Thursday, January 27, 2022

How Avery Bradley is earning season-long roster spot with offense as much as defense as Lakers’ decision looms

There has always been a disconnect between the numbers and the eye test when it comes to Avery Bradley. Ask those with boots on the ground and they’ll tell you he’s one of the best defenders in the NBA. C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard publicly shamed the media for leaving him off of the All-Defensive Teams in 2017, but most metrics implied that despite his on-ball ferociousness, his overall impact was somewhat overstated. Bradley is small. The 6-foot-2 guard has never offered much as a help-defender and is vulnerable to craftier screeners. At his peak he tortured ball-handlers to such a degree that these limitations could be overlooked. 

But he’s 31 now, and at least early in the season, that finally led to a bit of convergence between the numbers and the eye test. The Lakers hemorrhaged points defensively with Bradley on the floor for the first month or so of the season. Every all-in-one defensive metric from FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR to Bball-Index’s LEBRON hinted at defensive decline, but they hardly needed to. Nobody blew by peak Avery Bradley like this. 

The limitations that his stature imposed started to become more problematic with his physical degradation. Bradley frequently got killed on the sort screens he used to easily jump over.

Bradley remained active defensively even at his lowest moments, but in the early portion of the season, that didn’t make him particularly effective, and unlike the rest of his teammates, Bradley didn’t have a guaranteed contract to hide behind. The Lakers have until Jan. 7 to make a decision on Bradley’s future. They can guarantee him for the rest of the season or waive him with no further obligation. A month ago, Bradley appeared destined for waivers. Now he’s saving his job… but not in the way you’d expect.

Bradley’s certainly been better on defense. The Lakers are a staggering 12 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off of it since Dec. 1, and even if he’s benefited from some opponent’s shooting luck in that span, he has looked a bit spryer with a month of game reps in the bank and Frank Vogel still frequently praises his ability to set a team-wide tone on that end of the floor. But Bradley surviving on defense shouldn’t be a surprise. His recent offensive eruption? That’s a bit more out of left field.

The Lakers know firsthand what a slow starter Bradley can be offensively. He shot 22.6 percent from behind the arc in his first 20 games as a Laker during the 2019-20 season before jumping up above 42 percent in his last 29. It wasn’t just a hot streak, though. Bradley all but cut his beloved mid-range jumpers out of his shot diet and doubled down on the long ball, nearly slicing his turnover average in half in the process as he grew more comfortable existing in an offense that didn’t want him to dribble. It may have taken him two months to figure out his place in the offense, but once he did, he ran with it.

A somewhat similar story is playing out this season. Bradley shot below 35 percent from behind the arc in October and November but is making a blistering 48.6 percent of his 3’s since the calendar turned over to December. He’s cut his dribbles per touch (1 to 0.69) and seconds per touch (1.64 to 1.36) meaningfully, but most importantly, he’s learning how to function as a mover in the micro-ball lineups the Lakers continue to lean on without Anthony Davis. He sticks out like a sore thumb in an often stationary Laker offense. Watch this late-game play from Sunday’s win over Minnesota. Bradley sets the initial screen for LeBron James, relocates to the corner and eventually back-cuts his way into a layup. He moves more than his four teammates combined, and it’s not as part of a direct play-call. He’s just reacting.

Those instincts, which have served him so well on defense throughout his career, are paying major dividends on offense as well. This quick transition screen gets LeBron a mismatch against Damian Lillard that basically assured points. 

Bradley’s become an expert at maximizing James’ gravity, even if he isn’t always the beneficiary. Malik Monk scores the points here, but it’s Bradley’s basketball IQ that creates the points.

It’s a trick plenty of LeBron’s teammates have caught on to over the years: bait your own defender into prioritizing the best player in the world and you reap the rewards. 

It’s not an especially high bar to clear in theory. In practice, the Lakers are a team of players used to monopolizing possessions, and those players don’t always embrace life in offenses that don’t let them do that. Bradley is doing just that, taking the frenetic energy that he’s always applied to defense and becoming an offensive spark plug by weaponizing it when he doesn’t have the ball.

It makes for a different sort of disconnect. The Lakers nominally rely on Bradley for defense. His reputation on that end of the floor has kept him in the NBA for a decade and is probably responsible for his place on this roster to begin with. But with his guarantee date looming, it’s been his offense that should be convincing the Lakers that he deserves to stick around for the rest of the season.

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