Like Gallinari, Lee makes the list of the 35 Most Important Knicks (as opposed to Greatest Knicks or Best Statistical Knicks) because there’s something to be said for carrying the torch. Lee played just five seasons in New York, with one All-Star team, but his real value was in the way he carried the burden of those hopelessly inept Knicks teams with class and dignity. Let’s face it, if we’d had to root for twelve Shandon Anderson’s and Al Harrington’s every year for the last decade, most of us would’ve ended up killing each other. David Lee reminded us that some NBA players do treat this profession like a real job, that some do want to improve their games, that these players do exist and other teams have more than one of them, and that one day we’d have enough of them for other teams to take us seriously. When the best reasons to watch were usually our opponents, David Lee gave us a reason to watch and maybe even take a little pride in our team.
On top of all that, for only playing five seasons, Lee is one memorable player. Consider:
1) His ambidextrous finishing at the basket is his greatest weapon, which no other player in the league can say.
2) He’s one of the longstanding reminders of something we’ve all tried to sweep under the rug: that Isiah Thomas’ draft record is actually very solid.
3) Lee broke the all-time record for largest disparity between offensive and defensive effort. Previous record-holders (Gilbert Arenas) were renowned for going one-on-five, but Lee revolutionized the entire concept by making hustle plays on one end – cuts, screens, loose balls etc. – with almost none of the equivalent defensive elbow grease.
4) Sure, Lee has improved his jump shot and is now a well-regarded mid-range shooter. The list of players who have done that is long and distinguished. But has there ever been a player – I mean, ever – who improved his ball-handling after entering the league like Lee did? As a rookie Lee got spot minutes at small forward, and watching him try to dribble was like watching two five year-olds in a three-legged race. By year five he could face up from 18 feet and drive by big men with either hand. I’m not old enough to get all historical with this, but in my lifetime I’ve never seen a player get that much better at sheer dribbling.