Photo via Flickr user Keith Allison.
Photo via Flickr user Keith Allison.
Since he was drafted two years ago, the Celtics have been trying to figure out what to do with Avery Bradley. His size—he's listed at 6-foot-2—suggested he was too small to be a shooting guard and thus destined to life as a point guard. Which would be fine, except that Bradley has a shaky handle and doesn't have the requisite court awareness that the position demands. For all Bradley's promise as a player, this was not a promising situation.
This is how parts of the NBA work, where positions and roles are determined by height instead of skill. Players can and do get lost because of this sort of thing, trapped by hidebound traditionalists either too intimidated or lacking the security to embrace experimentation. Luckily for Bradley, the Celtics are a more progressive organization than people realize. Because they have been blessed recently with players who fit the archetype at their positions– Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo – the Celtics have rarely had to attempt the unconventional. (Their well-worn rep as an old-man team with an old-school coach certainly plays into this, as well.)
Their front office, however, is an interesting mix of old-school scouting and fresh ideas with Danny Ainge providing an understatedly maverick sensibility. Considering their status as an aging contender, it was something of a surprise when Ainge selected Bradley in the latter part of the first round and promptly suggested he didn’t know what position the raw 20-year-old would play. The popular line was that Bradley could become a mini-version of Tony Allen: an unholy terror on defense, but with a softer edge, and fewer turnovers.
It was an intriguing thought, but that still left the issue of where to play him. They tried him at point guard out of injury desperation as a rookie and he was often lost and appeared overwhelmed by such rudimentary tasks as bringing the ball over halfcourt. In fairness, Bradley never really had a chance. An ankle injury wiped out his summer and most of his first training camp. As he entered Year Two, the Celtics were still at a loss where Bradley was concerned. Early on, they tried to make him a two-guard with veteran Keyon Dooling serving as the nominal point in backup rotations. The pairing didn’t work. Dooling struggled and Bradley found himself back at square one—as the backup point guard by default.
That’s when Rondo hurt his wrist and Bradley began to get more playing time. On offense his job was simple: bring the ball up and hand it off to Pierce who then played two-on-two with jumpshooting big men Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett. Bradley did that well enough, that is to say without catastrophic consequences, but it was on defense where he really emerged, and began to define a new and novel role for himself. In one memorable game, he took former All-Star Jameer Nelson apart to the point where Nelson no longer wanted the ball. (It’s not for nothing that Linsanity didn’t begin until a day after Bradley hounded him out of a game.)
Thus was born Bradley’s rep as the best full-court on-the-ball defensive guard in the game, according to his notoriously difficult to impress teammates. As a defender, he’s technically perfect. He stays in front of the ball instead of gambling for steals and he stays inches away from his man with the ability to recover quickly from various spins and crossovers to return to his uncomfortable guarding position. He also rarely gets tired.
And it worked. Boston went 6-2 playing an incredibly simplified game, but when Rondo returned Bradley went back to his 10-12 minutes a night and his role as an interesting diversion. Then on March 23, Mickael Pietrus suffered a severe concussion after he fell awkwardly on the floor in Philadelphia. Allen was out with an ankle injury, as well, and that’s when everything changed for Bradley and the Celtics.
Playing alongside Rondo, the Celtics gave Bradley a new task: cut to the basket. Freed from ball-handling responsibilities, Bradley learned his new trade quickly and soon was disappearing through the backdoor for dunks and layups off passes from Rondo and Garnett. A particular favorite is the scissors cut where Bradley runs off one of Garnett’s shoulders and the big man slides a pass to him before the defense can react. Bradley also added a jump shot that includes 20-footers off the dribble and a reliable corner three-point shot, two developments that happened quickly enough to make it nearly impossible to know what to make of Bradley anymore. In many ways, the former player without a role has become a prospect without a ceiling.
On defense, he and Rondo trade positions. At times, he’ll take opposing point guards and at others he’ll check the likes of Dwyane Wade. This is a variation of the big-men switch where fours and fives intermingle depending on size and skill. It’s not unique in the backcourt, but it is rare. Bradley guards the ball whenever possible, but on offense he plays almost entirely without it.
The effect has been stunning. The Celtics have gone from a cranky old-man team to an oddly dynamic and quite scary playoff squad. With Bradley as a starter, the Celtics are outscoring their opponents by more than 18 points per 100 possessions and they reeled off wins against Miami (twice), the Pacers, Sixers, Hawks, and Magic.
Bradley’s rise has been equal parts luck in the form of opportunity and creative design, aided, of course, by a steep learning curve that is a testament to his ability. As the Celtics transition from one era to the next, no one is really certain what form they will take. But players like Bradley—position-less wraiths who can run for days, defend like hell and function without the ball—may be the future. And Bradley's future, which once seemed to be one of tragic tweenerhood, is now both notably more interesting and much more promising than it was just a few months ago.