David Lee played zero seconds in the second half of Wednesday's Boston Celtics loss to the Detroit Pistons. With the emergence of Tyler Zeller and Jonas Jerebko, Lee's donut in the minutes column could become a more regular occurrence. In fact, the data reveals that the Celtics are significantly better when Lee is on the bench.
The Celtics have a -3.9 Net Rating when Lee is playing, making him the only regular rotation player with a negative Net Rating. But they're +5.9 when he's on the bench, which is their best Net Rating.
In simple terms, the Celtics play like a below .500 team when Lee's in the game, but they're elite when he's cheering from the sidelines.
And it goes much deeper than that.
Brad Stevens has discussed how much he values how combinations of players perform together as a unit. So it's alarming that every single pairing is better when Lee isn't in the game, according to the Net Rating metric.
When Jae Crowder is on the floor without Lee, the Celtics are a spectacular +7.9. But when Lee's on with Crowder, they're -5.2. And that goes for everyone on the roster, except for Jordan Mickey, who hasn't logged a minute with Lee.
Here's the data, accumulated via NBA.com:
Marcus Smart's differential is the largest, as the Celtics are -11.3 when he's paired with Lee, but it's +12.1 when he's not. Even lineups with Evan Turner, Lee's pick-and-roll partner in crime, are 8.5 points per 100 possessions better without Lee. Only Jared Sullinger experiences a subtle difference of just +0.8.
It's not that Lee is a bad player -- he still has value -- it's that he might not fit as well as expected as a playmaker at power forward.
Lee has shown flashes, like his low post defense against DeMarcus Cousins and his spark against the Warriors. But those moments have been few and far between for the 32-year-old veteran big man.
Lee is a great passer and a solid rebounder, and he communicates well defensively. But he's scoring at a career-worst 48.9 percent. Entering this season, Lee shot 62.6 percent from within five feet of the rim, but this year he's finishing at a career-worst 53.6 percent. He's still shifty off the dribble, and he gets to the rim, but so far he's unable to elevate enough to finish like he did just a few years ago.
From a personnel standpoint, he's arguably not as valuable, either. Tyler Zeller is a better rim protector and a better rim runner; Jonas Jerebko provides better spacing and defensive versatility; R.J. Hunter is a better shooter; and Marcus Smart will obviously receive playing time once he's back to full health.
Here's what the minutes breakdown could look like in a world where Lee is benched after Smart returns:
It'd likely provide Stevens with more flexibility to go without Lee. If Stevens wants to go small, Zeller's 10 minutes could be sliced and distributed elsewhere, like Hunter or Jerebko. If they're facing a team with traditional bigs, like Andre Drummond, more minutes could be swung towards Zeller or the other bigs.
Kelly Olynyk shined for the Celtics in their epic 124-119 double overtime loss to the Warriors
Kelly Olynyk shined against the Warriors, but how can the Celtics get that level of production out of him more consistently?
Lee asked to be traded by the Warriors for an opportunity to earn minutes with another team and he's expounding energy to the little things, whether it's busting his butt on defense more than he did in his prime or being the first off the bench cheering for his teammates.
But the Celtics are 14-12 and if the playoffs started today they'd be on the outside looking in. Part of that is due to the poor performance with Lee on the floor.
Maybe the solution lies somewhere in-between. Not a complete benching of Lee, but a minimized role where he'd be used in preferable situations (plus, his contract could be retained as a valuable trade chip).
If Lee responded positively, then he could be this year's Gerald Wallace, the Yoda of the Celtics locker room, providing wisdom to every young player, while playing a change-of-pace role on the floor. Now, if he reacted like Keith Bogans . . . well, that'd complicates things.
The Eastern Conference isn't the cakewalk that it was last year, so the margin for error isn't as wide as it once was. With a deep playoff run being the goal for the Boston Celtics, every game matters, even if it is only December.