OAKLAND – Considered not long ago to be a Warriors cornerstone, David Lee sat at his cubicle the other day discussing his greatly diminished role and, moreover, how he is coping with it.
He doesn’t like it, but he understands. Winning, he says, makes it easier to digest the extended periods of inactivity.
The Warriors took the floor an hour later and crushed Dallas, maintaining their firm grip on the Western Conference. Coach Steve Kerr played everybody on the roster except Lee – who had played only seven minutes in the previous game.
On Sunday, though, Lee played 19 minutes, his longest stint of the month. He was a team-worst minus-11 in a Warriors win over the Clippers.
On Monday night in Phoenix, Lee was one of two Warriors who never left the bench in a 98-80 win over the Suns.
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As the Warriors play out the final five-plus weeks of the regular season, it is evident Lee is a man without a role. When the longtime starter returned on Dec. 22, after playing only seven minutes in the first 25 games due to a hamstring injury, Draymond Green had locked up the starting power forward spot.
Kerr tried to find minutes for Lee, and occasionally did. But it has not been easy because he's a skilled scorer who, as a defensive liability, too often allows more than he gives. The Warriors are committed to switching on defense, and Lee is an awful fit for that tactic.
Connecting the dots from Lee's overall performance, to Green's stunning rise to the unprecedented success of the Warriors to Kerr's words Sunday morning, the conclusion is Lee is no higher than the 10th or 11th man on the roster.
"I communicate with all my players, all the time," Kerr said. "And every player is different. Every situation is different. This is a really tricky one.
Kerr sighed and paused ever so briefly.
"David's a great player. He's been an All-Star. He's still in his prime," he went on. "What's been tricky is that we’ve developed a formula while he was out that has been very effective for us. And you compound that with the fact that the whole league is going small at the 4-position and every night you're playing a 3-point shooter at the 4 spot. We've adapted to that. We've adapted to our early-season lineups. Draymond has obviously grabbed that position. So it's tricky."
One more reason why it's tricky: Lee, 31, is the team's highest paid player, at roughly $15 million this season, with another season remaining at $15.5 mil.
Kerr, however, is in no position to consider that – just as he must ignore the well-known fact that Lee is a personal favorite of team CEO Joe Lacob. As much as Lacob likes Lee, he is more addicted to the thrill of victory.
Meanwhile, Lee mostly sits and watches the Warriors play the best basketball in franchise history. They're 50-12 and the playoffs beckon.
"We're winning and we're having fun," Lee said. "It's hard at times. I couldn't do this if we weren't winning. But we are. I'm not going to put myself ahead of that."
Kerr has shown a willingness to play his entire roster, depending on matchups. Chances are that at some point, Lee will be summoned.
"David's a great guy," Kerr said. "He's great player. If I put him out there for 30 minutes a night, I have no doubt he'd average 18 points and 10 boards. He'd do his thing because he's talented and skilled. But it's all about how the puzzle fits together. And right now, he's just been the odd man out. And it's incredibly frustrating for him, as it should be. He's a human being."