Seemingly buried underneath the piles of Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett decisions is a question that will only become more important as time wears on.
Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are a pair of exciting players filling the Celtics backcourt. But is that a long-term answer for the green?
Doc Rivers could return, bringing a healthy Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with him. Still, the weighty question is whether Rondo and Bradley can be good enough. There simply isn't enough precedent yet.
The duo played only 11 games together this past season, with Rondo going down shortly after Bradley returned from his own injury. For what it is worth, the Celtics were 5-6 in those games. Prior to his return in January, Bradley had started just 28 NBA games.
The ideal starting lineup next year for Boston includes Rondo and Bradley in the backcourt, but what do we really know about that tandem?
Their individual play has granted a fair idea of what they can offer while paired, but the results are mixed.
Bradley proved without a doubt that he is not a starting-caliber point guard. When Rondo went down, the entire offense had to be shifted, and they started racking up turnovers at a high rate. Their inability to take care of the basketball wound up being their demise in the postseason.
Obviously, with Rondo on the floor, Bradley's ball-handling responsibilities are greatly hedged. Rondo is one of the league's premier ball-handlers and runs the Celtics offense better than anyone. Recently, however, a deficiency has been detected in his defense.
Rondo has long been a gambler at that end but has a couple all-defensive-team plaques to his name, too. In the 38 games of 2012-13 he played, there was a noticeable trend of him being burned. Part of that being recognized was the lack of Bradley alongside him. Defense being Bradley's calling card, he allows Rondo the leeway to roam defensively and jump passing lanes for steals.
Since Rondo played most of his games before the injury with lesser defenders like Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, his mistakes were more noticeable at that end. Bradley's on-ball presence meshes well with Rondo's style.
Where things start to break apart is in their general offensive chemistry. Yes, both are great athletes and speedy on fast breaks, but neither is a particularly great finisher. Rondo can get too creative at times, and neither player stands above 6'2".
Bradley has shown flashes of a reliable corner three, but flashes aren't good enough for a long-term solution. The duo combined to attempt 3.4 free throws per game last season. If they were such a talented fast-break tandem, that number would be higher.
Injuries have withheld from the Celtics valuable information on how these two can really co-exist. The biggest thing known right now is that both appear fairly fragile. In the past year, both have suffered serious injuries, requiring long periods of recovery. Over the past two seasons, the two have combined to miss 91 regular season games.
Boston fans become enamored with the defensive effort Bradley brings every night. It is an easy thing to admire and respect. When his streaky shooting is on as well, he has the potential to be very good.
A similar thing happens between fans and Rondo's passing ability. That can sometimes be on a whole other level than anything else you'll see in basketball. When Rondo is right, it can be downright beautiful to watch. The penetration and kicking, creative use of lanes on fast breaks and even dazzling assists in the half court make him one of the best in the league.
The Rondo-to-Bradley assists are particularly fun to watch because they scream of future potential. Unfortunately, those assists are few and far between. Among main playoff-bound backcourts this past season, Rondo and Bradley tied for last in scoring with 22.9 points per game.
That number was even with the Chicago Bulls’ pair of Nate Robinson and Richard Hamilton. The rest of the playoff teams in the league averaged 31.1 points coming from their two main guards.
Something that makes this an even more alarming statistic: Both Rondo and Bradley scored at career-highs in 2012-13. Neither player has great range, and neither is a lights-out free-throw shooter either.
Rondo hit just 24 percent of his threes and 64.5 percent of his freebies. Bradley hit on 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. At 75.5 percent from the line, he appears solid, but the one attempt per game is such a minuscule sample size. Especially when he was just 54.5 percent in college.
As the Celtics move forward, they won’t have the luxury of 17-21 points a night from Paul Pierce or a regular 15 per game from Kevin Garnett. Coming from an already-weak offense, the team will need scoring badly. At this point the duo of Rondo and Bradley have not proven they can shoulder that load.
Rondo averaged 17.3 points per game in his last playoff appearance and has topped 15 in two other postseason runs. He can score at a better clip than he has in the regular season, but that is all about inconsistency. He needs to score at a higher rate more often.
The two are a lot of fun to watch and will continue to sell tickets for the Celtics. Their unique individual styles are enough to keep the team competitive for years. Bradley is just approaching his 23rd birthday, and Rondo is still just 27 years old.
Among those same playoff backcourts, the $12.6 million they made combined this past season is on the low end. The best part about them could be that they are locked into contracts amounting in the low teens for the next few seasons. Teams like the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls are set to see those numbers skyrocket in 2013-14.
This coming season will be incredibly important for Boston’s backcourt. If Rondo and Bradley are to be together for good, they must prove a better ability to create offense for the team, while continuing to mesh well defensively.
Right now, Rondo and Bradley are a solid answer in the starting backcourt, but they are still far from championship caliber. That is the standard by which they must always be judged.
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