OAKLAND — Are the Warriors actually a better team without their first All-Star since 1997 on the floor?
The team is 3-0 since David Lee tore his right hip flexor and the question is being asked on sports radio, in the press room and over cocktails throughout the Bay Area.
The suggestion sounds ridiculous after a quick glance at Lee’s résumé this season: He was the only player in the NBA to average more than 18 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, and was the first Warrior to lead the league in double-doubles (56) since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963-64. In the 31 games in which he had at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, the team went 25-6.
But without him, the Warriors somehow snapped the Denver Nuggets’ 24-game home-winning streak, put together the best shooting game (64.6 percent) in the playoffs since April 25, 1991, and they ran George Karl’s team out of Oracle Arena in Game 4 on Sunday with a 115-101 win.
It would be unfair, if not cruel, to say the Warriors are a better team without Lee, but judging by their performance in his absence, they certainly aren’t worse.
A week ago, I wrote that the Warriors were in big trouble without Lee and I’m willing to concede that I threw up a big air ball on this one. It’s unfortunate, as an anonymous scout in Sports Illustrated blasted Lee prior to the season for being a “stat stuffer” and now the eye-popping numbers that he put up this year do seem a bit hollow.
This isn’t an attack on Lee’s character or his ability. Instead, it’s a reflection of the Warriors’ depth and versatility and our overreliance on traditional statistics to assess a player’s value.
When Lee went down, I wrote that his 18.5 points per game and 11.2 rebounds were “sucked out of the lineup” and I repeated coach Mark Jackson’s refrain that he could not be replaced. In reality, the Warriors are proving that their roster is loaded with players capable of putting the ball in the hoop and tearing it off the rim.
In the last three games, Harrison Barnes is averaging 4.8 points more than his season average, Carl Landry is scoring an extra 4.2 points per contest and Draymond Green is picking up an additional 4.7 points a night. Throw in another 2.2 points from Andrew Bogut and the 23.3 points per game Jarrett Jack is averaging as a starter in the backcourt and you’ve more than accounted for Lee’s scoring production.
Without Lee, the Warriors are outrebounding the Nuggets 107-97, too, so you can’t say they’re really missing him on the glass even though Kenneth Faried has rejoined the Nuggets’ lineup.
And advanced analytics suggest that Lee’s interior defense is among the worst in the NBA. They can throw another body down there without feeling his absence. But his leadership is immeasurable and his work ethic is clearly rubbing off on the younger guys.
It’s impossible to say where the Warriors would be without Lee this season, but if anyone is irreplaceable right now, it’s Stephen Curry, who torched the Nuggets for another 31 points on Sunday.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.