During an introductory news conference held at the Celtics’ practice facility Monday, a reporter noted how newly acquired forwards David Lee and Amir Johnson had craned their necks and stared at the hanging NBA championship banners. The two were asked what it meant to join such a tradition-rich franchise.
Lee, 32, who arrived through a trade with the Warriors, fielded the question first.
“[Johnson] asked me, ‘Did somebody spill something on the ’68 banner?’ ” Lee said. “It’s not quite as white as the rest of them.”
Lee smiled. And sure enough, the banner commemorating the 1968 title is one of the originals, and it does show its wear a bit, including a few brown splotches. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge interjected that it had been damaged in a fire, although it’s unclear when that might have happened.
“See,” Lee said, “I’m learning today.”
Lee’s initial response about the weathered banner veered from the canned, yes-this-tradition-is-amazing answer that is typical of new arrivals here. The veteran forward will bring a unique confidence and swagger to this team, hardened by his days with the lowly Knicks and enriched by his tenure with the Warriors, which ended with an NBA championship this past season.
Lee has played in two All-Star Games, two more than the rest of the Celtics’ roster combined. And now he finds himself at a crossroads: He is a veteran approaching the twilight of his career while also hoping to be reinvigorated by a fresh start.
Although both Lee and the Celtics acknowledge his long-term future in Boston is unclear, both sides agree that even a short-term partnership could be mutually beneficial, and perhaps it could blossom into something more.
“I’m excited for it now,” Lee said. “I don’t know why I wouldn’t be after this season. I have no future plans other than just competing this year and figuring that out. Once again, I had some options and places to go a couple of weeks ago. I was overwhelmed and thrilled when [the Celtics] called and said, ‘We really want to have you here.’ And I was hyped to do it.”
Lee averaged at least 16 points and 9 rebounds per game in each season from 2008-09 to 2013-14. But this past year he was slowed by an early hamstring injury, clearing the way for the emergence of forward Draymond Green — and, for that matter, the Warriors.
Golden State blitzed to a 22-3 start, and by the time Lee returned, coach Steve Kerr was understandably reluctant to disturb the team’s rhythm. The Warriors marched to an NBA title with Lee having little more than a bit part.
“There were times of frustration, but I stuck with it and really wanted to be a professional,” Lee said. “And of course I loved the guys on the team. I loved what we were accomplishing on the court.”
Lee harbored no hard feelings toward the Warriors. Still, both sides understood it was time to move on, and Warriors executives worked with Lee to find a suitable fit.
“I think that the way David handles himself as a pro, and the way we’ve tried to do business with the Warriors, hopefully people give you the benefit of the doubt and want to help you find a win-win situation,” said Lee’s agent, Mark Bartelstein. “And so they tried to do the right thing, and I think that’s what happened here.”
Ainge had long admired Lee. He called when Lee entered free agency in 2010 — after his fifth season with the Knicks. The Celtics could just offer the mid-level exception, and Lee commanded more on the open market, but Ainge made his interest known.
The subtle courtship left an impression on Lee, and when the Celtics looked into acquiring him from Golden State earlier this month, he was instantly intrigued. Boston ultimately sent forward Gerald Wallace and guard Chris Babb to the Warriors in exchange for Lee, who will be Boston’s highest-paid player this upcoming season with his $15.5 million expiring contract.
Lee said coach Brad Stevens wants him to do what makes him dangerous on the court — rebound, pass, and score — but he is also counting on him to be a locker room presence. At 32, Lee is the only Celtic who is older than 28.
Lee prefers to lead by example, but he believes Boston has done a commendable job of assembling a team of high-character players, following a blueprint similar to Golden State’s.
“I think the days of having a bunch of jerks on the same team and thinking you’re going to win a championship — it’s pretty tough in basketball nowadays,” Lee said. “I love how they’re doing things here, and we have a chance to do some special things.”