The Quiet Franchise Player
David Lee has always been there, it’s time everyone notices.
It’s interesting how 2010 has become a word full of implications in the basketball world. The year 2010 is synonymous with free agency. And free agency renders two things to mind: LeBron James and the Knicks. Despite tremendous pressure on the Knicks to acquire a franchise player, perhaps they have had one all along in David Lee.
Lee could be the most overlooked player in the NBA. Last season’s double-doubles leader failed to sign an offer sheet during a seemingly endless restricted free agency window this past summer. Rumors swirled about interest from Portland until the Blazers unsuccessfully attempted to sign Utah reserve forward Paul Millsap with an offer sheet the Jazz decided to match.
“I did have a meeting with Portland’s general manager and coach and considered doing that,” said Lee, “They had a lot of bigs, so it’s just a matter of trying to get in the best fit possible for this one year and then go from there. I thought New York was a better fit.” As Kevin McHale said on NBA TV, Portland lost “14 feet” of centers this season, an unfortunate void the team could have never predicted. However, Portland did lock up power forward LaMarcus Aldridge with a 5-year extension worth up to $70 million with incentives. With the deal, Portland placed faith in Aldridge as a face of the franchise and prevented him from becoming a restricted free agent, a luxury the Knicks never offered Lee. To throw out a few numbers, Aldridge averaged 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds last season. Lee averaged 16.0 and 11.7.
“A lot of different things just come down to circumstance and come down to being in the right place at the right time,” said Lee, “I had a long summer dealing with all that and it was just good to get back to playing basketball.”
And that’s all he’s ever done since the Knicks drafted him 30th in 2005. Through tumultuous management and personnel changes, player feuds, and fans talking more about the stars they want than the players they have, Lee just goes out and produces.
Second year Knicks Head Coach Mike D’Antoni spoke about Lee continually improving his repertoire. “He kept expanding his game to where really the offense runs through him a lot,” said D’Antoni, “He’s got a great sense of timing on the offensive end…he’s become a point guard in the way we play and hopefully it’ll just keep getting better.”
The Knicks recognized Lee’s hard work by rewarding him with a $7 million, one-year contract for the season, $4.4 million more than the qualifying offer he signed. D’Antoni said the gesture had no implications as to whether or not Lee would be part of the Knicks future. “I think Donnie did a great thing of rewarding a guy who’s played really hard in a tough position because he was restricted…I thought that was the classy thing to do,” he said.
Lee said he had no bitterness entering this season and called his contract “a sign of good faith” from the Knicks. While he enjoys playing for New York, Lee said he has no inkling of his plans after this season. “A lot of it’s going to be determined, like it or not, by what LeBron and Dwyane Wade and those guys do and pretty much everything will shake down from there,” he said.
In his last five games, Lee is averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds and 1.4 steals. His 18.8 points, 1.1 steals and 2.9 assists this season are all career highs. The Knicks, after a 1-9 start, have gone 13-11 and are in a position to contend for the Playoffs.
“Things started to click, our defense got better, offensively we started seeing the ball much better, and here we are in a position to get into the eighth spot,” said forward Al Harrington.
Asked whether the Knicks already have players they can build a franchise around, Harrington said, “I think we’re that good, but you know obviously other people don’t. So we just have to see, 2010 is going to take care of itself.”
Another mention of 2010 and all of its implications for the Knicks. Only time will tell if those implications will include David Lee.