Not receiving minutes on a championship contender is one thing, but being removed from the rotation on a team that’s meandering through the middle of the Eastern Conference is another. “I told [coach Brad Stevens] while I disagree with [being taken out of the rotation],” David Lee said earlier in the month, “I also told him he’s the coach and can choose to do that.” Lee has only played in two games since the start of 2016, tallying a total of 25 minutes, and Boston has gone 9-7 over that stretch. The power forward remains supportive of Stevens and he hasn’t requested a trade, though doing so may not get him anywhere as the Celtics have been open to moving him for quite some time.
The demand just isn’t there. The power forward position is evolving, as Dana Gauruder of Hoops Rumors mentioned in his Taj Gibson Trade Candidate piece earlier this month. Ideally, teams want power forwards to possess the lateral quickness that allows them to slide over and defend a small forward when opposing squads play small ball. According to this new prototype, big men should have the ability to switch onto smaller players in pick-and-roll defense and not appear overexposed when a speedier guard is attempting to drive past them. Throw in the ability to make 3-pointers and you have a player that fits the stretch-four model that’s been parroted by executives and sportswriters alike over the last few seasons. That player will certainly demand the attention of nearly every team in league on the trade market. Lee is not that player.
The University of Florida product plays an old man’s game, but he isn’t unplayable at this point in his career. For Boston, he’s the equivalent of that awkward piece of living room furniture you’ve acquired for basically nothing, thinking that it’ll be useful, but in reality you just have too many fixtures and not enough square footage for it all to work. That’s Stevens’ dilemma. He has too many pieces, and with Jared Sullinger’s surprisingly masterful defense, Amir Johnson’s sheer goodness and Kelly Olynyk showing promise, spare minutes are hard to find. Account for the stretches with either Jonas Jerebko or Tyler Zeller, who was a candidate for an extension this past fall but let the deadline pass without reaching an agreement with the team, and you’re watching a solid, deep rotation in the frontcourt. Lee is watching the same thing from the bench.
Lee was playing 15.9 minutes per game through the last week of December and his 15.8 player efficiency rating would indicate that he was doing just fine. However, it was becoming apparent that finishing at the rim was becoming a problem. Getting airborne was never a staple in Lee’s game, but his lack of hops compounded the issue. He made 49.6% of his shots within 5 feet of the hoop this season and of the shots he missed, 40% were blocked, according to NBA.com. Lee can’t shoot the 3-ball, making only one in 29 career attempts. Stevens has tinkered with positioning Lee outside the paint in an attempt to manufacture spacing. It hasn’t really worked. The big man is making just over 29% of his shots outside the paint, which is below the league average from any given area within the arc, per Statmuse. Stevens’ pace-and-space system has led Lee to a career high 4.1 assists per 36 minutes, but his 2.9 turnovers per 36 minutes are a career worst. All that being said, Lee is still doing a few things well. His points and rebounds per 36 minutes are hovering around his career averages of 16.8 and 10.8, respectively, and his free throw percentage this year is slightly above his 77.5% career mark. There seems to be enough left in Lee’s tank to be a productive reserve, though Boston may not be the place for him to prove it.
Lee’s salary, which is slightly under $15.5MM, limits his suitors. Lee’s skills would be welcomed in Miami, considering the team’s underwhelming backup big men, but absorbing Lee’s salary would likely mean giving up Luol Deng and offloading other salary to avoid the tax. The Duke product hasn’t been spectacular this season, but the Heat’s need for wings exceeds its need for a third big. The Clippers have a glaring need at power forward after trading away Josh Smith and watching Blake Griffin hit the sideline with a broken hand. Yet, making a reasonable, salary-aligning trade for Lee would mean sending out Jamal Crawford and Lance Stephenson, which is something that doesn’t really make sense for either party. The Raptors could use a four, but they’re likely probably looking for a defensive minded big to pair with newly-extended Jonas Valanciunas, given the Lithuanian’s struggles on that side of the ball. The Lakers would like to move Roy Hibbert and the center’s $15.5MM salary would allow for a swap of the two big men. However, the Lakers are likely looking to gain an asset back in any Hibbert trade, considering they gave up a second-rounder to acquire him just months ago. Although the Celtics have the picks to propose such a deal, swapping Hibbert for Lee would be exchanging one massive human being on the bench for another, as Hibbert likely wouldn’t crack the rotation in Boston.
The Hawks want to compete with the Cavs for the Eastern Conference crown, and if they are going to come out on top after tussling with the likes of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, they will need to improve their rebounding totals, as the Wizards are the only team pulling down fewer rebounds per game than they are. Atlanta is struggling on offense this season, as Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors detailed in his Jeff Teague Trade Candidate piece. Though Lee would help improve the team in both those areas, it’s hard to construct a trade for Atlanta that makes sense. Tiago Splitter could be the main piece in a Lee-centered deal, though coach Mike Budenholzer is a fan of the center going back to his days with San Antonio, and Splitter, who’s on a contract that has just one year remaining after this one at $8.25MM, probably doesn’t move the needle for Boston.
If Lee ends up changing teams via trade, it’s more likely that he is part of a larger deal. Short of a true franchise player, Boston’s biggest need is a go-to scorer. The Celtics’ last 10 losses have all been by single digits and nearly all of the losses were a result of the offense running stagnant near the end of the game. Kevin Love would have been a nice weapon for Stevens to utilize over that stretch. The Love trade speculation should continue over the next few weeks, given that three of Cleveland’s four best players, including Love, are arguably best suited to play the four. The Cavs’ biggest need is a small forward who can guard the opposition’s best wing and take some of the burden off LeBron James. Jae Crowder fits the bill. The Marquette product won’t be mistaken for a true No.1 option, but he has blossomed into a nice two-way player this season, turning his five-year, $35MM contact into a steal in the process. A package of Crowder, Lee and a future first-round pick or two isn’t tantamount to Andrew Wiggins. Cleveland simply isn’t getting that type of prospect back for Love. Still, it’s a proposal the Cavs should investigate. Bringing in Crowder adds a legitimate contributor to the roster and it would help reduce the team’s near record-setting tax bill starting next season.
That kind of deal would be a home run for Boston, though, as Myron noted in a recent chat, it’s doubtful that the Cavs move Love before the end of the season. There are other scenarios wherein Lee could be a piece of a package, such as a deal for Joe Johnson that sends out Lee, Jerebko and Evan Turner. Johnson wouldn’t excite the fan base in the same way a Love or Gordon Hayward acquisition would, but a player of Johnson’s caliber is an easier catch.
Adding a go-to scorer or finding an upgrade to give Turner’s minutes to without sacrificing future flexibility should be Boston’s main objectives this trade season. It’ll be hard to accomplish either aim or net anything useful this season for Lee alone. A larger trade is a possibility. More likely, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge keeps an eye on the market, perhaps netting a second-rounder from some team that would like to swap high-salary players. Ainge could also simply invite Lee to the table to start negotiations on a buyout agreement. Lee the free agent will definitely have more suitors than Lee the trade target, but until a buyout is agreed upon or an injury to someone in Boston’s rotation occurs, the 32-year-old likely won’t see much court time.