Commentary

Avery Bradley can't do it alone

Guard's return will boost Celtics' sagging defense, but others must improve

Updated: January 2, 2013, 12:09 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers seems to wince a bit each time the words "savior" and "expectations" are uttered in conjunction with the impending return of third-year guard Avery Bradley.

Shelved for the past seven months after undergoing surgery on both shoulders, Bradley is expected to make his 2012-13 season debut on Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. Try as they might, neither Rivers, Bradley nor his teammates have been able to extinguish the idea that Bradley is some sort of white knight riding into town intent on freeing Boston's defense from the shackles that have held it down through 30 games.

As Rivers cautioned before Bradley's final-hurdle practice session on Tuesday, "Avery's probably top five in the league in on-ball defense as far as pressure and not getting beat. The problem is there are four other guys on the floor at the same time."

[+] EnlargeBradley/Rondo
Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesHaving Avery Bradley (left) on the floor will help Rajon Rondo play to his strengths on defense.

But even Rivers admitted that Bradley's mere presence should have a trickle-down effect on Boston's defense. "If you can stop one of the guards from dribble penetrating, it has to help," he said.

For his part, Bradley seems unfazed by expectations, suggesting he can do no more than go out there and play hard. Ultimately, that might be all the Celtics need to get a much-needed jolt. Bradley's tenacity on the ball could be enough to (finally) light a wet fuse.

"Hopefully we'll all try to step up our level of play on defense when he comes on the court," backcourt partner Rajon Rondo said. "Just the intensity he plays with, hopefully it's contagious and we all do the same."

As it stands, Boston's defense is in shambles. A perennial top-five unit since Kevin Garnett's arrival in 2007, the Celtics currently rank 18th in the league by allowing 0.925 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. A year ago, with help from Bradley's late-season infusion, the Celtics were second in the league at 0.856 points per play.

Can they get back to that sort of defensive domination with Bradley jumping on board this wayward ship? That might be expecting too much, but he's going to help. Here are a few ways Bradley's return should help Boston's defense:

BALL PRESSURE: Bradley's presence immediately shores up the weakest spot of Boston's first-unit defense. Jason Terry has admirably held the fort, but his defensive numbers have been paralyzing (0.976 points per play, 17th percentile). Last season, Bradley allowed a mere 0.742 points per play and ranked in the 89th percentile, according to Synergy data. In fact, of all players with at least 300 defensive plays, Bradley ranked 13th in the league in points per play.

For the first time this season, the Celtics will truly be able to press opponents, picking them up full court after made baskets. This will allow the rest of Boston's defense to get back and set -- a boost in itself considering Boston ranks ninth in the league in halfcourt defense -- but it also will force opponents to run their offense later in the shot clock, which will diminish the ability to generate open looks through prolonged ball movement.

FREE RONDO: Rondo might be an All-NBA defender, but it's no secret that he struggles in one-on-one situations. With Bradley checking the opponent's top ball-handler, Rondo will have more freedom to do what he does best -- gamble and be a general pest in help situations.

What's more, Bradley will give Boston's pick-and-roll defense a boost, something that even Rondo wasn't bashful to admit.

"I'm going to be allowed to play off the ball a lot more with Avery," Rondo said. "He's a better pick-and-roll defender than me, so that takes a lot of pressure off of me, getting so many pick-and-rolls and coming down the court and creating plays as well.

"He knows his role. He plays with a lot of energy. A lot of guys don't like to face a guy like Avery, and I think he's the best defender in the league, hands down, at the guard position."

Last season, Bradley ranked in the 82nd percentile while allowing pick-and-roll ball-handlers a mere 0.645 points per play (those opponents shot 31.3 percent in those situations and turned the ball over 16.7 percent of the time).

Bradley has a natural talent for fighting over the top of screens and that will limit the amount of times that Boston's bigs will have to help (preventing cracks from forming around the basket).

NUMBERS DON'T LIE: Here's the bottom line and maybe the biggest reason for the "savior" label. The Celtics were insanely better at both ends of the floor with Bradley last season. One of the underestimated benefits of his return -- particularly if he can rebuild confidence in his perimeter stroke -- is that Bradley quietly was one of Boston's most efficient scorers by season's end, thriving off cuts and open spot-up opportunities.

It all goes back to the base of the Celtics' foundation: Sustained defense leads to improved offense. Bradley has the ability to help his team generate the multiple stops that Rivers so desperately craves because that facilitates offense going the other way.

According to last year's playoff data logged by Basketball Reference, the Celtics had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 105.9 with Bradley on the floor; that number dropped to 98.8 with him on the bench. Likewise, Boston's defensive rating with Bradley was 90.2 during the postseason; and that number jumped to 103.1 without him. Add it all up and Boston was 20.1 points better per 100 possessions with Bradley on the court in the postseason. Twenty-point-one! That's a staggering, KG-like number.

Now some minor caution flags.

It's unfair to expect Bradley, limited to about 3½ full-team practices since being cleared for contact, to hit the floor running on Wednesday. It might take some time to find his game legs, and Rivers might have to manage Bradley's minutes a bit while stretching out his lungs.

And Bradley can't do this alone. The Celtics have regressed as a team defensively, and -- as Rivers bluntly pointed out -- Bradley can't be totally effective unless the other four players on the floor pull their weight.

But Bradley provides hope, something Boston hasn't had a lot of this season. Having him back in the lineup also firms up the rotation, allowing Rivers to finally move Terry and Courtney Lee into preferred reserve roles. Even as Rondo battles a hip ailment and Chris Wilcox works his way back from a thumb injury, the Celtics soon could be whole for the first time this season.

Individually, Bradley can't be a savior, but he's been a big part missing in this puzzle. He just might be the thing to help get things turned around for the Celtics.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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