The Enigma of Avery Bradley

In today’s stats-driven NBA, it becomes increasingly difficult to walk the line between the numbers, which are more detailed and informative than ever, and the “eye test,” what we derive from observing what happens on the court. There may be no player more emblematic of this conundrum than Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley.

It only takes a few minutes of watching the Celtics to know that Bradley is a terrific player. The seventh-year guard is having the best season of his career on one of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, and might be the league’s most underrated player.

Bradley has improved every year he’s been in the NBA, and has turned himself into a plus shooter and elite defender. He regularly guards three positions despite being just 6-foot-2, and he was voted the second-best perimeter defender in the league this past offseason by General Managers around the league. Bradley harasses ball handlers from all spots on the floor—he has some of the quickest feet in the league—and all but crawls inside his opponents’ jerseys. Few players fight over screens or deny their man the ball as well as Bradley. He remains engaged for entire possessions, which is rare in the regular season. Watch him lock Kyrie Irving in a torture chamber on a crucial late-game possession:

First, Bradley closes out hard, but stays low and in good defensive position. Then he mirrors Irving’s every move, forcing him into a prayer before the refs bail Kyrie out with a phantom foul call. Bradley draws the assignment for an opposing team’s best perimeter player every night, and routinely creates sequences like that one.

Bradley has been a great defender for a while, but it’s his offensive development that has allowed him to make the leap from rotation player to borderline All Star. Bradley flashed his upgraded jumper in the preseason, and he’s proven than it was more than a two-week trend. He’s hitting a career-high 40.8 percent of his threes, on five attempts per game, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.2, also a career-high.

He’s an explosive leaper, making him a threat to finish around the basket, and while Bradley isn’t usually the primary ball-handler for the Celtics, he scores a tidy 0.88 points per possession in the pick-and-roll, a number than ranks just behind Steph Curry. He turns the ball over at a very low rate given his usage percentage.

In short, Bradley has turned himself into one of the best two-way guards in the NBA. It is that reason, then, that makes him so tricky to evaluate.

For all his high-efficiency scoring and strong work on the defensive end, most advanced metrics peg Bradley as a league-average player, if not slightly below that, and the Celtics are 2.4 points per 100 possessions better with Bradley on the bench than when he plays.

Part of the reason for this strange phenomenon might have to do with Bradley’s shot selection. He’s been more efficient than ever, and part of that is due to both the rate at which he hits threes at the volume at which he shoots them. But he still launches a lot of long twos—many of them off the dribble—which is the least efficient shot in basketball. Bradley is good enough at them to justify taking them at a higher rate than most, but unless a guy is Durant- or Leonard-level good from midrange, it’s a shot that probably should be a prominent part of a player’s arsenal.

While Bradley generally shoots the ball well, the rest of his game isn’t quite as efficient. His assist to turnover ratio is unexceptional, and he doesn’t get to the free throw line at a high rate. These are factors taken into account when measuring some of the advanced numbers.

We still don’t have a great way to statistically measure defense, which could be a contributing factor to the unremarkable nature of Bradley’s advanced numbers. Defensive stats like defensive rating, defensive win shares, and defensive box/plus minus are all estimations that don’t completely capture a player’s full value on that side of the ball. (This is a major reason why Kawhi Leonard’s MVP case doesn’t look as strong, statistically, as those of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, or LeBron James.) The only way to fully understand and appreciate a great defender’s impact is to see it in games.

Another reason could be something completely out of Bradley’s control: his height. Bradley is miscast as a two guard on this Celtics team. That’s no knock on Brad Stevens, or Danny Ainge, who put the roster together, but rather a side effect of how the roster came together. Bradley’s natural position, at least defensively, is point guard. But with diminutive bucket-getter Isaiah Thomas at the point, Bradley is forced to slide to the two, where he takes on much bigger opponents. There’s only so much tenacity and quick feet can do when you’re giving up five inches to your opponent:

Opponents shoot 46.8 percent with Bradley defending them, one of the highest marks among guards that have played at least 41 games. The degree to which a contesting defender can really alter a shot is unknown, but it certainly doesn’t help that Bradley almost always gives up multiple inches to his man.

Another downside of playing next to Thomas: covering for IT’s defensive shortcomings. A screw-up by Thomas at the start of a possession can throw the entire defense out of whack, causing it to become more vulnerable as everyone else adjust. Bradley has generally been better when he plays without Thomas, and many of his worst three-, four-, and five-man combinations—by net rating—include Thomas.

Boston will be at a crossroads this summer: they’ll have to commit to their current core, probably not good enough to win a championship, cash in some of their valuable assets for another star, or look toward the future.

This makes Bradley’s future in Boston ultra compelling. Between Bradley, Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier, the Celtics are full of solid guards—all on great contracts—and assuming they don’t trade their upcoming draft pick, they’ll likely add at least one more this summer. Brad Stevens already runs a guard-heavy rotation, and it’s hard to see him consistently handing out meaningful minutes to four or five backcourt guys next season.

Bradley, Thomas, and Smart will be eligible for extensions next season, which would give them all major bumps in their salaries. Boston won’t be able to extend all three and still open up room to sign a free agent. The team could wait until all three hit free agency after the 2018 season to help create room for a max player this offseason, but that becomes a risky game once players hit unrestricted free agency.

The Celtics could use one or more of those guys as trade bait, and both Bradley and the Celtics could benefit from a trade. Bradley will likely never be the starting point guard for Boston—not with Thomas (a bona fide offensive superstar), Smart (still just 22 years old), or either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball (potential franchise cornerstones) on the team—and the Celtics would get a major haul in return if they dealt Bradley at this point in his career.

Virtually any team in the league would benefit from having a guy like Bradley starting at point guard, and Bradley would benefit from playing there. Sharing the backcourt with an average or plus defensive guard and covering point guards full-time would make Bradley into a much more effective player. He doesn’t have quite the ball handling or playmaking chops to run an offense as a pure point guard, and he may never get there (although he’s only 26 years old and still rapidly improving), but he’s a good enough shooter to play off the ball and serve as a secondary creator. That, in theory, would make him a great fit on a team like San Antonio, Milwaukee, Denver, or Philadelphia, where wings and bigs do the bulk of the playmaking.

Of course, Bradley can still be very effective where he is. Boston still has another gear and unrealized defensive potential it can reach in the playoffs. The Celtics are tied with the Cavaliers in the win column and may well clinch the top seed in the East. They are as real a threat as there is to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference, and Bradley is integral to the team’s success.

The analytics has undoubtedly been a positive advancement for basketball. But in this case, you can throw out the advanced metrics. The only way to fully appreciate Avery Bradley is to watch him with your own eyes.

Stats current as of March 27, 2017.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com & Basketball-Reference.

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