Famed journalist Eric Sevareid once observed that “the chief cause of problems is solutions.” With rumors swirling that the Warriors have a deal in place to send Anthony Randolph and possibly Ronny Turiaf, Kelenna Azubuike and/or Brandan Wright to New York for a signed-and-traded David Lee, the Warriors may have found a solution to their rebounding woes. The catch, however, lies in what other problems that solution may exacerbate.
The Marcus Thompson-reported rumor that triggered the latest round of Randolph-trade panic is short on specifics, and in a deal like this specifics matter. David Lee isn’t a bad player and, in the abstract, the thought of swapping a rough, unproven, skinny third-year power forward for a former All Star sounds like a no brainer. Lee has a bigger name and better stats than Randolph — and both advantages matter to a front office always looking to sell its moves to an increasingly skeptical public. For your fantasy team or for the poor guy writing Warriors’ press releases (you know, the guy who keeps misquoting Larry Riley), it’s an easily defensible move. But in the real world — in the context of the NBA’s worst defensive team — it’s a big mistake.
In no particular order, here’s why every justification for swapping Randolph for Lee falls apart on closer inspection:
Lee is a 20/10 guy — fans of Lee, like fans of Corey Maggette, always start with his stats. Both have spent their careers as good players on bad teams, so whatever their individual numbers, they haven’t translated to wins. Lee’s statistics give me particular pause since his two big years — 08-09 and 09-10 — were both contract years. For the two seasons before that, his numbers were 10/10 — essentially an Eastern Conference version of Andris Biedrins. As Erick Dampier repeatedly teaches teams, beware contract-year breakouts. But even assuming Lee’s numbers are legitimate, they’re no clear upgrade over Randolph. Equalizing at 40 minutes per game for last season, Lee averages 21.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, compared to Randolph’s 20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists. Given that Randolph is 7 years younger than Lee and hasn’t had a chance to play under a coach willing to use him in the same role for more than two games in a row, whatever slight advantage Lee has now statistically doesn’t justify the trade for me —
particularly when you consider that the Warriors will be adding at least one other productive rotation player (Turiaf, Azubuike, Wright).
Lee is a great rebounder — No doubt, but so is Anthony Randolph. Lee has a slight advantage both in rebounds per minute (.314 vs. .286) and rebounding percentage (17.9% vs. 16.0% — the percentage of available rebounds the player grabs when on the floor). The numbers get even closer when you consider Randolph’s rookie numbers — a relatively healthy campaign — with Lee’s most recent year (.324 vs. .314. and 17.5% vs. 17.9%). Given that Randolph is still adding strength to his body, I expect his numbers to continue to improve for a few years. In contrast, Lee is likely to start to lose some of his athleticism over the next 2-3 years, potentially limiting his impact. Again, given the near identical numbers between the two, I see no great upgrade in Lee. The Warriors definitely need rebounding help, but trading for Lee simply swaps one good rebounder for another — resulting in nearly no net gain. The team’s rebounding woes had far more to do last year with injuries to Biedrins and Randolph and Nelson’s small-ball rotations than they did with available rebounding talent. Despite Lee’s impressive rebounding numbers, I’m not convinced a Lee/Biedrins/Udoh/Gadzuric rotation at 4/5 makes us a better rebounding team than Randolph/Biedrins/Turiaf/Udoh.
Lee is the beef the Warriors need — Not really. Just because Lee is stronger than Randolph, Wright and Udoh (but not Turiaf, who we would likely lose in the deal), doesn’t mean he’s strong enough to make a difference at either end of the court. His defense is famously poor against power players both big and small. He doesn’t have traditional back-to-the-basket moves, so he’s giving us nothing we need for half court sets. His interior offense comes mostly off put-backs and pick-and-rolls, just like our current power forward crop. Lee has excelled in the system most like Nelson’s in the NBA. For those looking for a player that can thrive outside of Nelson’s schemes, the Knicks are the last place we should be looking for help. Just because Lee looks like a bull in a china shop when he plays the Warriors doesn’t mean that’s how he’ll perform against the rest of the NBA. I’d be much more willing to give up Randolph if we were getting a power forward that has low post offensive moves and the strength to guard the other team’s go-to guy. Lee just isn’t that player.
Lee will help us win now — Does David Lee stop Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Paul Milsap, LeMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Luis Scola, David West or Zach Randolph? Does he provide great help defense to slow down Andrew Bynum, Yao Ming, Al Jefferson, Greg Oden, or DeMarcus Cousins? If not, he’s not going to be a player that helps the Warriors jump into playoff contention. Maybe he helps move us from 26 to 36 wins next year and the year after while he’s still in his prime, but that still leaves us 14 wins short of this year’s playoff threshold. And that’s without considering the drag losing key rotation guys like Turiaf or Azubuike — two of our better defenders — would have on the squad.
Don Nelson and Larry Riley may want to scrape out every win possible from the early 2010-11 season — either to campaign for their jobs or restore a bit of their reputation — but whatever minor gain Lee would bring us now won’t be enough to turn the franchise into a serious playoff threat. Keeping and developing Randolph, on the other hand, gives the Warriors a high-ceiling player that — with admittedly significant risk — could end up being the type of superstar that elevates the team when allowed to grow with Curry. When you factor in Lee’s potentially $80 million long-term contract on the books — a contract that would keep the Warriors from having max or near-max money in 2011 or 2012 — the coming David Lee era looks a lot like the “not good enough to succeed, not bad enough to rebuild” era that we’ve endured for far too long. We’ve been down this round before; it was bumpy.
I fully admit that I may overrate Anthony Randolph’s potential in my reluctance to trade him, but there’s one overriding reason I don’t want to see the crumbling Cohan/Rowell/Riley/Nelson regime run him out of town in their (hopefully) final hours. More than any other player on the roster, Randolph has shown that he can be a dominant two-way player. He’s the only guy we have that can be a game-changer at both the offensive and defensive end of the court. Curry has also shown flashes of this with his improved late-season defense, as did Ellis when he wasn’t run ragged with 48-minute performances, but Randolph’s size and demeanor give him the best shot of controlling games at both ends of the court. We’ve lived for so long through the offense-only line-ups rolled out by Nelson that I worry we’ve forgotten what a complete player looks like, and just how significant his presence can be on the court. Randolph isn’t a complete player yet — but he has the best shot of anyone on the roster of growing into one. Warriors fans — not Knicks fans — should get the thrill of witnessing that development.