Knicks guard/forward Courtney Lee is averaging career highs in multiple categories while simultaneously filling the glue guy role in a flourishing tenth season in the NBA.
Assuming the veteran role player job is mostly a reluctantly held position. The role itself is thankless. You are only truly noticed when you’re not doing your job, the same way you only notice your garbage man when he doesn’t show up. The Knicks were blessed with two such guys—Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee. Lance has received the proper praise for his lunch pail attitude. The same cannot be said for Lee—at least not as much as he should.
In year ten, Courtney Lee is peaking, and only now are the masses starting to notice. It is rare that a 32-year-old has career-highs in points (12.8), rebounds (3.5), assists (2.7), free-throw percentage (92.7) and three-point percentage (45.1). He has also been durable. He has started every game this season and has shifted from the three to the two, taking on the opposing team’s best wing player regardless of nightly task. To put it bluntly, after Porzingis, Lee is the most important player on this team.
Let’s bring it back to the summer real quick. Before a trade involving Carmelo Anthony started to take shape, it was assumed Lee was out the door. He was 32 years old and supposed to be on the tail end of his career. What could he do for a team that was clearly in a rebuild?
When he signed with the Knicks two summers ago it was assumed he would be a 3-and-D guy for a playoff contender. That wasn’t the case his first season in New York (dubbed the “super team” by Derrick Rose), but he is doing that and more this season.
Contrary to our belief, Lee was never on the trade block. When Hardaway Jr. was signed to a $71 million deal I expected a Lee deal right away. I doubt I was alone in that assessment. There was intrigue from other teams and that interest has only grown since the summer. That’s great, but it does not look like the Knicks want to move him—they never seemed to want to move him.
According to Lee, the team wanted to see more from him this season:
“Early on they told me, right when they made the move, I got a phone call from Steve, Coach, everybody, saying your role doesn’t change. We need you to be more aggressive on both ends of the court and just play your game.”
Lee heard them loud and clear. This season he is averaging a career-high in field-goal attempts which has translated to career-highs in a large chunk of offensive categories. His newfound aggressiveness has been accentuated by Hornacek’s fast-paced offense. Instead of being mainly a catch-and-shoot guy within the Triangle, he is free to get out and run.
Lee has averaged the same amount of three-point attempts per game as last season (3.5), but his attempts inside the arc have bumped up from 5.6 per game to 6.5, per Basketball-Reference. He is also tied with LeBron James and Stephen Curry in points per possession that involves him driving to the hoop. Yes you read that sentence right, I promise you.
You can credit that to getting up and down the floor more. The expression you can’t teach an old dog new tricks may still ring true. But that’s assuming Lee did not already have this ability within him.
“It’s a more up-and-down pace, and that kind of suits me getting out, playing aggressive ‘D’ and running the lane, so it’s a lot of fun,” Lee told reporters about ditching the Triangle for a faster pace.
His 24-point performance against the Grizzlies was a full showcase of his comfort within Hornacek’s offense:
Instead of being shackled as a catch-and-shoot guy he is getting buckets in a myriad of ways. Aggressive defense has led to fastbreak layups. Putting the ball on the floor has led to the aforementioned highest points per possession on drives in the league. His constant movement has led to more cuts to the rack.
If you think that affected his three-point numbers it hasn’t, he’s shooting a career-high 45.1 percent from downtown. He’s doing all of this while still fulfilling his job as a 3-and-D wing, which is important now more than ever. With Timmy now sidelined for who knows how long Lee is the one of the few guys that can hit effectively from deep.
That skill is crucial when Porzingis is seeing an extra defender or two in the post and no one is protecting the three-point line. The Knicks do not shoot a ton of threes as it is, which is the equivalent to being skilled in archery when your opponents are using M-16s.
Why Lee hasn’t always been this aggressive is anyone’s guess. Maybe key moments from the past used to haunt him. Maybe he just wanted to always fit in instead of standing out. Nevertheless, the good thing is that that is the old Courtney Lee. The new, reinvigorated Courtney Lee is the veteran the Knicks needed and remains a key piece to the puzzle. You may not always remember he’s there, but that’s because he’s doing his job.