To take the next step, the Boston Celtics need David Lee

David Lee was a stud during Boston's preseason opening victory.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Eyebrows were raised when news first broke that the Boston Celtics had not only acquired David Lee from the Golden State Warriors, but planned to keep him on their roster. 

But so far the 32-year-old veteran has been nothing but a bright beam of sunshine. His off-court leadership (he organized a players-only dinner on Boston’s first night in Italy) and positive locker room intangibles bring unquantifiable value to a team that’s filled with young, impressionable players. 

Yet his on-floor contributions are what stole the show during Tuesday’s 124-91 victory against Olimpia Milano. Here’s one play that fully displays just how unselfish, smart and creative Lee can be, as described by ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg:

Lee was sensational starting at power forward. He scored 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out three assists, leading to a game-high plus/minus of +22. 

He went coast-to-coast on several occasions, scored with ease in the post and directed a few handoffs that allowed Celtic guards to get a running head start on their way to the basket.

It’s still unclear if Lee will be the starter on opening night (defense is always a concern when discussing his game); Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson (who may start at center) and Kelly Olynyk are all competing for the spot, but none can facilitate offense beside players—like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder—who aren’t capable of doing it on their own. Lee can.

The Celtics don’t have a star, but they do have several good role players who complement each other’s strengths and hide each other’s weaknesses. As a passing roll man, Lee can unclog the stagnant offensive flow Boston’s starting lineup had last season. 

And before he was replaced by Draymond Green in Golden State’s starting lineup last season, Lee was an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Stephen Curry—the quintissential release valve who caught passes at the free-throw line then attacked a rotating defense. (We last saw this skill on display in the NBA Finals, when Lee gave the Warriors a spark in Game 3, scoring 11 points in just 13 minutes of action.)

It’s easy to imagine him doing the same thing for Isaiah Thomas, a bouncy ball-handler who defenses will try and trap all year long. The Cleveland Cavaliers snuffed Thomas out during last year’s postseason. Lee would’ve helped.

The Celtics made the playoffs in 2014-15, true. But the team now must take the next step, fighting for playoff position rather than simply a ticket to the postseason. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s opening line has the Celtics slated to win 42 or 43 games after a 40-win campaign last season. Some analytics projections are even more optimistic, chalking Boston up as a possibility for 50 wins. Yet whether the Celtics take a small step or a big leap in 2015-16, Lee will be at the center of it all.

It’s (very) early, but so far he looks like a necessary addition.

Midway through the first quarter on Tuesday, Lee got the ball off a side pick-and-roll and, noticing defenders cheating towards the middle of the floor, he started backing down his man, drawing additional help, then rifled a pass to Bradley for a corner 3-pointer. Almost an identical situation played out late in the second quarter and Lee again found Bradley for an open triple.

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