OAKLAND, Calif. -- David Lee will finally finish his long, twisting road to put a championship ring on his finger Friday evening.
Lee, a star in his first four years with the Golden State Warriors who accepted a reserve role after a hamstring injury opened the door for Draymond Green to seize his starting job last season, returns to Oracle Arena for the first time since being traded last summer.
Lee, a productive member of the Dallas Mavericks after a brief, unsatisfying stint with the Boston Celtics, will always have fond memories of the franchise and fan base that will express its appreciation for him while the record-chasing Warriors try to take another step toward 73 wins. Lee will receive his ring in a pregame ceremony, when he will be honored by a tribute video.
Lee discussed the most frustrating but rewarding season of his career with ESPN.com in anticipation of his Bay Area return.
Tim MacMahon: When you think about last season, what comes to your mind?
David Lee: Roller coaster, to be honest with you.
I start out, have a really good preseason and literally the last play of preseason, I'm going for a rebound fully extended and I get shoved by [Denver's Kenneth] Faried and more or less tear my hamstring. It was something I thought was just going to be a week or two and I'd be back. Next thing you know, it turns into three or four weeks. I come back for the Clipper game -- there was no way I was missing that one at home -- and about 18 minutes in, I'm 4-for-4 from the field and I'm sprinting and re-injure it. Hamstrings are not something that are really straightforward. You feel good for two days, try to push a little more and you go back to square one, so it was really frustrating.
Of course, the team starts winning. A 19-2 start or whatever it was, and as I'm ready to come back, the last thing I want to do is disrupt that. So coach [Steve Kerr] comes to me and says, 'Andre [Iguodala] is already coming off the bench. Would you mind doing that and playing a lesser role and seeing how it works out?' While every player wants to play 48 minutes, I said, 'Yeah, I'll try it out.' And then the season unfolded the way that it did.
I didn't play as many minutes as I wanted, but really for the first time in my career -- being in New York and even the start of Golden State, I was always a big numbers guy. It wasn't really until my second or third year in Golden State that I adjusted my game a little bit. We had a chance to win, and I felt like my play was really contributing to wins.
"It was a very frustrating year at times. With that being said, it turned out to be the most rewarding year of my career and a time I'll never forget." David Lee on his 2014-15 season with Golden State
Really, last year was the first time I really put my foot down and said, 'I'm going to be a part of what could be a championship team.' Of course, you didn't know until you got to the playoffs if that was going to happen or not, but [I] made the sacrifice. I've also been around long enough to know that these things tend to come around, and the last thing you want to do was to not be ready when the opportunity came up.
I went into the end of the season and the playoffs in good shape, ready to play, and then Mo Speights hurts his calf in the Memphis series. We're down 2-1 against Memphis. I think I played a pretty big role in guarding Z-Bo [Zach Randolph] and Marc Gasol and helping us win that series, which was really probably the toughest series in the playoffs for us last year. Then in the Cleveland series, it was well documented that I was able to help us and play a good role coming off the bench in that series.
It was a very frustrating year at times. With that being said, it turned out to be the most rewarding year of my career and a time I'll never forget.
MacMahon: What did it mean to you to have a significant role in the Finals? You weren't just kind of piggybacking to a championship.
Lee: As a player, I feel like people's careers build up to moments like that. I'd been a guy who's made last-second shots in regular-season games or played big down the stretch for periods of times, but until you're in that experience on the grandest stage possible, you hope you're mentally prepared for it and able to produce but never really know until you get there. ... And I surprised myself a little bit and was really happy to know that when the times got toughest and when I was challenged -- had no reason from outside sources to think I'd be successful, hadn't played that many minutes, was rusty, hadn't had a huge impact in the regular season -- I was proud that I was able to step up and to create what's now going to be a memory that I'll have forever.
MacMahon: You'd been an All-Star. You had a ton of double-doubles the year before. As you're sitting there nursing that hamstring early in the season, when you did realize that, man, Draymond Green is really a uniquely great fit for that team?
Lee: About midseason, you start to go from, 'Wow, he's had a couple good games,' to, 'He's had a good month,' to, 'Oh man, this guy is an All-Star-caliber player.'
They kept asking him, 'How do you compare to David?' He said it best: 'We're two completely different players.' He is a perfect fit for that system, and I also think that he's a great player overall. Some people say, 'Oh, if he wasn't in that system ...' I think with his competitiveness and his skill set, he'd be successful on any team, but specifically with Steph and Klay, with the shooters that they have and also how they play small ball with the versatility that they have out there, he's been an unbelievable fit and deserves all the recognition that he's been getting.
His rookie year, me and him were always cool, so as awkward as the situation could have been, it never was that. He gives me a lot of respect and I'm always cheering for him and giving him a lot of respect.
MacMahon: After the championship, you still felt you had a lot to give and could contribute to a contender. So you asked out ...
Lee: Actually, it was a mutual thing. It was about as cordial as it could have been. I remember going into my exit meeting and the writing was pretty much on the wall. They had to pay Draymond, attempt to pay Harrison [Barnes], attempt to pay Festus [Ezeli]. I'm making the most money on the team or close to it, in the last year of my deal, and so they can get some value by letting me go.
"If we lose the Finals, then I find a way to try to stick around there. But I feel like, we went from a 23-win team to a championship team in five years. It couldn't have been a better ending ..." David Lee
If we lose the Finals, then I find a way to try to stick around there. But I feel like, we went from a 23-win team to a championship team in five years. It couldn't have been a better ending, contributing to helping my team win a championship. It was a fitting ending for both parties. I wanted to play minutes going into a contract year, and there was really no way they could keep me. I think it worked out great for both sides.
MacMahon: Has there been a piece of you that looked at the Warriors making history and wished you were still there?
Lee: Do I look over there and say, 'Would I like to be playing [for the Warriors]?' Absolutely. More than anything, I love the guys on the team. Sitting in Boston in the snowstorm in November and December, when I'm not playing, I'm saying, 'Man ...' But everything happens for a reason. I know it's corny, but I believe that. It's landed me [with the Mavericks]. I'm loving Dallas so far. I think I'm making an impact, and it couldn't have ended any better in Golden State.
Any other outcome last year and I'm not sleeping at night right now. But the fact that we won it and I've remained so close with the guys on the team, that ended it. I really haven't had too much remorse. When we're not playing those guys, I'm cheering for them. I hope they get the record [73 victories in a season]. I'm going to go at them when we play against them, but I cheer for them otherwise because I cheer for teams with good guys like that.