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Avery Bradley is already essential for the Lakers... again

This time starting from the bottom — a waiver add — Avery Bradley has a chance to contribute to a second Lakers championship.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

After serving a crucial role during the 2019-20 regular season, starting 44 of the 49 games he played in, Avery Bradley sat out of the NBA Playoffs out of concern his then-six-year-old son, who had previously struggled with respiratory illnesses.

Although he chose to do so for a completely legitimate and entirely understandable reason, the reality is that Avery Bradley was off the floor during the Lakers’ best stretch of basketball that season. His absence paved the way for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to start and have a breakout playoff run, Talen Horton-Tucker to make his debut, and, especially, Alex Caruso to emerge as a winning player while the team went on to win the title.

Following the season, Bradley declined his five-million-dollar player option, signing a one-year deal with the Miami Heat before eventually being sent to Houston along with Kelly Olynyk and a first-round pick swap for Victor Oladipo. After 10 decent games in Miami, Bradley’s season fell apart in his 17 as a Rocket, shooting just 27% from deep while doing little to help the single-worst team in the NBA.

As a result, just after his time with the Lakers somewhat revitalized his market value as a 3-and-D guard, his time in the league’s doldrums sent it tumbling down. This offseason, Bradley signed a one-year, non-guaranteed, veteran’s minimum contract with the Warriors, but was waived following four lackluster preseason performances. The day before their opener, the Lakers reunited with the 31-year-old and deployed him for the first time in the game’s final eight-plus minutes.

Without Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, or Trevor Ariza, Bradley provided the Lakers’ thinned wing depth with a valuable boost off the bench. In his lone shift, Bradley drilled two of his three field-goal attempts, all 3s — as many as anyone not named LeBron — at the most efficient rate on the team. And although his minutes (assuming he’s earned some more in the Lakers’ next game) may dwindle as Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, and THT eventually ease back into Frank Vogel’s rotation, Bradley gives the Lakers a player whose high IQ, shooting, underrated passing, staunch defense and experience next to LeBron and AD may fit better in the starting lineup than any of the other aforementioned names, especially out of the gate.

However, communication between Bradley and the other Lakers will need to — and should — improve with time. When assigned to Steph, Bradley displayed speed, strength, and footwork superior to any of the other Laker guards, doing a stellar job chasing him around the floor.

Still, he wasn’t perfect, as Steph’s gravity caused chaos when Bradley was asked to switch onto or away from his assigned superstar.

When Nemanja Bjelica and Steph set up a high pick and roll at the wing, Bjelica slipped the pick, popping to the top of the key. Steph hit him with the pass, then cut towards him as if to receive a hand-off. Instead of staying put a beat longer, Bradley bit on Bjelica’s fake handoff, leaving two defenders on Steph and no one on the sharpshooting Serbian center. In effect, the ever-present fear of abandoning Curry beyond the arc gave up a wide-open lane to the basket. Finishing off the play, LeBron stepped into the paint to guard Draymond while AD rose up to help, leaving Damion Lee alone in the corner.

After the Dubs got the ball back on Andrew Wiggins’ offensive board, the same pattern reemerged. Bradley over-pursued Steph dribbling away from the basket, expecting Bazemore again to switch onto Bjelica. Bradley’s quickness and energy allowed him to stay attached to Steph throughout the possession, though in this instance, he should have disengaged a moment sooner. Again, Bjelica was alone in the lane, leading to a kick-out to a wide-open shooter.

Guarding literally anyone other than Stephen Curry will make Bradley look better, but the Lakers can iron out the communication as the season moves along. All-told, Curry scored just five points and was limited to three shots with Bradley guarding him, an impressive rate, especially down the stretch of a relatively close game. Perhaps his experience with Curry at Warriors camp helped, but still, Bradley stepped into the deep end having yet to practice with the Lakers this season.

In 2019-20, Bradley defended primary ball-handlers almost twice as often as the rest of the league, with a matchup difficulty in the 99th percentile according to the Basketball Index $$$. His relative success against the reigning scoring champ may allow the Lakers to again throw him onto dynamic offensive guards like Devin Booker and Damian Lillard, the exact kinds of players they struggled to slow down last season. And aside from his imperfect switching, Bradley proved to be a solid point of attack defender and stellar chaser in his singular stint so far.

Given his play on Tuesday night, the Lakers’ purple and gold threads appear to pull the best out of Bradley, just like they have with other accomplished vets like Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard. Even if he fails to start a single game this season, in contrast to his role in 2019-20, the return of Avery Bradley’s former self gives the Lakers yet another toy to play with among their suddenly deep (when healthy) guard/wing rotation. Given his discrete set of complementary skills, it makes sense why Steph and Draymond were reportedly unhappy with his release. If he can build on his opening night performance, maybe he’ll finally get a chance to aid the Lakers in their next playoff run.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.