Sports

Courtney Lee Is At His Best When He's Invisible

In Game 4, Courtney Lee made a play that sealed the win for the Hornets. For the league's most anonymous valuable player, it was a rare moment of visibility.
April 27, 2016, 4:26pm
Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

The enduring image of Courtney Lee's career happened in the very last moments of his rookie season. Lee had emerged—so sneakily and steadily that it was easy to miss, and in the same way that he has throughout his career—as an integral part of an upstart Orlando Magic team. Those Magic overachieved all the way to the NBA Finals, where they faced the juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers, then in the second dynastic phase of the Kobe administration. In Game 2, with 0.6 seconds left in regulation and the game tied at 88, Lee streaks to the rim and rises. Hedo Turkoglu, the inbounder, fires a lob to Lee, who catches it, lays it up, and...misses.

The complexities of the play—for one, that's a really hard shot to make—were swamped by the simple spectacle of Lee, with the game on the line, missing. Lee has been a valuable player as he's traced a winding path through the NBA, from Orlando to New Jersey to Houston to Boston to Memphis and now finally to Charlotte, but he has never been a part of a moment more memorable than that missed chipshot. It's unfair, but it makes a sort of sense—not because Lee continues to miss The Shot when games are on the line, but because we only hear about him when he's bad. The only way to know if Courtney Lee had a good game is if you don't hear about it. It has been pretty quiet of late.

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Because he can do so many things, Lee has always seemed like he could be more than the player he has been to this point. When he went to Memphis, he was supposed to be the three-and-D wing they'd so desperately needed. He was good, at times even very good, but never quite what the team envisioned he could be. Some of this is on him, but also it's tough to pin down just what Lee could be.

It has always been a challenge to define Lee. "Specialist" limits him, "role player" diminishes him. He lives in the in-between, both in terms of style and production. He'll have games where he plays the savior, such as a game-winning, buzzer-beating layup (sound familiar?) to beat the Sacramento Kings two years ago. More often than not, though, Lee does what he does as far from the spotlight as possible.

With the Hornets, he's doing more of what he's always done—a little of this, a little of that, none of it to much acclaim or notice, all of it helpful to very helpful. If anything, Lee seems more at home being unnoticed, suddenly popping up in just the right time and right situation for a key play. It may not be a shot, even, and could be something as simple as securing a loose ball. Whatever it is, it will have an effect on the game.

When they notice you, briefly. Photo by Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

But there's no measuring this, really, or expressing it in a way that conveys what it's worth. His basic numbers don't astound, and his advanced numbers don't make him an analytics darling. His net rating in Charlotte's deadlocked series with the Heat is 0.3. The Hornets aren't much worse or better whether he's on the court or the bench, though they'd obviously rather him shoot better than 16.7 percent from deep and would probably be better if he did.

All of which would make Lee look like a minor player, but there's a certain quality to Lee's play that defies the numbers. He's more than a Wes Johnson-type, an athletic body out there inefficiently occupying space. Even though he's never averaged more than 12.5 points per game, Lee has been able to carve out a niche for himself as someone who can do a little bit of everything whenever the situation calls for it. There's a strange and subtle value to his game, and the ways in which he seals various cracks and crevices to make his team more whole can be fascinating to watch, when it's visible enough to see. When he's right, he seems to be in the right place at the right time, not just in sets, but during moments of chaos as well.

In Game 4, Lee delivered a performance that was at once an aberration and emblematic of his entire career. On a night when Jeremy Lin channeled his inner Michael Jordan and Kemba Walker was a pint-sized wrecking ball, it was Lee that sealed the Hornets' series-tying victory. The Hornets led 87-85 with five seconds left in the game, and Walker hoisted a desperation 28-foot three that had no shot of going in. If the Heat got the rebound, they'd still have plenty of time to tie or take the lead, crushing the Hornets' morale. Instead, the ball bounced high off the front rim, and then right into the outstretched arms of Lee. Before he could even find the ground, he was fouled by Luol Deng. The free throws put the game out of reach, but the rebound—and Dwyane Wade's complete inability to put a body on his man—was what actually saved the day. In the box score, it was categorized merely as a team rebound.

With Nicolas Batum doubtful for the rest of the series, the Hornets need Lee to do what he does best—fill in the blanks and gaps others don't see or don't have time for. Walker, Lin, and Al Jefferson will be the featured players for the Hornets; Lee will lurk opportunistically. It's likely that he has experienced his last moment of heroism in the series.

But that he was recognized at all was unusual, and deserved. It was all the more so because Lee got noticed not for making the big shot, though he did do that, but for simply doing what he so often does in plain sight. This time, people actually noticed. He'll do the same in Game 5, 6, and 7 if necessary. Maybe people will notice then, too. Maybe they won't.