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Avery Bradley has struggled since returning, but it’s not entirely his fault

Avery Bradley is not a small forward, but the Lakers have used him like one since he returned from his recent injury. Changing that — and a few other things — might allow him to regain the rhythm he’d found at the start of the season.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Avery Bradley began his second season in Los Angeles on a much stronger note than his first. After moving across the hall from the Clippers to the Lakers (with a brief sojourn to Memphis in between), Bradley was rejuvenated on both sides of the ball, and almost unrecognizable from his 2018 form.

His ball-hawking and tenacity on defense (98.6 defensive rating before his injury) inspired head coach Frank Vogel to create “The Avery Challenge” to motivate the Lakers on the defensive end while Bradley was hurt. On the other end, though he still wasn’t hitting 3-pointers with regularity, Bradley’s efficiency inside the arc made him an above-average offensive player. He shot 33-of-56 on 2-pointers in those first ten games, buoyed by his outstanding ability as a cutter, which helped create openings when he couldn’t space the floor as a shooter.

Unfortunately, Bradley’s season took an early detour as a leg fracture sidelined him for 13 games. Since his return, Bradley hasn’t looked like the same player. Although he is still making half of his 2-pointers, he is not even a token threat from beyond the arc, having gone 1-11 on threes over the last five games. He clearly didn’t have his legs on his jumper when he first came back, and that’s led to defenses leaving him open on the perimeter in the interim. As a result, his offensive rating has dropped from 107.9 to 103.4 in this stretch. In total, Bradley’s net rating has gone from plus-9.3 to minus-3.4.

Admittedly, it’s unfair to evaluate Bradley based on his net ratings over such small samples, even if the change is drastic. Not only is he recovering from a lower-body injury, but the circumstances of his minutes are entirely different.

Bradley began the season as a starter, spending the bulk of his time on the floor as the nominal point guard next to Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and JaVale McGee. That five-man group accounted for 103 of Bradley’s 275 minutes, and his second-most used lineup was the starters with Dwight Howard in McGee’s place.

Now, Bradley comes off the bench and doesn’t get the benefit of playing with James and Davis as often, and almost never with the two of them together. His most frequent partner on the court used to be Davis, and now it’s Howard. So yes, Bradley has been worse since he missed time with injury. But the teammates around him have also been much worse, and that’s made his statistical output look even poorer in comparison.

It seems like the Lakers are still wrestling with the idea of whether to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the starting lineup or restore Bradley to his original role. But if Bradley remains a reserve, it’s important to figure out what situations can optimize his efficiency, short of just playing him more with both of the superstars.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It has been established that Bradley can perform well as the point guard. He has the length and quickness to be bothersome defending ones, and does a really good job of fighting through screens, even if he sometimes gets a little too prone to reaching. He never really functions as the lead ball-handler on offense, but he has the craft to run some secondary actions and thus fits as the point in this particular offense. Furthermore, Bradley being the one means either KCP or Danny Green is the two, and that means the Lakers are really leaning in to going big, a major strength of theirs.

When Bradley is at the two, the Lakers have been similarly effective, with a plus-12.0 differential, per Cleaning the Glass. The offense isn’t quite as good, but the defense has been stifling, especially when Bradley pairs with Alex Caruso. The league-average effective field-goal percentage is 52.2, but lineups with Bradley at shooting guard hold opponents to 47.9% shooting.

So if the problem with Bradley isn’t with him at the one or the two, it must be with him at the three. And boy, has that been an issue for the Lakers. James is the starting small forward, but the team doesn’t really have another wing-sized player to back him up. Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma are both fours, and Green and Caldwell-Pope play with James. That means Bradley has moonlit as a reserve small forward in the last five games, and that has been a disaster for L.A.

Bradley hardly played at small forward during the first stretch of the season, but he’s played about 30 minutes at the three since, making up about a third of his minutes. The Lakers can’t defend anybody when Bradley plays next to both Caruso and Rajon Rondo, and for all Caruso’s defensive gifts, he’s ill-equipped to be a primary wing defender. None of that guard trio gets any respect as shooters, allowing defenses to converge on Davis or James way more than would be expected for a small lineup that is supposed to generate space.

Laker Film Room pointed out that the Lakers were burned against Milwaukee Thursday to start the second quarter when Davis sat and Giannis Antetokounmpo played. That also happened to coincide with the Lakers playing Rondo, Caruso, and Bradley together. It’s an untenable lineup that doesn’t take advantage of any of those players’ strengths.

Even when he’s not at small forward, Bradley never makes a good complement to Rondo. Any time the two former Celtics share the court, which happens far more frequently now that Bradley is a reserve, the Lakers hemorrhage points. It’s the only two-man guard grouping among the five rotation guards that has a negative net rating at minus-10.3.

Looking at his individual stats, Bradley hasn’t been markedly different pre- and post-injury, but the context of his minutes has painted him in a less-than-flattering light. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix. By keeping Bradley as a one or two and staggering him with Rondo, the Lakers can maximize Bradley’s contributions and continue to flip the script from his previous L.A. stint.

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