SALT LAKE CITY — In early October the Celtics traveled to Europe to play exhibition games against professional teams in Milan and Madrid. Boston won both games easily, and forward David Lee’s play was perhaps the most encouraging development of the trip.
The Celtics had acquired the two-time All-Star from Golden State, where he had languished on the bench for much of the team’s championship season, and there was a belief he could still thrive in the right situation.
Early on, the Celtics seemed to be a perfect fit. Lee, 32, was a creative passer and a gritty rebounder, and as the only Celtic older than 28, he instantly provided a veteran presence. In Milan, for example, Lee was the one to organize a team dinner even though he hardly knew his teammates yet.
The Celtics’ European opponents were overmatched, but Lee’s statistics were still startling. In a total of 42 minutes over the two games he tallied 26 points, 18 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals.
“We’re gonna try to play through him quite a bit, especially when he’s not on the floor with Isaiah [Thomas],” coach Brad Stevens said then. “I just think his ability to handle, pass, and make plays for others — he thinks the game well . . . I think he fits well with what we’re trying to do.”
“I think this system fits a lot of the things I do,” Lee said in Milan, “so it’s just a really good fit both ways.”
But that trip, it turned out, would be Lee’s high point with the Celtics. On Friday, the team reached an agreement to buy out Lee’s contract. It is a sudden end to a brief stay in Boston that had started with promise.
Lee began the season as a starter but has appeared in just one of the Celtics’ last 21 games. Recently, Stevens declined to use him late in lopsided games because he did not want to disrespect him as a veteran.
“Everything doesn’t always work out the way you wanted to,” Lee said Thursday. “Just disappointed from the fact that I wanted to come here and make a major impact. And that didn’t happen for one reason or another.”
The Celtics worked diligently to trade Lee before Thursday’s deadline, both as an act of good faith and because he was actually a valuable chip in a potential blockbuster trade. Lee’s $15.5 million expiring contract is the highest on the team by a sizable margin, so it would have allowed the Celtics to take on a significant salary in return.
“We almost had trades a few times, or thought there was a possibility,” Ainge said. “His contract was a good way for us to get into a lot of the conversations we had.”
In the end, though, the Celtics did not complete any deals before the deadline, making a buyout the only option. A league source said Lee would likely sign with a new team this weekend. Ainge said he did not know how the Celtics would fill the roster opening that was created by his departure.
“We’ll see if there’s something we want to do quickly,” he said. “But right now we’re in no rush.”
Lee’s fall can be attributed to several factors. The Celtics entered this season with a deep roster, and Stevens cautioned from the start that it was inevitable that some players would be unhappy with their roles.
After Lee’s strong showing in Europe, he scuffled in preseason games against NBA teams. He missed two games — one because of illness and the other for rest — and shot just 6 of 23 from the field in the other three.
He began the regular season as the Celtics’ starting power forward, but that did not last. On Nov. 1, Lee went 1 for 7 and had 2 points in 21 minutes in a loss to the Spurs, as the Celtics’ fell to 1-2.
In the next game, Lee and Tyler Zeller were replaced in the starting lineup by Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger. Lee continued to get consistent minutes off the bench, but the team’s struggles when he played became apparent.
This season the Celtics have a 5.6 net rating with Lee on the bench, meaning they outscore opponents by an average of 5.6 points per 100 possessions. With Lee on the court, the Celtics’ net rating is minus-4.
As the season progressed, Stevens began to shift toward more skilled lineups, and Lee slid further down the depth chart.
The nadir came in a Jan. 10 game against the Grizzlies.
After sitting out the previous three games, Lee got another chance. But he made just 2 of 12 shots and the Celtics were outscored by 12 points while he was on the floor. Boston ultimately let a 21-point lead slip away and lost to Memphis, 101-98.
Lee didn’t play again.
“I’m a competitive guy,” Lee said. “Of course I want to play minutes and I want to be out there playing basketball more than anything else. People who don’t know basketball say, ‘Man, it would be nice to make a bunch of money to sit there and chill.’ But . . . that’s the last thing that a player wants to do. I’d love to be out there playing and being able to help a team.”
Lee said he has lost 20 pounds since the start of the season and has told teammates he is in the best shape he has been in since college. He is confident he can contribute to a team this season.
“That’s not even a question in my mind,” he said. “And I feel great right now. I feel healthy. So yeah, that’s not even a question in my mind.”