In spite of their recent four-game winning streak, the Boston Celtics are still a team focused on the future. With a brutal schedule filled with back-to-backs, it's highly encouraging the Celtics have established a hard-working team culture.
But even with the nice start, wins and losses are still secondary to unearthing which players will be long-term components of the Celtics' next championship contender. One player squarely on the fence in that regard is fourth-year guard Avery Bradley. The Celtics were unable to reach an extension with him before the season, meaning he will be set for restricted free agency following this year. Thus, while Bradley is not yet at a crossroads, Boston will need to make a decision on his future soon.
Bradley's importance is heightened by the Celtics' lack of surefire future backcourt options. Courtney Lee and MarShon Brooks probably aren't long for Boston, and Phil Pressey and Jordan Crawford top out as nice bench ball-handlers. The elephant in the room is Rajon Rondo, but his questionable future surrounds the timing of the team's rebuild rather than his actual skill. As currently constructed, Bradley is the sole guard on the Celtics roster who still has room to grow into a legitimate starting-caliber player on a championship contender, making his progression more important than that of arguably any other player on Boston's roster.
Boston has grown to love Bradley for his relentless on-ball defense, but it's always been his offense that's held him back. Here's a look at how Bradley has progressed in four offensive areas, as well as how they affect his future in green.
The mid-range jumper is an inherently inefficient shot, one that most NBA teams try to de-emphasize. And yet, Bradley has largely made his living off pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-rolls this season. A quick look at his shot chart illustrates that Bradley has taken a lot more 15- to 20-foot jumpers than threes and has been particularly strong from the left side:
Indeed, roughly a quarter of Bradley's shots this year have been pull-up jumpers, a distinct change from his off-ball cutting and catch-and-shoot repertoire we've seen in seasons past. The change is likely a direct result of his increased ball-handling duties (more on that later).
Consequently, we're seeing a development eerily similar to Rondo's shot chart from last year. Like they did with Rondo, opposing defenses are going under pick-and-rolls against Bradley, opening up looks like these:
Obviously these shots aren't the ideal result of an offensive sequence, even if Bradley is currently hitting pull-ups at a robust 40.7 percent. But in both plays above you can see how the defense packed the paint, essentially daring Bradley to take the open shot.
And yet, Bradley has shown glimpses in another phase of his offense that could create significantly more efficient looks.
Near the Basket
Look back up at that shot chart. Apart from the mid-range, Bradley's best area is near the basket. Last season, 33.4 percent of Bradley's scoring came in the paint, and he shot just 48.3 percent in the restricted area, fourth-worst among guards with at least 125 shots in the zone. This year, 40.7 percent of his points have come in the paint, and he's shooting an above-average 53.1 percent in the restricted area.
Indeed, Bradley's had a little more success as a slasher this year, though that's not yet the strength of his offensive game. Still, he's showing an increased aptitude for finishing around the rim. Even with the significantly increased volume of shots near the rim, Bradley is getting his shots blocked at roughly the same rate as last year, just under once per game. On this play, he's able to get a nice floater off just past Chris Bosh's outstretched fingertips:
The next step is creating shots for others off drives into the paint. In Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, the Celtics have a variety of big men who are threats from mid-range. Bradley's ability to make reads that lead to high-percentage looks are nearly as important as his actual improved finishing ability.
Bradley's not a great passer, as evidenced by his paltry 2.1 assists per game. And yet, when opposing big men collapse the paint to impede his drives, it often leads to easy passes to one of the Celtics' aforementioned shooters:
Having some sort of reliable offensive game from either three-point range or near the basket is almost a must, both for his own personal efficacy and the team's offensive structure. Bradley may be slumping in the former, but the signs are much more encouraging in the latter.
There's really no need for visual demonstration here, as most Celtics fans are familiar with the painful feeling of watching Bradley attempt to initiate the offense. Brad Stevens has wisely given Jordan Crawford the point guard duties in the starting lineup, as it's clear that Bradley is not suited for that role.
An uptick in turnovers has predictably occurred with increased duties, as Bradley's 4.1 turnovers per 48 minutes is well above his 2.4 mark from last season. At the same time, however, his 23.8 percent usage rate is a career high, so it's not as if the spike is totally out of proportion. Turnovers are an inevitable consequence of more touches, and Bradley's progression in that area isn't out of whack at all:
|Bradley's Turnover Rate vs. Usage|
|Year||TO/36 min||Usage %|
At the same time, though, it's a bit of a downer that Bradley is unable to provide versatility at the point. Even when Rondo comes back, Phil Pressey is the only true point guard behind Boston's All-Star. And though Crawford has been a pleasant surprise in that regard, his turnover rate is well below his career averages and seems likely to spike back to the norm later in the season.
Still, the Celtics can at least survive, especially if they decide Rondo is part of their long-term future. Even if Rondo gets traded, the draft is teeming with tantalizing point guards like Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and Andrew Harrison.
The next component, however, is one that could significantly elevate Bradley's game if he can rediscover it at some point this season.
Earlier, I noted that Bradley needs to demonstrate some reliability from either around the hoop or beyond the arc. But while his improvement in the paint is a pleasant development, the sustained disappearance of Bradley's three-point shot is equally disheartening.
Indeed, Bradley is only attempting two threes per game and shooting them at a ghastly 22.2 percent clip. It almost seems as if there's some carryover from the first-round series against the Knicks last season, when Bradley was 2-of-8 from deep and shot only 40.5 percent from the field.
Remember all the volume from mid-range? At this point, it almost seems like an unconscious decision by Bradley to pass up the three for a more comfortable shot. Here, he has a wide-open three after his man goes way under the screen but takes an extra step in for the mid-range shot instead:
It seems like eons ago, but just two years ago, Bradley was a menace from the right corner. That wasn't completely unexpected as his Draft Express profile from 2010 includes the phrase "prolific shooter," a description that would elicit more than a few eyebrow raises today.
Overall, the minuses in Bradley's game have effectively cancelled out his exemplary defensive work. The Celtics' defensive rating with Bradley on the court is a stingy 98.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked third in the league last year. Unfortunately, their 97.1 offensive rating is even worse, one that would have been dead last in 2012.
We know the shooter is trapped in there somewhere—it's been displayed before. Whether or not this trend is simply a prolonged slump or a more permanent change will be a huge factor in Bradley's offensive potential going forward.
Any discussion of Avery Bradley's value starts and ends with his defense. At worst, he appears destined to become Tony Allen 2.0, a suffocating perimeter defender who holds tremendous one-way value.
But it's incredibly difficult to play 4-on-5 on offense, provided you don't have an all-time talent like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Indeed, in Allen's case specifically, the Grizzlies have been hesitant to rely on their shutdown defender because of his crippling offensive limitations, something that can be a death knell when defenses tighten up in the playoffs.
Bradley seems unlikely to become as hopeless as Allen on offense, and it's not out of the question for him to be at least neutral or even a minor plus on that end of the court. Celtics fans have envisioned a 3-and-D Bruce Bowen-type of future for Bradley. Considering that Bowen was a critical starting cog on three San Antonio championship teams, Boston would gladly accept that.
Bradley does not necessarily need to be that kind of a specialist, but he must demonstrate some more consistency and tangible development. It's asking far too much for him to become a plus in everything discussed here, but even some small steps forward would be encouraging.
Though he will never be the leading star on billboards or magazine covers, Bradley is one of the few players who could realistically become a significant piece on the next Celtics contender. For him to fulfill that potential, continued offensive progression to complement his brilliant defense is a must.
*All stats courtesy NBA.com.