating - David Lee's game is to recognize that he's a system player. He's got an excellent midrange jumper which punishes opposing defenses which collapse on his teammates. He's a very good offensive rebounder who picks up a lot of garbage buckets around the basket. He's a very good passer who does a great job of finding open teammates, and he's got a nose for the little slivers of open space which show up when the offense is moving and players are passing the ball.
What David Lee doesn't have, however, is a good set of go-to moves. He's fairly predictable in the low post and doesn't protect the ball well. While he has the speed to beat a lot of power forwards off the dribble, he lacks the explosiveness to finish against athletic help defenders. And while his jumper is a solid weapon when the teammate has drawn the defense, when asked to create a shot on his own Lee often drifts too far outside. He may make those shots at a better rate than most bigs, but he doesn't make them at a high enough rate to win games. (To be fair, almost no one does. There's a reason why no team in the league builds their offense around 18-foot jumpers).
But Lee is still clearly a net positive on offense. Throughout his career his teams have been much better offensively with him on the floor than without, as shown by his excellent Regulated-Adjusted-Plus-Minus (RAPM) numbers. And the simple truth is that you don't score 20 points a game at above average efficiency (as Lee did last year) unless you're actually pretty good on that end of the court.
The team, therefore, needs to not treat Lee like a creative player. If the team needs to slow things down and get some buckets in the paint, Lee's backup Carl Landry or the hopefully-healthy-soon Andrew Bogut are better choices. It's telling that we've seen a couple of games where the team fell behind in part because the offense stagnated when they asked Lee to create on his own.
The team needs to operate in a way which allows Lee to thrive. While Landry is better than Lee in the low post, he's not when the ball and players are moving and creating space. With four good-passing starters, the team should be in strong shape to run an offense with a lot of motion that plays to his strengths. We saw how effective this could be in the second and third quarters against Minnesota.
Make no mistake: Lee is actually very good when used properly. But he's going to be good in a quiet way. The perfect Lee game should be one where you look at the box score afterwards and find yourself wondering how he scored so many points, because you don't really remember any of them. They just sort of happened.
This may be a challenge for Mark Jackson, who sometimes seems to believe that games often come down to individual players imposing their will on the outcome. Lee trying to impose his will is a recipe for a stagnant offense. Fans, for their part, would be well-served to remember that the ugly post-up moves we've seen from Lee so far this season don't mean that he sucks - rather, they're evidence that he's being used in the wrong way. He's never going to be an elite, take-over-the-game scorer - but the quiet baskets count for just as many points as the loud ones.