David Lee and the value of defense

2000 Western Conference Finals, Game 2:  Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers

It took Sloan several years to gain the size and momentum it’s had for the last couple of years. Let’s imagine a parallel universe for a moment: pretend the year is 2001 and I have a presentation to give. It turns out that free throws are important and that shooting efficiently from the line contributes to wins. Centers tend to get fouled a lot, so it’s important for them to shoot well. I then happily show a nicely colored chart that reveals the following:

  • Shaquille O’Neal is, in fact, costing his team wins at the line.
  • Brian Grant is one of the best centers in the league at both getting to the line and converting!

Seriously, check it out at the NBA geek!

Now, from this, do we derive that the Lakers foolishly overpaid for Shaq and that at less than half the cost, Grant is a bargain? Hopefully not!


David Lee found himself in this scenario recently. At Sloan, Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss presented a paper using SportVU data to examine interior defense in the NBA. David Lee — a 20 points per game, 10 rebounds per game All-Star — is apparently very bad at this. Contrast this to Larry Sanders, who may not be considered great by many. I will note that this year Sanders is much better than Lee before even trying to factor in individual interior defense. Regardless, it’s a key point and one that Lee makes himself. Quoting the now internet famous piece by Ethan Sherwood Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss), here’s David Lee’s own words:

At this point I could care less. I’ve worked hard to improve my defense. I think I’m a much better defensive player today than I was a year ago and definitely to start my career. There’s a lot of different numbers to support a lot of different things. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say me putting up 20 and 10 doesn’t matter because ‘numbers don’t matter,’ but at the same time, ‘charts at MIT matter.’ You can’t have it both ways.

Here’s how I will agree with Lee. When analyzing players we have to see the player’s total contribution. We’ve definitely seen that a few numbers (points and for big men, rebounds) get a lot of focus, while others don’t. David Lee explaining that he puts up other good numbers is a good point. Maybe (ok, definitely, most definitely) his defense is bad. But, it’s still possible for him to have a positive impact.

One other thing we have to be careful not to overreact to is how much Lee’s defense matters. I am very excited about the SportVU data and have bugged several people about it. Knowing Lee’s defense is bad does not tell us how much that impacts his overall performance. My personal take? Based on the last several seasons, this definitely places Lee at average to below average in terms of total contribution. But, until we start quantifying exactly how much his defense is costing his team, we need to be careful about declaring Lee a bad player.

One fascinating idea that Kirk brought up during his speech was if Lee was sacrificing defense for rebounds. I think it’s definitely possible. We often criticize front offices and coaches for bad player evaluation. And it’s worth noting that the job of front offices and coaches is in theory to win. We criticize players for focusing on just scoring points. A player’s goal is to get paid. Rules like the draft and Bird Rights make the option of playing for a winning team less viable for players. Players notice what gets them paid. David Lee’s point that he’s getting 20 points and 10 rebounds a game reinforces that. David Lee knows this is valuable and knows it got him paid. It’s understandable that he’s suddenly upset this is being ignored.

Summing up

It’s always exciting to expand our knowledge of stats. But it’s key to know what these stats mean. It’s also important not to ignore the other good stats we have. And finally, it’s key to realize the motivation of the player may not always be in line with us. So when it comes to David Lee, yes his defensive stats aren’t good. And teams are going to have to consider the implication for that to Lee and others’ value. However, being bad at one thing doesn’t mean a player stops being good. And it also doesn’t mean the player will improve if teams will still pay them for other skills. We’ll have to see the impact Kirk’s work has on Larry Sanders’ next contract. It likely won’t be until then that players like David Lee may start worrying.


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