Shortly after free agency began on July 1, Courtney Lee received a call and immediately recognized the voice on the other end. It was New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. The Hall of Famer was the first person to express interest in Lee, and the 30-year-old shooting guard was extremely flattered. Soon after, Joakim Noah (who agreed to a deal with the Knicks) was also recruiting him to New York.
It didn’t take long for Lee to make up his mind and commit to the Knicks on a four-year, $50 million contract. He made the decision around 6:30 p.m. ET on July 2, choosing New York over teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks (who discussed the possibility of adding Lee to replace Kent Bazemore when it looked like he might sign elsewhere).
Lee is a strong addition for Jackson and the Knicks in what has been a very busy summer for the organization. The team also hired Jeff Hornacek as their new head coach and added Noah, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings and Willy Hernangomez among others. Jackson and his staff have assembled some intriguing talent around cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, and the squad will look drastically different next season as they try to end their three-year playoff drought.
While the addition of Lee didn’t make as many headlines as the Rose trade or Noah signing, there’s no question that Lee will have an enormous impact on both ends of the court.
Lee has averaged 9.6 points over the course of his nine-year NBA career, shooting 45 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from three-point range and 84.6 percent from the free throw line. Last year, he spent time with the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets, averaging 9.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 29.5 minutes. In Charlotte’s first-round postseason series against the Miami HEAT, Lee averaged 8.6 points while shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range.
But Lee is the type of player who does plenty of important things that don’t show up in a box score. He makes hustle plays, does the dirty work and makes his opponent work for every point. To get an idea of how hard he works when he’s on the court, consider that he ran an average of 2.64 miles per game during the playoffs (ranking fourth among all players, behind only C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Paul George).
In today’s NBA, the ‘3-and-D’ role player has become very valuable and Lee is a perfect example. He’s a two-way threat who will knock down efficient threes and then lock his man down on the other end of the court. Lee is also an excellent locker-room presence, leading by example while knowing his role and playing within it. On a Knicks team that features scorers like Anthony, Rose and Jennings, it’s important to have individuals like Lee and Noah surrounding them (and holding everyone accountable).
Last season in Charlotte, Lee ranked first among qualified players on the Hornets in offensive rating (111.4), net rating (+6), true shooting percentage (57.6 percent) and assist ratio (18.9 percent). In the playoffs, Lee contested 12.1 shots per game, which not only ranked first among all Hornets but ninth among all postseason players. Charlotte’s top three lineups in terms of plus/minus in the playoffs all had one thing in common: Lee playing on the perimeter, either at shooting guard or small forward (when they went small). In fact, Charlotte had two of the top five lineups of the 2016 postseason and both featured Lee.
Now, Lee will join a talented Knicks lineup and try to duplicate his success under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Lee to discuss his free agency process, why he decided to join the Knicks, what he thinks of New York’s other moves, the expectations for next year, how much we’ll see the Triangle Offense under Coach Hornacek and more.
Alex Kennedy: You told me that the Knicks were the first team to show interest in you, with Phil Jackson contacting you shortly after free agency started. What was it like receiving that call?
Courtney Lee: “Man, hearing from Phil and it being the Knicks, it was an incredible feeling. It took me back to all of the things that Phil has accomplished, and it also took me all the way back to my childhood because I grew up in Indianapolis so I used to always watch the Pacers and Knicks battle against each other. It just brought back so many memories. For them to be the first team to call me, it was a good feeling. I mean, it’s Phil Jackson. It’s New York. You’re playing in the Mecca.”
Kennedy: Did you have any discussions with Jackson or Coach Hornacek about how they plan to use you and what they want to see from you?
Lee: “We spoke about that briefly. First and foremost, he wants me to bring energy on the defensive end. I kind of feel like me and Noah will be similar in that standpoint, bringing that energy. He’ll be a rim protector and I’ll be a perimeter defender, and we just want to cause as much havoc as possible for opponents. Then, on the offensive end, they just want me to be able to spread the floor, knock down open shots, get out in transition and play freely within the offense.”
Kennedy: You mentioned Madison Square Garden being the Mecca and spoke highly of New York. What will it mean to put on that Knicks jersey and play in front of those fans?
Lee: “It’s still sinking in, man. I wake up every day and I have butterflies in my stomach, ever since I made my verbal commitment to them. Being in the NBA for going on nine years, I’ve played in the Garden a lot and there’s a special feeling when you play there. There’s so much history. The fans are there night in and night out. Even during tough times in the past when they didn’t have the best seasons, the fans were still there and supporting their team. If they’re down 20 points, you may hear some boos in there because the fans are so passionate, but then if someone makes a play or shows that they’re giving maximum effort, the fans will cheer non-stop. That’s exactly what you want. You want the fans to be just as passionate as you, so that when you’re fighting through fatigue or battling through an injury, those fans are right there cheering you on as you try to make a play or get a big stop. New York definitely has those type of fans.”
Kennedy: The fans are really excited now because of the offseason acquisitions. What are you expectations for this upcoming season?
Lee: “We’re contenders, man. They didn’t make the playoffs last year, but we’re looking to change that and win big. The ring is the ultimate goal for everybody on the team; I know it is for me. When they talked to me and told me about the pieces they were adding alongside the players who were already there, I didn’t think anything less than a championship [was the goal]. We’re trying to get the Knicks back into the playoffs and win big.”
Kennedy: Did any of the players on the Knicks recruit you as you were weighing your options?
Lee: “Before free agency, I was talking with Noah and it’s great seeing how passionate he is. This offseason, he’s getting out of breath just being on the phone – like he’s running sprints – but it’s because he’s talking about the city, talking about the fans, talking about the team and talking about everything we can accomplish together. He’s excited and he was recruiting me pretty much the entire time, telling me that I was the missing piece and what not. He kept telling me, ‘Let’s get it done!’ Noah was in my ear a lot.”
Kennedy: There have been questions about Noah’s recent production and injuries, just as there has been talk about Rose’s injuries. How do you think the team can hold up and what do you say to the people who are concerned about the team’s potential health issues?
Lee: “It’s part of the game. When you play 82 games, plus eight to 10 preseason games, plus playoff games, you’re looking at around 100 games a year. We’re all human, so there are going to be injuries. It’s just about whether they’re serious injuries and whether you can bounce back from them. It’s a long season and we all know that injuries occur, but they probably have one of the best training staffs in New York. I think they’ll help us stay on the court as much as possible. All of the injuries from previous years are behind us. That’s the past. We’re looking forward to the future and the future looks bright for New York.”
Kennedy: You’re known for your perimeter defense, and you’ve spent time matched up against some of your new teammates like ‘Melo and D-Rose. What is it like guarding those guys and what makes them so effective offensively?
Lee: “Well, ‘Melo is one of those players who makes things tough for a guy like me since I’m 6’5 and he’s standing 6’8 or 6’9. He can play on the wing, but he’s also able to play in the post. He gave me mismatch problems a lot of times. But playing on this team, it’s going to be fun because he’s going to draw so much attention. Most nights, he’ll probably draw double teams and that’s just going to open things up for everybody else and make the offense flow that much easier.
“With D-Rose, I feel like he’s hungry. He’s been criticized a lot in his hometown. He’d been in Chicago his whole career and then he’s hearing things like, ‘He’s not the same player. He’s injury-prone.’ The city flipped on him. He was the guy who was taking them to the playoffs and he was the MVP, so people can’t forget about that. As a player, I will never forget how talented that man is. I think he’s eager and hungry, and he’ll use all of that as fuel. This is his fresh start in a new location. He’s going to come out with a chip on his shoulder.
“And it’s not just D-Rose. Noah has a chip on his shoulder. Carmelo has a chip on his shoulder because he’s eager to win a championship. KP (Kristaps Porzingis) is still learning, but he’s a dog so he’s going to go out there and compete. Brandon Jennings, every time he touches the ball he wants to score 50 so I know he’ll compete. And as far as myself, I’m always hungry and I’m always ready to scrap. We’re going to try to get the job done night after night.”
Kennedy: That’s an interesting point. Can a team come together and bond over something like that, the fact that you’re all trying to prove yourselves and are motivated by these slights?
Lee: “Yeah, no question. Our core group of guys who will be battling together, in the locker room together, on the plane together, we have to stick together and make sure everybody’s confidence is at an all-time high. If one person falls down, we have to be right there to pick them up. Everybody is hungry and everybody has their own motivation or chip on their shoulder. We just need to come together, get that chemistry and see it click. Once everybody is together and everybody is hungry, I think we can be very scary.”
Kennedy: Fans in New York were very excited when you chose the Knicks because the fit makes a lot of sense. What’s it like to get that kind of reaction and support from the fans?
Lee: “It’s a good feeling. Throughout my journey, I’ve been on a lot of different teams. Teams always say they want me and then I end up getting traded or whatnot. Now, to get a nice contract and the chance to play for Phil Jackson and Jeff Hornacek, and the chance to play in the Mecca, it’s rewarding. But even before I committed to New York, the fans were getting in touch with me on social media. Everybody was telling me, ‘Go to New York! New York! New York!’ Then, once I committed to the Knicks, my Instagram went nuts. The fan support here is like no other.”
Kennedy: Have you discussed how much Coach Hornacek is going to use the Triangle Offense? Will he only use some elements of it, or will it be used less?
Lee: “The only thing that Phil has told me is that he’s going to let Coach Hornacek have the [say] and be able to do what he wants to do. Phil may have some input and we talked about the Triangle a little bit, but I don’t think that Phil’s going to stress it too much.”
Kennedy: Now that you’re playing with Kristaps Porzingis, what do you think of his game and potential? Could we see a breakout season for him during his sophomore year?
Lee: “You should never judge a book by its cover. I remember when he was first drafted, there were a lot of people unhappy that they picked him. Then, when he got on that court, he let his game do the talking. He’s going to be a good player for years to come. The guy is 7’2 or 7’3, can shoot the ball, can dribble the ball and has moves. He’s going to be huge for us. Never judge a book by its cover.”
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.