First of all, let's take a minute to reflect on that last highlight. A one- footed, one-handed, floating-to-the-right three point buzzer beater with .7 seconds. I mean, really? And you just knew it was going in as soon as it left his hand.
Maybe that's just the way the game was going for Memphis, as they enjoyed a rollicking 107 - 102 win over the Miami Heat that ignited a last-ditch playoff push, or maybe that's the confidence Courtney Lee brings to a team starving for shooters. He benefits somewhat by comparison to Tony Allen - you never think a TA jumper is going in when it leaves his hand - and from his meteoric start to his Grizzly career, beginning with a 13-game span in which he climbed to the top of multiple columns in league shooting statistics. His numbers have fallen off since then (expectedly), but that three-week stretch and a timely injury to Allen vaulted Lee into a starting position from which he won't easily be unseated.
And here's why: Courtney Lee made 55 threes in a Grizzlies uniform this year, and in reviewing every last one of them, it was hard to find a play in which he wasn't drifting perfectly into open space, either orbiting around the gravitational pull of Zach Randolph or rotating perfectly to provide an inside-out look for a driving Mike Conley. Looking at Lee's 2014 shot distribution (including his time in Boston), you can see that he has a slight preference for the 3-point shoulders, where he can give and take the ball from Zach in the post or Conley on a cut. His percentages favor the right side of the floor, where he shoots nearly 40%. He's no slouch from 2, either, above league average in all but one mid-range zone, and a decent 56% at the rim.
Lee's weakness is in shot creation, but he more than makes up for it with stellar off-the-ball movement: the vast majority of Lee's shots are spot-ups, on which he scored 1.16 points per possession on 45% shooting this year. These are curls, cuts, and the aforementioned shimmies around the perimeter. You rarely see Lee standing in place for more than a few seconds - because he's not a primary ballhandler, he has plenty of time to focus on ball movement and create passing lanes to himself, which he did masterfully with the Grizzlies this year. This makes him tough to defend by teams who want to draw their guards in to double Randolph in the post - when the defender looks back out to Lee, he's never where they left him.
As a side note, I also love the way Lee takes layups. When leading a fast break, he doesn't wait for the defender or try to draw contact - he leaves the ground a full stride away from the basket without fully extending the ball, giving himself time to adjust and the defender less time establish position. Watch him slither comfortably around the Durantula in mid-air.
Lee checks several important boxes as the Grizzlies' starting two guard: he can shoot, he can defend his position, and he works well with the bottom-heavy starting lineup. And the benefits go both ways: Lee largely outperformed his career numbers in a Grizzly uniform this year, playing well above his contract - an important factor in small market team building.
Area for Improvement:
Lee hasn't exactly been cold-blooded. He hasn't shown a Mike Miller-esque ability to turn the momentum with a big late-game shot. His accuracy seems to ebb and flow with the natural tide of a game, which is good for building a run in the middle of a second quarter, but not great when you need a jump start in a stagnant fourth. If he can find a way to make big shots when the tension is high, his value (and win share percentage) will improve dramatically.
Which is the true Courtney Lee - the lights-out shooter he started out to be, or the streaky, forgettable roleplayer he became as the season wound down? We saw unexpected highs and disappointing lows from Courtney this year, in the midst of a fluctuating guard lineup that sent the beloved Grindfather, at times, to the bottom of the bench. When Lee levels out, will he be closer to a 15 or 5 points per game player? If he cannot improve alongside Tayshaun Prince, and if the Grizzlies cannot acquire an athletic, game-changing small forward next year, the answer may factor heavily into to the a 2015 playoff run.
Final Grade: A-
It's hard not to be pleased with what C-Lee gave us this year - if nothing else, he was a breath of fresh air after the streaky, ball-hoggy Jerryd Bayless. The questions that linger about his true identity leave a funny taste in your mouth, but they will sort themselves out next season. After a long line of disappointing shooting guards, for the moment, let's enjoy what we've got.