If David Lee was making $5 million instead of $15.5 million this coming season, then the Warriors likely aren’t even interested in moving him. Lee helped Golden State defeat the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. But, bringing back Draymond Green is going to cost the team a boatload of luxury tax and Lee wasn’t needed in the rotation during the regular season and only played a 107 total playoff minutes this year, so the Warriors desperately want to move him out to save cash.
The Raptors and the rest of the NBA are not in the business of helping the Warriors save money, but Toronto does have some very good reasons for trying to make a deal happen.
In fairness to Lee, it was Golden State that signed him to that five-year $80 million contract in 2010 after his All-Star season in New York and Lee was an All-Star again in 2013, helping the Warriors get to the playoffs for just the second time since 1994, so general manager Bob Myers can be excused for thinking he owes Lee something more than just a ride on the bench in the final year of his deal.
Myers isn’t expecting or needing to get a lot back for Lee. This really is a case of doing a veteran that helped your team get to the next level a favor. But why send him to the Raptors? In short, Toronto is a playoff team in need of a starting power forward and that will give Lee at 32-years-old a chance to show he still deserves another contract in the NBA without the Warriors having to deal with him in the Western Conference.
Lee isn’t washed up. In 2013-14 he averaged 18.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 33.2 minutes. Last year he only played in 49 games and averaged just 18.3 minutes, but on a per 36 minute basis his numbers held up averaging 15.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and he was on a career record pace for steals and blocks at 1.2 and 1.0 respectively.
Toronto needs rebounding. Last year they were out rebounded by a board per game on average. Lee has always been a superior rebounder and last season he took down over 15 percent of all available rebounds and 20 percent of the defensive boards. Only Jonas Valanciunas was better at cleaning the glass for Toronto last year.
Lee has never been known as a great defensive player. He can be beaten off the dribble and at 6’9 opposing big men can finish over him. However, he does play smart, within his capabilities and is known as a good team player. Lee made it in the NBA because of his heart and hustle. He can still help a team.
If Toronto squeezes out every nickel of available salary cap space and sends Terrence Ross back to Golden State, this potential trade should just be possible. However, President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri probably wants something more than a player on an expiring deal for his young wing and Golden State can provide. Unsigned draft picks count for zero dollars in trades and it seems Ujiri really would have liked to get his hands on Kevon Looney. Having the Warriors 2015 first round draft pick included in the deal should ease the pain of having to part with a player still on his rookie deal that is already a solid three-point threat and might start figuring some other things out this season.
However, the real reason Toronto should pursue a trade for Lee is next summer. In 2016 the salary cap jumps by about $20 million and Lee’s $15.5 million comes off the books. Assuming DeMar DeRozan opts out and Valanciunas isn’t signed to an extension this summer, the Raptors could have only $35 million in guaranteed salaries on the books and the cap holds for DeRozan and Valanciunas could leave Toronto with up to $30 million in salary cap space to use in a very exciting free agent frenzy – Kevin Durant anyone (start dreaming).
Sometimes filling up your roster with second/third tier free agents who look like good future prospects is the way to go and sometimes it’s best to think about the future when making today’s decisions.
Of course, if the Raptors get lucky enough to sign the dithering LaMarcus Aldridge, they won’t have reason to worry about 2016 free agency so much.
As Aldridge ponders, the best alternatives – like say David West – are being courted heavily and no one wants to be your second choice. If Aldridge takes the weekend to decide, Toronto will need to have lined up plans “C”, “D”, and possibly “E”. Free Agent pickings will start to get thin really quickly.