Imagine spending a day in New York City, bouncing from store to store, your credit card smoking uncontrollably as a crispy residue blankets the magnetic strip, confirming yet another (unnecessary) shopping spree courtesy of your wife:
Cartier watch? Check.
Hermes scarf? Check.
Salvatore Ferragamo boots? Check.
Believe it or not, that's the easy part. Whether or not you can afford it, that's a different story. Think about it: she walks into the store, glances at the price tag and either walks to the register or walks out. She made the purchase, or she didn't, the shopping bag providing the last bit of evidence.
After breaking away for a few minutes to reclaim your sanity, you stumble upon the NBA Store on 5th Avenue, and in the window, clearly visible for all to see is a sign. In big, bold print it asks a simple question, which assures anything but a simple answer:
"How much is David Lee worth on the open market?"
You can circumvent the actual point of the question for a while, leaning on a small mountain of facts in the process, facts that have already been unearthed by Lee's agent, Mark Bartelstein. But eventually, you'll need to make an honest evaluation, and you'll need to incorporate everything in the process.
He's improved his scoring average in each of his first five seasons. (5.1, 10.7, 10.8, 16, 20.2)
He's among the league's most efficient players, as shown by the fact that he's yet to connect on less than 55% of his FG attempts in any given season.
He quickly turned an absolute weakness-free throws-into an obvious plus, transforming himself from a Chris Dudley-like 58% brick-layer as a rookie into a considerably above-average 80% the past four seasons combined.
It's a testament to his work ethic, but also his aptitude. There's a long list of NBA players who, despite devoting summers to correct such a weakness, simply never find a consistent stroke from the charity stripe. Not this guy. Once he identifies a weakness, it's no longer a weakness.
D Lee works. And works. And works.
He's a ferocious rebounder who relies on angles and the anticipatory nature of sport, as much as he does the springs in his Nike's. If he doesn't beat you with his brain, he'll beat you to a spot on the floor. You don't inhale errant shots like he does (11.8 and 11.7 rebounds per game the past two seasons) without heart, hustle and hops.
Over time, Lee heard enough of the league-wide whispers, and aggressively addressed another weakness: his J. First he had to overcome a reluctance to trust his stroke in games, and now, despite his unorthodox release, he's light out from 15-18 feet. At times it was painful, but the results, as always, remain far more important than the actual process.
Around the rim, he's adept with both hands, dunking with his left and right hand as comfortably as he banks one of the window with either after a series of athletic pump fakes. He's an absolute beast finishing off the pick and roll, and fluidly runs the floor for a man his size. Of equal importance, he runs the floor with a purpose, incorporating great court vision, spacing and IQ in the process.
During his five seasons in New York, despite a small army of lazy, overpaid veterans around him, Lee never once succumbed to, what at times, was a poisonous environment both on the court and in the locker room. While others sulked or made a mockery of the game, Lee hit the gas, never once popping it into neutral and coasting.
And what's his reward? Well, within five or six weeks, it will be a multi-year deal that will place David Lee on a financial shelf no one could have possibly foreshadowed on Draft Night, 2005:
"and with the 30th pick in the NBA Draft, the New York Knicks select David Lee, forward, from the University of Florida..."
At that point, Lee represented a young, cheap, lively body with the hope that one day, perhaps, he'd be able to play 18-20 minutes per night on a playoff team. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more.
As Lee's rookie season unfolded, he flashed enough to support his 1st Round status, but inevitably, he became a victim of his own skin color.
"He's pretty good for a white guy..."
Or after an athletic slam in the open floor, from people who did not seem him in college, you heard this all too often:
"Pretty decent ups for a white-boy..."
I often wondered what it was like for David Lee during the early years, trying to carve out his turf and create a niche of his own. To his credit, he always kept his head down, never asking for respect, but always pursuing it, eventually earning it the only way you can: on the court.
And here we are, the Summer of 2010, and the one shining light from what seemed like a basketball coma, could quite possibly be on the way out. A player who would have fit perfectly on the two championship teams, blending in with a willingness to make the extra pass, to move without the ball, to set a strong pick, to reverse the ball rather than taking a fall away with the hopes of padding the stats.
And for all of his traits, for all of the reasons why he should retirea Knick someday, comes one stat that even the most creative agent cannot hide:
Career playoff games: ZERO
In fact, in David Lee's five NBA seasons, only once has his team failed to LOSE fewer than 50 games.
While it's certainly not his fault that the team performed so poorly, here's a question that needs to be answered:
If he's so good, why wasn't he able to once alter the course of a season? Why was David Lee, despite an array of scintillating stats, unable to bolster the bottom line?
Sure it's harsh, but it's fair game, and you better believe it's a question that will be thrown around quite a bit this summer.
In many ways, David Lee is a victim of terrible timing, and possibly in every way, David Lee picked the worst time to blow up, even if it means getting paid.
You see, the one guy who did everything right from Day 1, might not even have a chance to stay, even if he's fair to the Knicks and gives them a hometown discount.
How incredibly unfair is that?
How is it that Eddy Curry, a complete zero with no professional pride or instincts, how the heck is he still here, while David Lee, the crowd favorite, an All-Star, gets shoved out the door? After watching a stream of mid-level busts and failed draft picks disrespect the orange and blue uniform for nearly a decade, is there no other answer but to let David Lee walk?
In the NBA, you pay top dollar for difference makers, and based on the salary cap, that philosophy simply cannot be compromised. Business is business, and business in the NBA is harsh, sometimes cold-blooded. But it's a blue print for success, one that comes with tangible success.
After five seasons, David Lee has a legion of fans in his corner, and he's sold a ton of jerseys, but in the win/loss column, he's failed to make a difference.
My instincts tell me he's gone, and depending upon the other free agent movement, it's probably the right call.
But if anyone deserves better, it's # 42.