David Lee has All-Star appearances and an All-NBA Team to his name. Career averages of 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds over 12 NBA seasons that put him in rare company.
But the David Lee stories rarely speak to stats.
There’s the story of how Lee attended the funeral of a Madison Square Garden security official in 2010, flying in the week after the Knicks had traded him away.
Or how Lee, after being traded from the Warriors in 2015, bought lunch for the entire organization as a thank you.
And then there’s the story that has helped define Lee’s career, one of sacrifice.
Lee averaged 18.2 points and 10 rebounds per game his first four seasons with the Warriors, but a torn hamstring forced him to miss the beginning of the 2014-15 season. When he returned, Draymond Green took his spot in the starting rotation, but Lee continued to contribute from the bench and in the locker room without complaint.
When the Warriors needed Lee in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, he made 4 of 4 shots and helped spark a comeback. Three games later, Lee held the trophy and tasted the champagne, and had to sacrifice to do it.
“I’ve done some pretty cool individual things in my career, but my greatest memories come from times of sacrifice,” Lee said. “It comes from a time I dealt with a bad injury, a torn hamstring, and came back with a different role than when I started. There were times I was frustrated. The old me might have complained. Ultimately, I got my chance in the NBA Finals, and got to help my team win an NBA Championship.”
When Lee was seeking a new team in July, one quality stood out to the Spurs: sacrifice.
The sacrifice of time, energy, and often stats for the greater good.
“This Spurs team is the ultimate sacrifice,” Lee said. “You put a lot of these guys on a different team and they could all put up numbers, but every single guy has sacrificed to make the whole better. That’s what’s really special about this place and made me want to be a part of it.”
Three years ago, David Lee was on the same NBA All-Star Team as Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge. Six years ago, Lee and Pau Gasol were All-Stars together.
Those may have been great moments, but there’s no champagne celebration for winning an All-Star Game.
When Lee arrived in Golden State in 2010, the franchise had reached the playoffs once in the previous 16 seasons. The team had a 59-89 record in his first two seasons, but Lee said he could feel attitudes change and pieces come together. For Lee, being part of a franchise that made the leap from good to great has meant more than any individual accolade.
“We were a 23-win team in Golden State, and Stephen Curry and I were the only ones from that team who would be a part of the championship,” Lee said. “To go through a five-year transition of changing the culture and from one of the worst teams in the league to the best in the world, it was really amazing to be a part of that.”
At the age of 33 and in his 12th NBA season, Lee has seen it all in pro basketball. Gregg Popovich is his ninth NBA coach and he’s gone from a starter to a rotation player, from the spotlight as a Knicks star to the supporting cast.
Lee started the 2015-16 season in Boston, playing 30 games for the Celtics before he joined the Dallas Mavericks in February. He averaged 8.5 points and 7.0 rebounds over 25 games, and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said Dallas wouldn’t have made the playoffs without Lee.
“He’s very knowledgeable player, he really understands how to play,” Popovich said. “He really knows what his strengths and weaknesses are and he’s going to be an important guy for us off the bench.”
Lee said he’s relishing his new situation in San Antonio, especially having the chance to learn from Popovich and play next to teammates he spent the past decade going up against.
“There are times Pop will call a play and Manu and Tony will know exactly what’s going on, the five counters to it, and how they ran it in 2004,” Lee said. “That’s the joy of it for me. To watch, keep learning and keep enjoying the game. I’m not here to do anything but be myself and lay it on the line every day. Whatever my role ends up being, it’s something I’ll make the most of.”
Lee is one of three players to total at least 10,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, and 1,500 assists over the last 10 seasons, along with Gasol and Tim Duncan.
In 2013-14, Lee’s 34 double-doubles ranked him in the top 20 in the NBA. A season later, his stats may not have been the same, but his sacrifice helped him hold the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Sacrifice has also meant success for Lee, and he plans to bring the same mentality to San Antonio.
“When it’s all said and done, people forget who was an All-Star what year or who finished where in the scoring race,” Lee said. “They remember winners and guys who enjoyed playing the game.”