If anything, the third-year guard's non-stop, full-court dogged tenacity has to a large degree exposed Rondo as someone whose recent defensive accolades are the result of reputation, flash, and the occasional paid-off gamble rather than someone who is wholly committed to shutting down the man in front of him.
When healthy, Rondo should be an excellent defender. The tools are there. Bradley has the tools and the will, evident on virtually every play, almost as if something important to him depends on it.
I bring this up today in part because of my colleague Baxter Holmes's superb piece on how Bradley's defensive fortitude has helped him win respect and a leadership role among the Celtics. I thought Kevin Garnett – a 12-time All-Defensive selection who knows a little about the subject – was particularly candid and insightful regarding Bradley, and the feature melded anecdotal evidence and advanced metrics precisely the way sportswriters should in these changing days.
The Synergy Sports Data stat Baxter cites that tells us Bradley is second in allowing 0.678 points per play among guards involved in 200 or more defensive plays is the perfect confirmation of what your eyes tell you when you watch Bradley: The opposing player who has the unfortunate task of matching up with him is going to be elbowed, shadowed, nudged, pursued, and thrown off his game.
I saw this first-hand Friday night when I attended the Celtics-Warriors game with some old friends. The buzz surrounding Golden State guard Stephen Curry that night was palpable, with the sharpshooter coming off an instant-classic 54-point performance at Madison Square Garden that was one of the most spectacular displays of outside shooting you will ever see. But there was an added layer of anticipation to Curry's attempt at a sequel at our Garden: He'd have to deal with Bradley.
Curry took 22 shots. He made six. He finished with 25 points thanks to some generous whistles by the men in stripes, and it was the quietest 25 points you could imagine. At an NBA game, certain things are more evident from the seats, above the court, than they are from the couch.
You gain an appreciation for the geezer geometry of Paul Pierce's game. You watch a play develop and realize Rondo sees everything, not just what's happening but what will happen if he makes this pass or that crossover or hesitates on the dribble just so. You realize there's a whole lot of herky-jerky to Jordan Crawford (hopefully more herky than jerky), that KG is so subtly physical that he must have to encase himself in ice after the game, and man, do you ever realize that Avery Bradley never, ever relents, not for a second, not for an inch, not until that buzzer sounds.
I know, weird question, but can you imagine playing pickup ball against someone like that? His defensive abilities, especially his ability to retreat while staying right in the ballhandler's face, are almost unfathomable to comprehend. His defensive skills were acknowledged by draft experts coming out of college – though I do chuckle at NBADraft.net's Monta Ellis comp – and even though he struggled with an ankle injury during his one year at Texas, I still find it hard to believe that a player capable of wreaking such havoc on the defensive end lasted until the 19th pick. Score a steal for Danny Ainge.
Bradley was taken a pick after the Clippers chose Eric Bledsoe, one of the few guards in the league who play with a similar defensive relentlessness. He would be on the short list of contemporaries who might equal Bradley's defensive prowess. Chris Paul is another, but as I said, it's a short list. Very short.
Which is why the headline isn't so much intended presently, but historically. I'm not about to offer an absolute proclamation on a 22-year-old with 122 regular-season games to his credit, but in the context of ever, let's just say the list of guards in league history whom I'd choose over Bradley for that one stop you just have to have is also very short.
Gary Payton, who made first-team All-NBA for nine straight years, might be the consensus choice as the best defensive guard in league history. Celtics old-timers might suggest K.C. Jones or Dennis Johnson (a six-time first-team selection who was a freakish athlete in his SuperSonics youth -- he blocked 97 shots in 1978-79, more than Garnett has had in any season as a Celtic.)
Michael Jordan was relentless, and Joe Dumars was relentless on Michael Jordan. Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan, the '70s Bulls backcourt, would rough you up without apology. Walt Frazier shut you down in style. Michael Cooper had at least four arms and Larry Bird's permanent respect.
Oh, and Kirk Hinrich was second-team All-Defense in 2006-07. Just so you know.
I worry about Bradley's durability -- those surgically repaired shoulders are constantly tested by screens and picks and other unclassified see-no-evil physical play. But if he holds up, he will be regarded as one of the finest defensive guards ever to play. He just needs a little more longevity and a few more highlights like these:
I've never seen anything like him. I don't think Steph Curry has, either.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.