SEC Players in the NBA Conference Finals

David Lee, Florida 2001-2005

If there’s one person who regrets signing a six-year, 80 million dollar deal, it’s probably David Lee. Lee, a 6’9”, 249-pound forward/center, is a two-time All-Star who’s best years were wasted on mediocre New York and Golden State teams. Lee was seen as a potential savior in New York, a finesse hybrid big man that could put up 18-20 points a night, and pull down double-digit rebounds, despite his smaller stature against big men. Lee’s biggest deficit, as the Warriors found out after giving him that large contract in 2010, was his catastrophically bad defense, something that was covered up during his time in New York due to his heavy minutes load and major role on offense. How bad is Lee’s defense? Check out this graph from the 2013-2014 season:

Image via Kirk Goldsberry at Grantland.com

Want to see what this looks like in-person? Why, I’m glad you asked!

In the past two seasons, Lee’s playing time has dropped dramatically, at first due to injury, but now, it’s more due to his poor fit within new head coach Steve Kerr’s playing style. The Warriors were the best team in the NBA this season finishing 65-17, but Lee only played in 49 games, and only started four of those. Advanced stats will go so far as to tell you Lee makes the Warriors 10.5 points worse when he's on the floor, but his age (32), his injury history, and his lack of playing time says all there needs to be said about what his impact will likely be in this series. If there is one major advantage Lee has, it’s his ability to set huge screens with his wide, stocky frame, allowing three-point sharpshooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to get open looks. If the Warriors prime big man, the 7-foot, 260-pound Andrew Bogut, gets into foul trouble early against the Houston Rockets’ Dwight Howard, expect Lee to come in to make sure Thompson and Curry best utilize their hot hands.

Marreese Speights, Florida 2006-2008
 

Interesting that Speights comes from the same alma mater as Lee: Speights is just an inch taller and four pounds lighter than Lee, and his strengths certainly lean toward the offensive side of things. Speights has a greater tendency to play outside the paint, stretching out the defense in man-to-man or forcing a zone defense, which the sharpshooting Warriors would surely take advantage of. At least, in theory. Speights is averaging just a hair over seven minutes per game in the playoffs, and has only played in 7 of the possible 10 contests. He’s already been ruled out of game one against the Rockets, and even if he was healthy, it’s not like he’s a major offensive threat. It’s easy to see how, on paper, Speights could open up the offense a bit and cause the defense to be stretched too thin, but he’s been so unrelied upon all season, it’s hard to imagine Rockets head coach Kevin McHale is even mentioning his name during film sessions.

Terrence Jones, Kentucky 2010-2012
 

Jones has been one of the more quiet successes coming from John Calipari’s UK dream teams, though it’s not surprising since he’s playing virtually the same role as he did in Kentucky. Jones is an athletic, do-it-all power forward, averaging 12 points and six rebounds through the season and playoffs on about 18-22 minutes per night. Don’t let the numbers fool you, Jones is a perfect fit in Houston’s starting rotation. Jones is 6’9” and 252 pounds, so the screens he sets for MVP runner-up James Harden are equivalent to brick walls. His strength also allows him to bully his body into the paint, grabbing the second chance rebounds that 7-footer Dwight Howard may have missed. Jones also has a bit of a shooting touch, and does pose a minor threat around the perimeter. The Rockets don’t have as many offensive weapons in their starting five, so Jones does get some good looks when the defense is caught up chasing Harden or tangling with Howard down low. 

So why is Jones only getting 18-22 minutes? Aren’t the starters on a basketball team supposed to play the most minutes? Well, no. Doesn’t it make sense to have the players in the game that fit the particular moment? Doesn’t it make sense to have your best players energized enough to give a huge effort in the fourth quarter or late in the game, when it matters most? Situational lineups have always existed, but they’ve been under a particular microscope in the past few years as contracts get higher and higher and the actual value of players becomes more difficult to determine. Take for example the next SEC alum:


Corey Brewer, Florida 2004-2007
 

Corey Brewer is very high on Corey Brewer’s game. Corey Brewer thinks Corey Brewer is a good player. In reality, Corey Brewer is an average player who is kind of crazy, but above all else, does not quit. Ever. I know this sounds like a trait anybody who gets paid millions of dollars to play a game for 7-8 months a year should have, but you’d be surprised. Brewer’s high motor and chemistry with fellow high-risk/high-reward reclamation project Josh Smith has made him a valuable asset on the floor in crunch time. Brewer is averaging double-digit points and just a handful of rebounds, but again, much like Jones, the numbers aren’t what matter. Rather, it’s the end result, and so far, playing Brewer in critical spots has resulted in the Rockets making a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

DeMarre Carroll, Vanderbilt 2004-2006, Missouri 2007-2009

There’s not a better bargain in the league right now than DeMarre Carroll on his relatively small 2-year, $5 million contract. Yet prior to signing the deal last year, there was no evidence that Carroll would be worth even a penny more. Carroll averaged just four points and two rebounds in 13 minutes per game from 2009-2013. After joining the Hawks, Carroll reached his true potential, though it shouldn’t be a surprise given that his head coach is Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer. The entire Hawks roster has now become an island of role players and misfit toys that are actually being played correctly, and are thriving in the plays “Coach Bud” is calling. Carroll is the biggest success story to come out of Atlanta’s rejuvenation, becoming such a feared defender that many articles leading up tomorrow’s Game 1 against Cleveland have discussed the matchup between LeBron James versus Carroll, and it hasn’t all been favorable for James. Carroll’s size is his biggest weakness against James, as his 6’8”, 215-pound frame is going to take a beating against the driving and bullying of the 6’9”, 250-pounder. It will certainly be the most difficult task Carroll has had in his entire career, but if he can diminish James’ performance in any way—force him to take bad shots or pass it off to the injured Kyrie Irving or the unreliable J.R. Smith—it will be a victory on some level, and could spell a Hawks series win… but that’s at least four games from now. Probably seven.

Al Horford, Florida 2004-2007

Al Horford finally has the Hawks team that he has deserved for so long. Horford is a terrific player, with tremendous ability to score around the rim and rack up rebounds. He’s also quite the quiet leader, putting in constant work and consistent numbers, never drawing any ill-attention. After being the young leader of constantly mediocre Hawks teams that never really had any personality whatsoever, Horford can now shine as the veteran entering his prime, though he lets his new, equally-quiet teammates take most of whatever little spotlight Atlanta is drawing. Horford will be the key to Atlanta having success on the inside, something that is actually quite possible depending on how often Cleveland has to play small-ball. Horford will eat the smaller, lightweight Tristan Thompson alive, and can finesse his way around Kendrick Perkins and his concrete feet, but Timofey Mozgov, the 7’1”, 250-pound Russian has been playing out of his mind since joining Cleveland, and could make Horford, who is the same weight but two inches shorter, quite uncomfortable under the basket. Expect a lot of play-calling from Atlanta as opposed to on-the-fly basketball, especially when it comes to making things happen for Horford.

Mike Miller, Florida 1998-2000

I’m almost 100% confident that Mike Miller will not touch the floor for the Cavaliers, especially since he’s only played in three games in the playoffs and averaged 10 minutes of gametime in those contests, none of which were significant (the minutes, that is, not the games). So instead, watch him close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals with seven three pointers, after not even making one all series.