Logo for the DFR Audible post categoryGoliath Misses David

The Warriors’ collapse in the NBA Finals was so befuddling that it has taken me three days to process it enough to figure out a key element in the loss. Why did the Dubs lose those last three games to Cleveland? What were they missing this year that they had last year?

David Lee, of course.

Nobody would really argue with Golden State’s decision to trade Lee to Boston last year. Lee contributed mightily to the Warriors’ turnaround from league doormat to championship contender, but after last season’s victory it had become clear that the team had other players who had surpassed him in the team’s plans. Sending Lee packing made a lot of sense. And the Warriors were so much better this season without Lee than they were with him last season that the move has to be considered validated by the overall results.

However, that move may have caught up to them in the Finals.

Remember last season’s Finals, when the Warriors were down 2-1 to the Cavaliers. There was malaise that was hanging over the team after the Game 2 loss at home, and as they were headed towards defeat in Game 3. The Dubs only started to show some life once Steve Kerr put Lee–by then completely out of the rotation–into the game. Lee got good minutes in the next two games–both Warriors wins–before playing very little in the series-clinching Game 6 win.

Lee’s return to the rotation in that series coincided with–and was overshadowed, rightly–by Andre Iguodala’s shift into the starting lineup and series MVP contributions, but it would be a mistake to ignore Lee’s contribution entirely. This is particularly true given Lee’s odd relationship vis-a-vis LeBron James.

Lee was sent away by the Warriors not just because he no longer fit in the plans, but because of his lack of defense–a deficiency that his replacement, Draymond Green, probably did not possess from his days his baby crib onward. But Lee seems to be something of a hunk of Kryptonite when he gets near James.

At this remove it’s almost impossible to remember, but one of the ways that the Warriors announced their impending rise was by going into Miami and beating the Heatles two straight seasons, back in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Those results came about from many elements, but the fact that–of all players–David Lee has never been afraid of LeBron James helped quite a bit. Lee had more than a few instances of getting in James’s grill and not backing down in those games. He may not have played Iguodala-level defense on James, but Lee’s tenacity against The King certainly helped his team beat a team that was a defending champion, and later a Finalist, on its home court. And then came last year’s Finals: Lee played a crucial role in the turnaround against a LeBron led team.

Would the Warriors have won this year’s Finals if they still had Lee on the roster? Hard to say, of course. But given the contributions of the big men they kept instead of him– the largely absent Marreese Speights, the ditto James Michael McAdoo, and the atrocious Festus Ezeli–you have to think that answer is probably “Yes.”

If you think back to the three signature plays in Game 7–James’s block on Iguodala, Kevin Love stuffing Stephen Curry, and Kyrie Irving shooting the winning trey over Curry, all in the last minutes of the game–what do all three plays suggest, particularly the two blocks?

Lack of size, that’s what. The Warriors, in their off-season retooling considerations, will need to get bigger. If they succeed in luring Kevin Durant in, if they make the trade suggested in this space to get Love, or if they make the rumored signing of Dirk Nowitzki, they will in each case add size and scoring to their frontcourt. Sort of like they had with David Lee.

All of this is hindsight, of course, and you can’t really blame the Warriors for sending Lee away last off-season. If they had played with a little more grit with the players they had in this year’s Finals, in any one of the last three games, they’d be champions again and nobody would have any room to question their efforts. But it makes the loss sting a little more to think that the one thing they were missing when it was all on the line might just have been the thing they had–and got rid of–last year when they won it all.

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