Courtney Lee Isn’t Flashy, but Knicks’ Latest Piece Fits


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Courtney Lee, left, played for the Charlotte Hornets.

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Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The best part about the Knicks’ trade for Derrick Rose and their signing of Joakim Noah was that the two required almost no introduction. Rose, a former most valuable player, and Noah, once a defensive player of the year, may not be the players they once were, but their names still carry enough cachet to excite a notoriously harsh fan base.

On Saturday, the Knicks put the finishing touches on their starting lineup for next season by agreeing to terms with Courtney Lee, a guard who, despite having been in the league for eight seasons, will not be nearly as familiar to fans as Rose and Noah.

Lee, 30, will be joining his seventh team, and, despite being a shooting guard, has scored 10 points a game or more only three times in eight seasons. His most memorable moment very likely came when, as a rookie with the Orlando Magic, he missed a layup in Game 2 of the 2009 N.B.A. finals that could have averted overtime. The Magic lost the game and went on to lose the series to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.

Lee will apparently earn a reported $48 million to $50 million over four years, no doubt making him a subject of befuddlement on Twitter over how he will be making roughly the equivalent of what the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the winner of the past two Most Valuable Player Awards, will make next season.

There is, however, good news, too. A durable 6-foot-5 wing, Lee has made a career out of being a so-called 3-and-D player: a solid 3-point shooter and a tenacious perimeter defender. That type of player has become a particularly valuable commodity, one who tends to age fairly well in a league in which 30 can seem ancient for players who rely mostly on quickness.

Lee has averaged just 8.2 shots per game in his career, so he is no threat to take offensive opportunities from Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis or Rose. Last season, he had a modest usage rate of 15 percent, which is an estimate on how often a player ends his team’s possession with a field-goal attempt, a free-throw attempt or a turnover. But should opposing defenders, distracted by Anthony or Rose, leave Lee open, he can make them pay. During his career, he has made 38.4 percent of his 3-point attempts, and last year, in a 28-game stretch that helped propel the Charlotte Hornets into the playoffs, he converted 39.2 percent. He is similarly adept at hitting free throws, making 84.6 percent of them, though on only 1.5 attempts a game.

On defense, Lee is most effective when taking on shooters from outside. Last season, players he defended against from at least 15 feet from the basket shot 2.9 percentage points worse than their average, according to NBA.com. Possibly because of Lee’s modest size, that number turns around quickly as things get closer to the hoop. Within six feet, Lee’s marks shoot 8.5 percentage points better than they do against other defenders.

No doubt Lee will be a bit of a disappointment to fans who believed the Knicks had a chance of signing Dwyane Wade, but considering Wade’s asking price, which is expected to be in excess of $20 million a year, he was never a realistic target. And with Anthony, Rose and Porzingis all proven scorers, acquiring a player who knows his role and will help his teammates on both ends of the court may be a better fit.

The reality is, no matter how often fans point out that Curry’s $12 million salary for next season is small compared with current deals, the dramatic increase of the league’s salary cap has greatly inflated contracts of players across the board, and $12 million a year for a solid contributor like Lee is hardly a controversial amount when a lesser player like Matthew Dellavedova received an offer sheet for nearly $10 million to play for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Lee will almost certainly be a better fit at that price than one of the Knicks’ other reported targets, Eric Gordon, who provides more offensive flash but struggles to stay on the court. (Gordon agreed to a four-year, $53 million deal with the Houston Rockets, multiple news outlets reported.) And anyone feeling bad for Curry may want to look into the salary cap projections for next season and the amounts he and LeBron James are expected to garner as escalating television contracts continue to alter the salary landscape.

For better or worse — very likely for the better, since the 2015-16 team underachieved a great deal — the Knicks’ 2016-17 starting lineup is now set: Noah, Porzingis, Anthony, Lee and Rose. They are not young, and they are vulnerable to injury, but if they can stay healthy and play near their potential, they may finally resemble the type of team Phil Jackson wanted when he came to New York.

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