From All Star To Unemployed: How High Performance Can Be Fleeting

Steve Boese HR, HR & Sports, Performance, Sports, Steve Boese

Lost in the shuffle of the recent NBA All Star Game and weekend and the trade deadline that passed last week, was a small bit of NBA news that many casual fans may have missed, or at least not paid it much attention.

Here is the news that I am referring to:

Boston Celtics release veteran forward David Lee, 32.

Lee, an 11-year veteran, was traded to the Celtics just seven months back, after spending the first 10 years of his career split between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, where Lee was a member of last season’s Warriors NBA Championship team.

Lee has had—by most, if not all, accounts—a very successful NBA career to this point. He has made two All Star appearances, most recently in 2013, and according to, his all-time NBA ranking for Player Efficiency Rating, (PER = a measure of a player’s all-around performance) stands at 91. So at least by this measure, Lee ranks inside the top 100 NBA players of all time. Just two seasons ago, Lee averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds per game for the Warriors, numbers matched by perhaps only 10 other players in a normal year. Lee, at 32, is certainly past his peak levels of play, but as recently as two years ago he was performing at an almost elite level for a very good and competitive Warriors team.

So with all that said, why is Lee (at least temporarily) unemployed, and what does his predicament suggest for the rest of us—especially those of us in the talent management and talent evaluation space?

I will give you three things to think about:

  1. Performance is situational. Lee’s best years were his last two with the Knicks—a bad team that needed Lee’s contributions (points, rebounds, minutes played) simply to attempt to be competitive on a nightly basis. He was probably the best player on that Knicks team, and accordingly was given the opportunity to showcase his ability. Later in his career, and in particular last season with the Warriors, Lee might have been the 6th or 7th best player on the team. So he was needed less, got to play less, but was still being compensated as a “star” performer when the situation called for him to be a squad player—a small contributor if you will.
  1. Data changes the analysis of performance. While PER has been pretty kind to the assessment of Lee’s play over the years, other more recently adopted analytical measures of a player’s contribution to the team have not been so kind. Lee scored very poorly, especially this year with the Celtics, in scoring differential per 100 possessions—essentially, the Celtics were much more successful as a team with Lee off the court than they were with Lee on the court. While these newer analytical measures also have their shortcomings, they are much more in vogue with team management and with coaches than the traditional measures that were more favorable towards Lee. Lee’s game hasn’t changed all that much, but how we have decided to assess his game has. The same effect is likely to be seen in the “real world” once more and different analytical measures are adopted to evaluate employee performance.
  1. The half-life of high performance is shrinking. The final strike against Lee is a shift in strategy and approach in the NBA overall—especially on offense. More teams, most notably Lee’s former Warriors team, have adopted a so-called “small ball” strategy that demands greater positional flexibility and more efficient 3-point shooting from the players. As a power forward, Lee’s game was more ideally suited for a more traditional approach to offense—shooting from close to the basket, diving to the front of the rim, and rarely, if ever, taking 3-point shots. Lee, in the space of about 4 years, morphed from a classic or prototypical power forward into one whose skills and capabilities were suddenly lacking compared to the new way that teams and coaches wanted to play. We see this all the time in our organizations too, but if the Lee case is any indication, the time it takes for a particular set of skills to become obsolete seems to be shrinking.

As the case of Lee reminds us, you can go from All Star to outcast really, really quickly.

The game always changes, even if we don’t want it to, even if we don’t understand what it means, even if it isn’t fair.