It’s been a season of ups and downs for Celtics’ guard Courtney Lee. His role on the club has fluctuated as much as his team’s consistency, going from starter to buried on the bench back to a starter. Through it all, Lee has not shown signs of discouragement, recently flourishing in a defensive pairing with Avery Bradley. While most of the defensive accolades go to Bradley and Kevin Garnett, Lee deserves some recognition for his recent performances, too.
With Lee sitting out the last two games with a sprained ankle, the Celtics have put forth two weak performances, losing to both the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks. With an already injury-depleted roster, his value has proved to be irreplaceable.
Lee started the season with reasonable expectations. General Manager Danny Ainge basically stole the 27-year old from the Houston Rockets, sending away rarely used prospects JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, Sean Williams, and second-rounders. Expected to fill in adequately for the injured Bradley, Lee struggled initially.
Lee lost his starting job to Jason Terry after only five games and had the second-lowest shooting percentage on the club by the end of November. The player he was traded for, Moore, was averaging 11 points for Orlando; Lee was averaging a hair over five points in only four less minutes. The confidence he had once shown on the Orlando Magic had disappeared. For a player who had averaged 10 shots a game only a season earlier, Lee was only putting up five shots per contest.
Defensively, Lee wasn’t much better. Opposing shooting guards were lighting up the alleged defensive maven. Evan Turner went off for 25, Monta Ellis scored 32, and the Orlando trio of Moore, Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick exploded for 44.
Lee would start only five of the Celtics’ 14 games in December and found his role slowly diminishing. Upon the return of Bradley, Lee was suddenly the fourth guard on the roster and the fourth guy off the bench. This culminated on January 5th in Atlanta, when Lee saw only nine minutes of floor time, recording a basket, a rebound and an assist. Then, 20 days later, the Celtics’ season took a drastic turn.
Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and was out for the season. The Celtics were staring at an uphill battle, as they had stumbled at that point to a 20-23 record and the last Eastern playoff spot. Lee was suddenly re-thrust back into his starting role and both Lee and Boston’s season turned around dramatically.
The Celtics immediately went on a seven-game winning streak, including a victory over the Lakers that saw the guard-tandem of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash combine for only 36 points. The Celtics are only 9-11 since but Lee has been a big reason that the Celtics’ haven’t imploded following the loss of their All-Star point guard.
Lee has played 43% of the team’s total minutes at shooting guard this season. Opposing shooting guards are held to an effective shooting percentage of .450 when guarded by Lee, the best mark on the Celtics (even better than Bradley, who does play the majority of his minutes as the “point” guard). Lee’s plus-minus of +42 at shooting guard is the best on the team and is among the best at a particular position on the entire squad.
He bought into Bradley’s effort on the defensive end and began pressing just as much as his teammate. On night’s where Bradley had to focus on a dominating scorer, Lee stepped up and would defend the opposing ball-handler. Their pressure has frustrated opponents so much that it led Toronto Sebastian Telfair getting ejected and Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday asking the pair to “cool” the defense.
Lee has been equally effective offensively, as he quietly has put up the highest shooting percentage of his career. While his .366 three-point percentage rivals his career-low, his range has improved as the season’s progressed, as his .429 three-point percentage in March indicates
His real value has been shown through his absence. While Lee has sat the last two games, opposing guards have feasted on the Celtics’ backcourt. Jerryd Bayless put up a season-high 30 points to pace the Grizzlies in their victory on Saturday and J.R. Smith led the Knicks with 32 points in their victory on Tuesday. While the trio of Terry, Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams aren’t afraid to shoot the ball (combined 51 shots, or 35% of team’s shots, last two games) their defensive woes are clearly being exploited.
Lee has gone from zero-to-hero, yet he remains one of the most underappreciated members of the Celtics. In a starting lineup that features two future Hall of Famers, it’s understandable. As Lee’s play has improved, though, so have the Celtics. If the guard continues to sit out and the team continues to struggle, Lee’s value will finally be realized.