“Three-and-D” Lee Enters NBA Free Agency

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Eight-year NBA veteran Courtney Lee is undeniably on the verge of the biggest payday of his career.

Fresh off of a four-year, $21.3 million contract that ended with the Charlotte Hornets, the versatile shooting guard could garner somewhere around to $11-14 million per year on the open market, according to NBA sources.

Now, if that sounds like a lot of money to you (and yes, it is a lot of money), consider the league’s new multi-billion-dollar television deal will ramp up each team’s salary cap from $70 million this past year to an estimated $92 million in 2016-17, and then a whopping $107 million in 2017-18.

So it’s not just Lee who’s about to get paid. A bunch of free agents are about to get a whole lot richer.

“It’s going to be eye-opening,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t think people understand how much money is involved with this new TV deal.”

$24 billion is involved. The NBA inked that nine-year blockbuster extension with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting in late 2014.

“The one good thing about this summer is there’s a lot more flexibility in the cap with the TV deal coming into play, so Charlotte should be in a position to make a play for the guys they want to keep,” Lee said. “With the chemistry with these guys, it was fun playing with them. There were no egos. Everybody played together and it was all about winning.”

Lee started all 28 games for Charlotte this past season after the team acquired him in a February trade deadline deal with the Memphis Grizzlies.

The trade reunited him with Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic in Lee’s rookie season (2008-09).

“I played with Coach Cliff before, so I knew what kind of coach he was,” Lee said. “That kind of comfort level made it an easy transition for me.”

“Courtney is a professional – smart, committed and he cares about the team,” Clifford told Basketball Insiders. “He gives the team a chance to execute on every possession at both ends of the floor.”

Lee was brought in specifically to help the team make an immediate playoff push.  He delivered. The Hornets finished the season with 48 wins and secured the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Once in the postseason, Lee stepped up. He defended well and averaged 8.6 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting from three-point range. His biggest three came in Game 5, when his last-second heroics gave the Hornets a 3-2 series lead over the Miami Heat in the opening round.

Lee says his game-winning three was one of the top highlights of his career.

“It’s definitely up there,” Lee said, with a laugh.

But the Hornets would ultimately lose to Miami in Game 7.

That may have been Lee’s final game in a Hornets jersey. Or maybe not.

“In an ideal world, I’d like to stay,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “With Charlotte, there’s mutual interest. They’ve already expressed that they want me to come back, but in the same sense, there’s four or five other [Hornets] free agents. So you have to see how the money plays out.

“But again, in an ideal world, everybody from the team gets a new deal and everybody stays. But being realistic, you still have to go out there and play the field and hear other proposals and find the best situation.”

As Lee mentioned, the Hornets have a number of players hitting the open market. Nicolas Batum, Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lin (once he opts out) and Tyler Hansbrough will all be unrestricted free agents as well.

This will be Lee’s first experience as an unrestricted free agent. He was a restricted free agent with the Houston Rockets in 2012, before the Boston Celtics acquired him that offseason in a sign-and-trade.

“Being restricted, it was different,” Lee said. “The team got to match. But unrestricted, I’m able to get offers and it’s me being able to pick if I want to go or not.”

He says there are three things he’s looking for when it comes to free agency:

  • “I’ll be waiting to see what Charlotte will do,” Lee said.
  • “Whether I can come in and help a team win, and this is a big one,” Lee said. “Would I love to be a starter? Yes. Will I compete and position myself to try and be a starter? Of course. But the most important thing is who finishes the game. Now I’ve started the majority of my career [Ed. Note: He’s started 360 of 600 career games]. But I also have experience coming off the bench. I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
  • “Being financial stable because you want to make the best decision for yourself and your family. You want to be smart with your money. You want it to last a lifetime so you can be able take care of your kids and their kids, hopefully. But I’m going to sit back and let my agent [Dan Fegan] do the work. Hopefully he stresses himself out about getting me a good deal so I don’t have to,” Lee said, with a laugh.

While Lee isn’t considered a “star” like fellow free agents Kevin Durant or LeBron James, he’s still a unique player in his own right. He’s a two-way player that makes an impact all over the court.

“I’m a ‘three-and-D’ guy,” Lee said. “A guy who hits the three and who goes out and helps the team on defense.”

That’s an accurate self-assessment. Lee is a 38.4 percent three-point-shooter over the course of his career. At a sturdy 6’5, he’s a reliable defender against point guards, shooting guards and small forward.

Not to mention, he’s been exceptionally durable, he doesn’t turn the ball over much and he doesn’t make many mistakes.

For these reasons and more, his former teammates rave about him.

“C-Lee is an unselfish guy who knows how to win,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley told Basketball Insiders. “A great locker room guy for any team. [He] can defend any of the guard positions and space the floor with his ability to shoot and make plays.”

“Courtney brings professionalism, a great work ethic and supportive efforts when it comes to helping out his teammates,” Los Angeles Clippers forward Jeff Green told Basketball Insiders. “Always kept the vibe and spirit of the team good with his personality.”

Come July, one NBA team will get a chance to add the affable Lee to their locker room.

But don’t think it’ll be Lee’s first and last unrestricted free agency experience.

“My body feels good,” the 30-year-old Lee said. “I think I can ride it out for another seven, eight years. You can play in this league for a long time if you’re able to put the ball in from long range and if you can defend.”

Free agency negotiations will begin on July 1, and deals can officially be signed starting July 7 at 12:01 a.m. ET.

David Baumann is a guest contributor for Basketball Insiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.