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The Double Life of Courtney Lee

Have you ever felt like there is another side of you? Better or worse, happy or sad, the "other" you can show in a variety of ways. For Courtney Lee, in at least one way it manifests on the basketball court.

C-Lee needs to find the middle ground of two lives...
C-Lee needs to find the middle ground of two lives...
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

So, who is the real Courtney Lee?

A question one can ask about anyone in their life, to be honest. We all have different aspects to our personalities, some more pronounced than others. In your personal life, you at work is different from you at home, which is different from you out with your friends, which is different from you with your parents. Wearing many hats is a part of the human experience; you put on the one that makes the most sense for the situation we enter in to and return it until it is needed again. Rarely, if ever, is a person just one set digit; we are often, if not always, the sum of multiple parts. Like an eclectic lineup of Barbie or Ken dolls, we all have different skill sets and roles that make up who we are.

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NBA players are not exempt from this, of course, not just as human beings but as players. For example, there's "facilitating" Marc Gasol, "defender" Marc Gasol, "scoring" Marc Gasol and "Wendigo take over the game" Marc Gasol. Marc wore all these hats in Game 5 against Portland (26 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks.) Different games require different varieties of "Big Spain", and being the human that he is sometimes Marc is able to successfully fulfill those roles when called upon, and other times he is not. It is one of the best things about sports; so often you can see the bright lights and remarkable stage and forget that there are indeed people, like me and you, who have peaks and valleys in a game just like you and I would have them in a day at the office.

Which is why Courtney Lee is so fascinating. The Memphis Grizzly most depended on for wearing the hat of the "sharpshooter" to keep the Memphis offense spinning is arguably the one most unable to do it consistently. There is little question about the value of Lee in the playoff series vs. the Trail Blazers; his shot chart from the series through four games is remarkable.

Lee Through Four Games

Truly amazing performances that have helped to make up for the struggling Grizzlies front court. His Game 5 effort to help Memphis close the series was especially impressive: 8-12 from the field, and even though he did not hit a three pointer he was explosive getting to the rim and making Portland pay for overcompensating for his game from range.

This is almost certainly an exercise in small sample size theater, right? No way Courtney Lee can shoot this well over a prolonged stretch. Well, actually, Lee's shooting over his first 14 games at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season looks pretty similar in many areas...

Lee Oct-Nov Shot Chart

Multiple patches of green efficient shooting in many of the same spots, especially from beyond the arc.

So, Courtney Lee's life as a scorer from the perimeter is clear-cut and crystal-clear, right? Not completely. For every stretch of games that Courtney is a dominant presence scoring the ball efficiently, there seems to be a stretch like this one, 14 games from February 8th through March 11th, where Lee struggles mightily.

Lee Struggles Chart

This is not news to anyone who has followed Courtney since his arrival in Memphis, or even beyond throughout his multiple other stints in the Association. Issues abound for a guy who takes the term "streaky" to a whole new level. Take his monthly shooting production from the 2014-2015 regular season-

Lee Monthly Shooting Percentages

Starting strong, waning as the season goes on, then a return to impressive numbers heading in to the playoff run.

Lee's offensive and defensive efficiency numbers show his "Jekyll and Hyde" way of playing even more...

Lee Advanced Monthly Numbers

Courtney's numbers and charts suggest he is a man who is not quite sure who he is as a player. He is truly living a basketball double life, going from "shrinking violet" Courtney to "sharpshooting spacer" Courtney in and out of his time not just in Memphis, but in the NBA in general. Using these specific stretches of time (playoffs and October-November for the good, February 8th through March 11th for the bad), what make Courtney so different in his level of play?

The Jumper: The Base of the Game
Shot Type Oct-Nov Shooting % Playoffs Shooting % Feb. 8-Mar. 11 Shooting %
Pull-Up Jumper 57.1% 78.6% 44.4%
Shot Type Oct-Nov Shooting % Playoffs Shooting % Feb. 8-Mar. 11 Shooting %
Catch-and-Shoot 50.0% 50.0% 35.3%

Arguably the biggest weapon in Courtney's shooting arsenal (from his floor spacing three point attempts to shots inside the arc) is the jumper, a shot that puts the defense in a position to be wrong every time. If they over-commit to the jumper, Lee can hit a quick pump-fake and get around them to the rim for an easy lane conversion. Not surprisingly, Lee's shooting percentage is better 10 feet and in during the time frames that he is hitting these pull-up jumpers at a steady clip-

Shot Type Oct-Nov Shooting % Playoffs Shooting % Feb. 8-Mar. 11 Shooting %
Less Than 10 Feet 53.3% 63.6% 38.5%

Talented scorers make the defense wrong no matter what they do. If they drop off to protect the lane, Lee has the ability to, in time and rhythm, square his feet to the basket, rise in to the shot and release it in time. So much of shooting is in this technique and the ability to complete these steps via muscle memory. This screen shot from the first game of the season against Minnesota showcase just that.

Lee Square 1

Lee sets his feet underneath of him with a good base and is ready to rise for the three-point opportunity.

In another example from against Portland in Game Two of the Trail Blazer series, Lee comes around on the receiving end of a Zach Randolph pass.

Lee Square 2

Lee is adjusting on the fly to the close proximity of C.J. McCollum, rising up a bit out of rhythm but still getting his feet under him.

Lee Square 3

Lee's follow through after the release is key to the muscle memory that is the jump shot. You feel it build from the feet to the jump to the release at the top of the shot. When Lee is feeling it, it is close to a work of art.

When Courtney has struggled with these shots in the past, he was dealing with soreness in his hand/wrist as the season grinded on and was also having issues with these basic shooting mechanics. When something as important as your hand or wrist is afflicted with injury, it is sure to affect your ability to stick to your typical rhythm. Also, Courtney far too easily at times allows for runs of inactivity or misses to become habits instead of actively attacking the issues. When a key part of his offense struggles, he withdraws, becoming passive even in moments when his teammates need his versatile offensive scoring.

When Lee's jumper, be it of the pull-up or catch-and-shoot variety, is falling he is active and engaged. When it is not? Courtney Lee's bad side shines through and Memphis suffers for it.

It Goes For Defense As Well

At times when an ofensively-minded player is struggling on that end, his defense suffers as well. This is true of Courtney Lee over our periods of study.

Here are his defensive tracking numbers from the playoffs through four games (before Wednesday's Game Five)

Lee Defense Playoffs

And here are the same set of numbers over that stretch of October and November success...

Lee Defense Oct-Nov

In the playoffs (small sample size) he has been a defensive machine, negatively impacting the shots of all he has defended. During the early season set of numbers, there were more examples of issues (especially defending the three) but Courtney still had an impact on that end.

Then, there's the February-March run of games...

Lee Defense Feb-Mar

Some serious issues. Injury again may rear its head here, as does the grind of an NBA season. At the same time, however, everyone deals with these situations and Courtney's inability to retreat on three-point shooters and keep dribble penetration in front of him is troubling. While there are certainly team defensive explanations for struggles such as health, these individual percentages show problems with keeping players in front of him or not retreating back after help defense on to shooters. Such is the double life of Mr Lee; when it rains, it pours.

Lee has never posted a defensive efficiency rating higher than 104, so he does not have the reputation of a defensive stopper. He shows at times the ability to be that, however; the good Courtney has the capacity to slow down James Harden, to keep J.J. Redick off his timing from range. The bad Courtney? Scorched by a variety of wings and guards while he cannot keep his lateral movement or fight over the top of screens.

Success breeds success. Struggle breeds struggle.


So, who is the real Courtney Lee?

Is he an offensive X-Factor who can hold his own on the defensive end? Is he the streakiest of shooters who allows his offensive cold patches to dictate his play elsewhere? Are the hats and roles of Lee too much for him to handle on a continual basis?

Yes. All of the above.

Moving forward, Memphis must understand what it has in Lee and make the most of a man who lives the NBA double life. When good Courtney shows, he must be showcased, placed in positions to be successful from the start of contests, forcing teams to make tough decisions on how they are going to defend Memphis. When Lee is cooking, the Grizzlies' offense is that much more efficient and dangerous.

Who is the real Courtney Lee? All of the above.

However, when Courtney is not able to keep it going? He must have his confidence maintained. Attack the rim, get to the free throw line, defend a lesser wing for a time and get in to the rhythm of a game. No one should expect Lee to shoot at the dizzying pace of the of the Trail Blazers series long-term, and hopefully no one is asking him too. The simple fact is that this double life cannot stand if Memphis hopes to survive what the future holds against the Golden State Warriors, with or without Mike Conley. Time to put away the "shrinking violet" hat, at least for this postseason, if Memphis hopes for a championship run.

We all are sums of multiple parts. What makes Courtney Lee what and who he is as a player is being that possessor of two hats, two professional basketball player lives, and his ability (or inability) to stay explosive and more consistent can, has in the most recently completed playoff series, and will make all of the difference come the Western Conference Semis for the Memphis Grizzlies.

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