Consistency is a necessary precursor to success in the NBA. If a player suffers from inconsistency in one or multiple key facets of the game, it becomes arduous for them to separate themselves from the pack and create a semblance of staying power.
For example, Tony Wroten can drive right, but he cannot do so with any sort of regularity. Likewise, Jamaal Franklin is capable of knocking down a three-pointer, but absolutely cannot be counted on for that ability, and he is not good enough in other areas to compensate. These shortcomings have held both players back from reaching their potential in the Association.
Courtney Lee could have easily been swallowed up into the category of "has-beens" given how consistently inconsistent his game is. The key difference between Lee and the aforementioned players, though, is that his inconsistencies always seem to even out enough over the course of the season to make him a net positive role player year after year.
He's always going to have a stretch like the one he had in the month of March during the 2014-2015 campaign, when he shot 20% from beyond the arc and went a long stretch of games without scoring double-digit points. But the beautiful flip side of that is that he will have spurts when he plays out of his mind, sinking 60% of his threes and easily scoring double-digit points over a ten-plus game stretch.
Since Lee arrived in Memphis a season and a half ago, the Grizzlies have had enough firepower to overcome bipolar performances from him and still be one of the best teams in the league. His random disappearances can be even more tolerable when he performs like he did in the playoffs last season, particularly against the Portland Trail Blazers. Not a guy who scores twenty or more points often, Lee did so twice against a tough Portland team and came close in two other games during the series.
Things didn't go so well for Lee or the Grizzlies against the Golden State Warriors, but much of that can be attributed to Mike Conley having a broken face and other players underperforming. The Grizzlies struggled mightily to overcome spacing issues in the Warriors series, and if history is any indication, the Grizzlies will struggle to properly space the floor again this season when it matters most given the way the roster is currently constructed.
The Grizzlies' perpetual spacing issues are the main reason why Lee remains so valuable to the team. After shooting a mediocre 34.5% from beyond the arc for the Grizzlies upon arriving during the middle of the 2013-2014 campaign, he settled in and shot 40.2% from deep in his first full season with the team last season. Much of his success on his second go around in Memphis can be attributed to the great chemistry he developed with Conley and Marc Gasol, the two primary distributors in the starting lineup. Given that the starting five could very well be the same this season, he projects to be the team's best perimeter shooter once again, particularly in spot-up situations.
Last season, Lee averaged 4.1 catch-and-shoot points per game and shot 42% from the field in such situations. Even when he doesn't touch the ball on a possession, he plays a vital role because he's one of the few guys on the team whose defender can't afford to leave him when he's spotted up waiting on the ball to be kicked out. This creates key space for the Grizzlies' bruising front court to work as well as room for Conley to drive into the paint and break down the defense.
Lee's ability to shoot on the perimeter allows him to exploit defenses in other ways as well, namely by scoring off the dribble. He's not a guy who's going to take the ball hard to the cup a lot, but he arguably has the second best midrange jumper on the roster (Beno Udrih obviously takes the cake). He's excellent at attacking a scrambling defender's closeout, taking two dribbles, then firing a smooth jumper through the net from 11-17 feet.
Head coach Dave Joerger experimented with playing Lee at point guard some last season, with mostly middling results. He can step in and serve as more of a primary ball handler if the Grizzlies are desperate, but he's not a natural distributor, and his handles aren't good enough to justify him trying to break down a defense by dribbling. He simply lacks the feel for prodding a defense in order to set up teammates, which is why we will primarily see him in a role where he is rarely asked to dribble more than once or twice at any given time again this season. The Grizzlies will undoubtedly be crossing their fingers, hoping their point guards stay healthy this season so Lee doesn't have to slide over into a position he clearly isn't comfortable playing.
Defensively, Lee is *fine*, but that's all you can say about him. Much like his offensive game, his defense is wildly inconsistent. He can pleasantly surprise one night, keeping James Harden mostly in check, and then struggle the very next game against a much lesser foe. He possesses nice instincts which enable him to jump into passing lanes and gather a steal from time to time, but he doesn't do it enough to make up for his shortcomings on that end. He doesn't possess the lateral quickness necessary to keep quicker guards out of the lane, and that hurt the Grizzlies at times last season. His opponent's field goal percentage at the rim speaks for itself (shot chart courtesy of NBAsavant).
Additionally, he struggles to fight over screens more than he should. It's easy to think he, along with many other Grizzlies in the backcourt, would be much more useful in a defensive system like the one the Warriors employ where they basically switch on every screen. If only the Grizzlies had the frontcourt personnel necessary to pull off that type of scheme. Lee's not going to kill the Grizzlies on defense, but he is not going to be overly helpful on that end either.
There are worse options around the league than Lee at starting shooting guard, and he will likely remain the starter over a youthful Jordan Adams and an aging Vince Carter this season. He probably still provides more of what the Grizzlies need from that position than both of those guys as well as anybody else on the roster. The tricky part of the equation at shooting guard is the fact that Lee is an unrestricted free agent after this season. If Adams doesn't play more this season and Lee doesn't re-sign for whatever reason, the Grizzlies could have quite a predicament on hand at the position going forward.
Presently though, it would be nice to see more moves like this one from Lee this season.
But the Grizzlies organization and fans alike would certainly settle for more consistency from the veteran shooting guard.