Avery Bradley is a top-flight on-ball defender. But it’s hard to reconcile that with his stats, particularly his Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
Bradley’s on-ball defense is the stuff of legend. For example, the way he locked down Kyrie Irving this year in a prime-time game was an extraordinary, breathtaking example of a great on-ball defender stopping one of the elite dribblers in the history of the game.
I mean, if you want to stimulate your eyeballs, just watch this:
How can you not recognize that as beautiful defense?
And yet, if you look at Bradley’s DRPM at ESPN, he ranks just 56th out of 95 shooting guards at minus-1.04.
So, are our eyes right in seeing him stop one of the most electric ballhandlers in the history of the world, or are the stats right in saying Bradley is a bit of a “meh” defender?
Why not both?
Let’s peel back a few things to see why his DRPM is so much lower than expected. First, let’s consider his Synergy stats. Like DRPM, we have to be careful so as to not overstate their value, but they do offer some insight. Here is his “value added” based on the Synergy plays from NBAMath.com:
He was surprisingly weak against isolation, but looking into those numbers, it’s evident why. He only defended 56 isolation plays all season, and 28 of those were run by Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kyle Lowry or Paul George. So an extremely small sample size offset by guarding the league’s elite makes that look a lot worse than it is.
Other than that what we notice is that opponents were able to exploit his size. He’s not a very big shooting guard–6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 depending on which site you believe. He gave up 1.006 points per possession on spot-ups, which is about average. But the problem is that also was a quarter of his defensive possessions and is a more efficient play.
Exacerbating that is, looking at the film, he’s closing out hard on a lot of those because he was either covering for Thomas who had beaten off the dribble and was getting back to his man, or else someone else was covering for Thomas getting beaten off the dribble and Bradley was closing hard to contest the shot from his man. This correlates with Bradley covering 1.15 miles per game on the defensive end, according to NBA.com.
Then there’s another layer of problems on top of that. The Celtics played a lot of minutes with Marcus Smart at the 3, Bradley at the 2 and Thomas at the 1, making the Celtics undersized at three different positions. When they ran that trio of players together, the Celtics had a 112.5 defensive rating, which is well below their overall defensive rating of 105.5. What’s significant is that for Bradley, that grouping consisted of 23 percent of his total minutes, while it only accounted for 17 percent of Smart’s minutes. Therefore, it impacted Bradley — who was traded this offseason to the Pistons — more heavily.
So opponents were able to exploit the Celtics lack of height, but the biggest victim of that was Bradley, who ran around the court the most to no avail.
All of that said, it’s worth keeping in mind that opponents were exploiting a weakness. Bradley just isn’t a great off-ball defender. His lack of length is a liability. Sure, he can stop penetration, but stopping penetration isn’t all there is to defense.
Just as we can hyperfocus on Kyrie’s dribbling as an asset to an offense, we can give too much regard to Bradley’s ability to stop that dribble as an asset to a defense.
So the truth is, Bradley is a really good ball stopper. But he’s also not a great overall defender because he’s not able to defend jump shots that well. He’s not “bad” mind you; he’s just average.
The truth here, if you peel back the numbers, is that maybe DRPM is just doing its job.
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