The mid-1990s, the Pacific Northwest, and a sinewy trash-talker with swift hands, feet, and a sixth sense of how to pry a ball loose from its owner.
A tale of two dominant defensive guards begins, and with Gary Payton.
The Seattle Supersonics star was then a one-man wrecking crew who made opposing point guards wish for in-game restraining orders. Such a force was Payton that the NBA named him its Defensive Player of the Year in 1996.
But in that same decade, the NBA began shifting, outlawing the physical tactics Payton and others used, setting the stage for the explosion of high-scoring point guards, while forcing defensive-minded players to be less aggressive.
And since Payton, no guard has won Defensive Player of the Year.
Payton didn’t know it, but in that same decade, not far away, another guard was building a stout defensive reputation at a community center in Lakewood, Wash.
The guard was told to ease up so that others could dribble.
But he didn’t. He guarded his adversaries so fiercely that some cried.
He was 5 years old.
His name was Avery Bradley.
Nowhere to go
Let it keep, that image of a kindergartner’s defense bringing opponents to tears.
Now look at Bradley, a 22-year-old guard for the Celtics, who will face the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs beginning Saturday.
Bradley finished this, his third season, allowing 331 points on 475 plays. Of players with at least 450 defensive plays under their belt this season, Bradley’s average (0.679) is far and away the best. The next closest is Chicago’s Taj Gibson (0.744).
And of players with at least 450 defensive plays, Bradley also ranks No. 1 in opponent field goal percentage (30.8 percent), ahead of Memphis’s Tony Allen (33.4).
“If you look at our numbers,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers says, “there’s no player that has changed our defense more than Avery changed ours after Game 30.”
While Bradley was out to rehab from dual shoulder surgery, the Celtics were allowing 0.925 points per play, which would rank as the NBA’s 14th best defense if you extrapolate that number over the whole season. But since Bradley returned, the Celtics gave up 0.894 points per play, which would rank fourth.
And in the playoffs, where possessions are amplified and precious, Bradley is a rare weapon suited for such a setting: a feisty, tireless guard who bodies up to his adversary for the full 94 feet from tipoff to its final buzzer.
“Nobody does 94 feet,” says Washington’s John Wall, who also faced Bradley back when they played in AAU, “and he does 94 feet the whole game.”
It would be easy to tie the narratives of Payton and Bradley together here, to say that the former influenced the latter, that Bradley is just following Payton’s path.
It would be especially easy to say that because Celtics guard Jason Terry, a Seattle native who is close friends with Payton, says he believes that Bradley, a Tacoma, Wash., native, is the closest thing to Gary Payton since Gary Payton.
(Payton considers this, then adds that if Terry, a close and longtime friend thinks that, then, well, there must be something to it. “And that’s a great thing,” he adds.)
But the two play different styles in different eras, and, even then, Bradley didn’t study Payton nor was Payton his favorite player. That title fell to another member of the mid-’90s Supersonics, a 6-foot-9-inch German forward named Detlef Schrempf.
If it’s surprising that Schrempf was Bradley’s favorite player, consider that Schrempf himself laughed at the idea when Bradley told him so years later.
But as Payton did, Bradley does have designs on one day winning the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Payton doesn’t believe a guard can win it again because of how the game has changed. And Rivers won’t argue that the league is different.
“It used to be a move-your-feet-and-use-your-hands league,” the coach says. “Now, it’s a move-your-feet-and-get-your-body-in-front-of-the-ball.”
Says Bradley, “People would really hate playing against me if I could touch them.”
But Rivers believes Bradley can win Defensive Player of the Year one day, in part because he’s the prototype.
“He’s what everyone is going to have to be,” Rivers says.
Bradley has heard this before. A basketball magazine once referred to him as a “drone,” meaning that he was the first of his kind, a defender best suited for this era.
But Bradley says he’s always played this way and calls it his God-given talent.
Those who know him best swear it’s true: He’s a natural.
“All us coaches, we like to take credit for everything, but we didn’t teach Avery Bradley how to play defense,” says Garry Ward, Bradley’s AAU coach in Washington.Continued...