TAKING PERSPECTIVE FROM THE PAST
Lee's decision to choose Boston over other suitors, such as Minnesota, was borne out of a long line of poor experiences in less stable situations. Lee's career started off with great promise as he found himself matched up against Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals as a rookie starting shooting guard with the Orlando Magic back in 2008. It was that success that lead, in part, to his trade to the then rebuilding New Jersey Nets. He was considered a centerpiece for the post Jason Kidd era.
The Nets were a strange mix of role playing veterans and inexperienced youth, thrown together in what amounted to a 12 win season of constant personnel upheaval and precious little continuity. While Lee enjoyed the most playing time of his career, he was miscast in an offensive role he was not developmentally ready to fulfill. Both Lee and the Nets knew his prospects for career development were better served somewhere else.
"I had my agent [Dan Fagen] get me out of there, only because it was a rebuilding and they were going in another direction. So we came to a mutual agreement that it would be best for me to leave there."
Lee's next stop seemed more promising as he was joining a Houston Rockets team that was only one season removed from a tough Western Conference Finals battle with the Lakers and seemed poised to make another deep run in the playoffs. But, star Center Yao Ming's career came to a sudden end due to injury and his absence created a mad scramble for a Rockets rotation that saw 20 players log minutes on the way to a lackluster 43 win season.
The following year, Lee was back in the familiar environment of rebuilding. While his role was more defined, the rotational uncertainty that comes with constant experimentation kept Lee pigeon-holed in a role that left little room for individual growth. He had become the dreaded NBA casualty - too experienced to be considered a prospect with "potential", but without ever having enjoyed the type of team cohesiveness and stability necessary to fully grow.
Now Lee would experience free agency for the first time. The right to choose his next destination and the potential to earn the type of financial security that changes one's life forever. The Question now would be, what to choose? Follow the money to a situation of greater opportunity, but risk a similar repeat of past experiences? Or invest himself in a culture of winning and stability, while risking the certainty of a role large enough to progress as an individual...not easy an easy decision for a player entering his prime and at the cross-roads of his career path.
A SUMMER OF TOUGH DECISIONS
Celtics fans were treated to a little late summer intrigue as the Courtney Lee trade was consummated. There had been much buzz within the rumor mill regarding the potential acquisition of the 26 year old shooting guard leading up to the deal. Fueling the speculative fire were the tantalizing perimeter metrics being thrown around in the wake of the fury surrounding "Benedict Allen" defection to the hated Heat.
Die-hard's salivated at the notion of a near 50% corner 3pt shooter with a reputation for tough-nosed defense and heady transition play that promised options far beyond what the aging Allen could offer a new Rondo-led running attack. Lost in this fervor was a deeper appreciation for the position Lee was in when deciding how to approach the choices that lay before him as a first-time free agent.
"Shoot, that process was pretty tough. When you look at the short-term you've got to look at all the possibilities; one being injuries, two being the team's [potential for success], those are two things that really factor into signing a long term deal. For a long term deal you're looking for security, especially when its a good situation like it is here, coming to a great organization with a core group of guys to win big and continue [to do so] throughout my career. So, it was definitely the best decision for the long term."
Lee had to have the confidence that he could come in and establish himself as a part of that core. Through conversations with the organization and discussions with his agent, Lee believed the situation optimal for such an impact.
"You've got to look at every team and look at the openings and what they need you to come in and do. [Boston] was one of the best situations for me. They wanted me to come in and be able to play tough defense, be able to knock down open shots, and be able to run the court with Rondo....that pretty much fits my game."
Lee's relationship with coach Doc Rivers was well publicized, the two living close to one-another in Orlando coupled with Lee's strong ties to Rivers' son Austin, gave him quality insight into his potential fit. Avery Bradley was on the shelf for a couple of months, meaning the door was open to make a lasting impression that would establish himself among the core members of the group. But does that relationship provide more of a comfort level or a challenge due to familiarity?
"Its a little bit of both because our relationship off the court is totally different than the one we have on the court. We both have a mutual respect for each other and when I come in here I want to play as hard as possible for him...and not only for him, but for my teammates. You really don't want to let anybody down, you know? So, having that relationship off court court really helped with my decision. Ever since I met Doc he's been a guy that I can trust and take his word. Everything he said and promised [in the off season] he's kept [to]."
The early returns have been mixed just nine games into this young season. But, impatient fans of the green should take heart. The career 38% three-point shooter carries a pedestrian 31% shooting efficiency over October/November historically compared with his near 41% average in the months of February/March/April. So, Lee has shown himself to be a player whose respect for situation and opportunity lead to strong finishing results once he's had time to adjust to his environment.
"Getting comfortable with these guys and with myself, its always a tough thing to do, building chemistry right away. Doc's still trying to figure out rotations, so at times that can be frustrating too. But its early in the season and we just have to continue to move forward as the chemistry continues to build. So those would probably be the toughest adjustments I have to make."
When Speaking with Lee, you really get a sense of how his mind works when evaluating a situation. That perspective can be seen in his comments regarding the value of being part of this group. He appreciates the common interests he shares with similar aged teammates, while realizing the value that the older vets bring to perusing a singular, focused direction.
"It definitely does [make a difference] We all have similar interests, are all around the same age, and that helps to build chemistry off the court. The older guys that are here lead by example and show leadership vocally also, they show you the right ways to do it. When we have everybody together, its like a big family. Whether it be KG being a vet, talking to everybody, getting everybody going [emotionally] or Rondo being the point guard and getting everyone going [on the court]. I think its a benefit having the older guys and then having the younger group coming forward."
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
Lee was highly intrigued by the possibility of joining a Celtics squad that was fast becoming a team with quality staying power beyond the current era. He knew Doc Rivers would be his coach for the length of his deal. The team's commitment to building around Rajon Rondo offered him the potential to be a part of something more than just the moment.
"When you look at the core group of guys here, the older guys may be up there, in terms of NBA years. But, you've got Jeff Green, B Bass, Rondo who's twenty-six, and myself, all around the same age. So now with the core group, when those guys are gone we still have a good group of guys to build forward with."
That's the long and short of Courtney Lee. Other players on this team may command more attention or notoriety from media members and fans alike. But Lee represents the best qualities of an NBA athlete. He is driven to succeed and he uses his awareness of the past to improve his prospects for the future while maintaining focus on his place within the group.
As this season goes on and the identity of the team begins to take shape, Courtney Lee will have an opportunity to apply lessons learned and become an integral part of a winning team once more.