WALTHAM, Mass. -- Even Brad Stevens can't help but chuckle when he hears his players refer to 32-year-old David Lee as the "old" guy on the Boston Celtics' roster. It's not a lie. Lee is the eldest player on Boston's roster by nearly four years, but he's hardly a dinosaur by NBA standards and his 38-year-old coach, who can't be referenced without a note about his own youthful status, and Lee finds great irony in the way the two are perceived.
The Celtics believe that Lee, acquired this offseason in a swap with the Golden State Warriors, can help a young and impressionable team take a step forward in large part because of his NBA experiences, particularly after winning a title last season.
"I don’t think David wants to think of himself as old, because he’s not -- he’s still a young guy in a lot of ways," said Stevens. "But I think that, any time you have guys that have seen it and been there, I think what they can share is important. And the challenge is being able to share that within what you’re doing because he’s got a transition to make with regard to learning me and learning how we’re trying to play and learning our guys that he’s playing with and everything else. I think he’ll make that transition smoothly. He’s a really bright guy. And I will encourage him to be open in communicating to all those younger guys because I think that’s important."
The Celtics are hopeful that Lee, a two-time All-Star who was averaging nearly a double-double at 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game just two seasons ago, can not only provide leadership but get back to being an impactful player a season after he accepted a reduced role to aid Golden State's title hunt.
Lee moved to the Boston area a month ago to get acclimated and joined many of the team's younger players for what he playfully called the "preseason to the preseason" with daily workouts. While Boston brought back 10 total players from last season's squad that utilized a second-half surge to earn the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, Lee has begun trying to establish himself as a veteran leader despite learning a new system.
"I think, for me, it’s just about being myself," said Lee. "I’ve been in the league a long time and I’ve seen a lot of things, both good and bad. And I think that I’m a guy that, a lot of times, leads by example. I’m a hard-working guy and I think that’s something that’s good for the young guys to see, when their veterans are hard-workers, because at that point they have no choice but to fall in line and do the same. For the veteran guys, it sets the tone, both in training camp and preseason as the season goes along.
"I'm just going to be myself. I think I’m a pretty likable guy and a guy that can set a good tone by my work ethic."
The Celtics could confidently bring Lee into an already crowded frontcourt, one that also added Amir Johnson as Boston's free-agent splurge, because of the way he carried himself last season in Golden State. Lee accepted a diminished role and played behind Draymond Green while the Warriors won 67 regular-season games and, eventually, raised the Larry O'Brien trophy.
"The first thing that I had to admit to myself was that it’s OK to be frustrated by [a reduced role]," said Lee. "I was very honest with the media last year. If I wasn’t frustrated there was probably something wrong with me. I got injured to start the season; it wasn’t like I lost my job. I got injured and the team went, I think, 19-2 to start the year and, if you’re a rookie head coach and your team is 19-2, I think the last thing you want to do is disrupt the starting lineup. Coach [Steve Kerr] talked to me and I was more than happy to take that role change -- well, not more than happy, but more than willing to take that role change.
"I saw something really special with that team and it went on throughout the year. There was some very frustrating times and, once again, I’ll be confident to say that I feel we would have done great with me in there as well. But I’m very proud of what Draymond did last year and the rest of the guys that played and shared minutes with me. All that matters by the end of the year, all you’re going for, is to win games and win a championship. I was just happy that, when my number was called, I was ready in the playoffs and I told myself -- that was my biggest fear -- to not mentally check out because I’ve been in this league long enough to know that everyone’s number eventually gets called and I wanted to be there and I was able to be there in the Finals and make an impact.
"And now I have a championship ring and nothing else matters."
Lee has noted similarities to his experiences in Golden State and what he's seen in his infancy with Boston. Celtics fans begrudgingly enduring this rebuilding process might be buoyed listening to Lee discuss how the Warriors morphed from a 23-win team to a championship squad in a five-year span.
"[In Golden State] we built with chemistry and character and we built with guys who love to play the game," said Lee. "I think they have that same mindset here [in Boston]."
Lee has spoken highly of Stevens and his attention to detail (though, he too laughed when told of the mere six-year age difference and joked that, "It’ll be easier than my rookie year when I played for Larry Brown, who was probably 40 years older than me.") After Boston's first training camp practice on Saturday, Lee paid Stevens a compliment by comparing him to Kerr when discussing how the two coaches approached the start of the season. Lee seems to understand that there's no guarantees here in Boston, especially given the amount of bigs the team has and the need to develop for the future. But, regardless of his role, he seems ready to help this team.
And his new teammates like having him on their side.
"With guys like David Lee and Amir Johnson, and even the rookies that we drafted coming in, I think they can help us in different ways," said Isaiah Thomas, whose midseason acquisition gave Boston a spark last season. "Having a guy that just won an NBA championship, a former All-Star, but given the opportunity he can still play at an All-Star level -- we could be very good, especially in the Eastern Conference."