Avery Bradley may not have been with the Lakers when they won the 2020 championship, but he was unmistakably a part of the identity and culture they forged that carried them forward into the NBA bubble.
The team’s ascent towards one of the top defenses in the NBA began that season with Bradley setting the tone with his contagious effort as a voracious point-of-attack defender. When he got hurt and was forced to miss time, the team established “The Avery Challenge,” a goal to stop teams at a rate equaling or surpassing the No. 1 defense in the NBA each game while he was out.
Bradley ultimately didn’t go to the NBA bubble with the Lakers when the league began its pandemic restart in Orlando, making the completely understandable decision to sit out due to concern for his then six-year-old son, who had dealt with respiratory issues in the past. Bill Oram of The Athletic wrote a really touching and empathetic story about Bradley’s choice, and gave the veteran guard the opportunity to fully explain his decision and the context for it at length. I would encourage all Lakers fans to read it in full (Athletic subscription required).
But even without him in attendance, Bradley’s fingerprints were still on the way the team played, and the seed they entered the playoffs with. And within Oram’s story, Bradley explained that he still felt like he was part of that Lakers team, while also responding to anyone on the inside or outside of the organization who disagreed with his choice:
Bradley, who has still never played in the NBA Finals, believes he contributed to the Lakers winning that title, even if he didn’t get to play for it.
“Yeah I felt like I was a part of it,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all battled to get that 1-seed to go into the bubble.”
Depending on what happens in his second tenure with the Lakers, his career in Los Angeles could be defined by his decision to sit out the bubble.
“I totally understand if somebody didn’t agree with it,” he said. “And that’s their perspective and their feeling and I respect that. But I’m always going to put my family first.”
Understandably so, but what’s also clear is that regardless of if there were any individuals that didn’t respect Bradley’s decision, organizationally, the team always felt like he was a part of that run, too. Whether it was Frank Vogel admitting that he still texted with his former starting guard frequently throughout the run, or general manager Rob Pelinka making Bradley his first call after the Lakers won, the team tried to help him feel like part of things.
And even though Bradley ultimately left the Lakers that offseason, there evidently weren’t hard feelings, as Anthony Davis wanted to bring Bradley back this summer before he signed with the Golden State Warriors. When the latter team cut Bradley after training camp, the Lakers quickly claimed him off waivers, and Bradley quickly rewarded them with a spark off the bench in their first game, playing so impressively in his first minutes back in purple and gold that our own Cooper Halpern dubbed him “essential” for this team.
Bradley hasn’t quite been that just yet, but he has given the Lakers decent minutes in three of the five games he’s been called upon, with his impressive opening night against the Warriors and 13 points in 17 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder bookending three games in which Bradley failed to score a basket, including one DNP-CD. In his most recent outing against the Cavaliers, however, Bradley scored 7 points on 3-5 shooting in 23 minutes, and finished the night with a team-high plus-minus of +30. He can contribute to this team, even if he won’t do so every night.
But Bradley is the Lakers’ 15th man, and those players shouldn’t be relied upon to perform well in every game they play in. The fact that he’s contributing at all on a non-guaranteed, veteran’s minimum contract is relatively impressive. It’s a tiny role, sure, but it’s a chance for Bradley to try and contribute in some small way to another Lakers championship. And if they win again this year, he’ll have been just as much a part of it as he was the last time, because everyone who contributes at all is a champion. It doesn’t matter how big their role is, or how many playoff games they play in. All the rings fit the same, and Laker champions are remembered forever.