For Celtics to Improve, Bradley Must Bear Down on D

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The NBA season is barely a month old but the Celtics already find themselves swimming upstream in the seas of relevance. After a very promising win on opening night and a 3-3 mark through six games, the C’s have dropped five of their last six with two heavyweights — the Chicago Bulls and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs — on the docket this weekend. It’s pretty easy to imagine 4-8 turning into 4-10 pretty quickly.

The losing coincided directly with rookie Marcus Smart’s ankle injury. Smart went down in a heap during a home win over Indiana on Nov. 7, and hasn’t played since. Meanwhile, the Celtics are lost on defense, having allowed 109, 122, 118 and 117 points in four of their last five losses (with a win over the hopeless 76ers mixed in) before cleaning things up on that end a bit in last Sunday’s loss to Portland in which they gave up 94.

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With Smart out of commission, the burden of guarding the opponent’s best, toughest guards and perimeter threats fell on the shoulders of Avery Bradley, he of the new, $32 million contract. Seems like no big deal right? After all, Bradley’s been pumped up around these parts as an elite, lockdown perimeter defender, as tenacious as it gets.

It would be huge for the Celtics and nice for the fans if this were indeed true. But outside of a few out of this world plays like the one above and some flashes of brilliance over the past couple of years, Bradley is merely a fine defensive player, decent and nothing more. And this season, as the Celts have sunk to the bottom three in the league in both scoring defense (better than only the Timberwolves and Lakers at 107.2 points allowed per game) and defensive field goal percentage (.476, again better than only the Wolves and Lakers), he’s been a lot worse than that.

Look no further than the advanced stats if you want some proof before the next chance you have to see him get lit up by the likes of Chicago’s Aaron Brooks or the Pacers’ Donald Sloan.

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The key numbers here are Bradley’s defensive box plus/minus (an estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player translated to an average team), his defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed over 100 possessions) and his defensive win shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense). A bit confusing, I know, but beyond the eye test, which has been lousy for Bradley through the season’s first 12 games, these numbers paint a clear picture of how much he’s struggled in the area that’s supposed to be and is perceived as his strong suit.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Bradley’s defensive box plus/minus is -2.6. Very not good. 0.0 is average. -2.0 is replacement level. That means that Bradley, based only on what can be derived from his box scores 100 possessions at a time, is a lesser player than any old scrub who could be brought in off the street to play instead of him. As a point of comparison, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, both of whom see time at the same position as Bradley for the Spurs, each check in with a 3.5.

His defensive rating is 113, again very not good. The only Celtic worse in this regard is Dwight Powell, who has played three minutes all season. Houston’s James Harden, not exactly the portrait of efficiency and effort on defense in previous years, has improved to the point that he’s posting a better than solid 96.5 defensive rating this season. Only demon defenders like Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and again Leonard (as well as a handful of others) are better in this category. Think about that for a second. Bradley checks in with a defensive rating more than 16 points worse than James Harden.

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Finally, his defensive win shares, clocking in at 0.0. This number derives directly from a player’s defensive rating and one win share is usually equivalent to one actual win. Once again, no good for Bradley. The league leaders in defensive win shares are all at 1.0 or better, with Portland’s Damian Lillard, a comparable player to Bradley in terms of who he matches up against on D, at 0.9 and 19th in the league.

If all of this isn’t enough evidence that Bradley is not living up to his rep as a stopper on D, just watch the games. Whether it’s stars like Harden, Dallas’s Monta Ellis or Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, who destroyed him down the stretch in a crushing loss a few weeks ago, or no-names like Brooks, Sloan and Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and Anthony Morrow, Bradley simply isn’t slowing anyone down this season.

Why this is not more apparent and subsequently pointed out on a more frequent basis when discussing the Celtics’ difficulties makes little sense. Even the most well thought out, well-researched pieces examining Bradley’s season to this point seem to willfully ignore his shortcomings on the defensive end.

Avery Bradley is a nice player. He is not the only reason, or even necessarily the biggest reason, why the Celtics are not a very good team. On a contender, he’s the perfect bench guy, someone who can bring great energy, reasonable perimeter shooting and yes, even some defense, in short, well-timed spurts.

But on the Celtics, as the starting 2-guard making $8 million per year, he’s miscast. When Smart comes back from his injury, the Celtics may be best served giving him some of Bradley’s minutes in their three-guard rotation as opposed to Rajon Rondo’s.

It would make them better on defense, you can pretty much count on that.

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