On the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have been 8.9 points per 100 possessions better when Avery Bradley sits than they are when he plays, the highest swing of any player other than the guy he replaced in the starting lineup, Kent Bazemore, who appears to be completely in head coach Frank Vogel’s doghouse at this point.
Over the last five games, however, that has completely flipped amidst the return of LeBron James and some stronger play from Bradley himself. Bradley has averaged 10 points per game and shot a scorching 11-17 from 3-point range over that stretch, and per NBA.com, the Lakers have been a staggering 18 points per 100 possessions better when Bradley plays than they are when he sits. He is also the only Laker other than LeBron James (-18.2) that the team is getting outscored with on the bench (-2.6) over their last five matchups.
In short, the metrics say Bradley has been much, much better, but after he scored a season-high 22 points in the team’s win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said that those types of numbers aren’t a good way to evaluate Bradley anyway. He says he always knew that Bradley was better than those stats were showing to start the season.
“Anything we get offensively is a bonus,” Vogel said. “He’s a guy that’s averaged 18 or 20 points a game in this league at a certain point in his career. It’s just how much are we going to move the basketball. If we’re going to move the basketball and we’re going to let the ball find energy and find the open man, guys like Avery are going to have big shooting nights, and we’re always telling him to be aggressive offensively.
“I don’t know what Shai’s (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) final line was. 11 points and 4 assists? After what he did to us in the first two games, Avery Bradley was fantastic on the ball with him,” Vogel continued. “So, again, the defensive metrics that can go into a guy like Avery’s performance in team defensive rating, there’s a lot of variables in play there. And to underrate what he brings to our group’s energy is misleading, and he had a great two-way performance for us tonight.”
Six 3-pointers and four steals. Avery Bradley provided the spark all across the floor. pic.twitter.com/CsULG2dVF0— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 11, 2021
Vogel has said in the past that team defensive rating is one of the main catch-all metrics he uses to evaluate the Lakers’ defense as a whole, but he has remained consistent that it is a flawed way to evaluate individual performance, from citing Rajon Rondo’s swag during the 2019-20 regular season to push back on critics of his net rating, to recently lamenting that Bradley’s “infectious” effort can’t be captured by such numbers.
And, as Vogel notes, there are flaws in the ways that team-based metrics can grade individual players. They are a nice tool to look at to see if they back up something one is seeing on the court, but especially so early in the season, there is a lot of noise in those numbers. A few bad stretches, even if it’s not the single player’s fault, can dramatically impact how they grade out in such stats, even if said struggles weren’t their fault.
Our own Cooper Halpern wrote about that phenomenon last week before Bradley’s breakout, outlining with film that while Bradley is not a perfect player, he has been doing his job as an example Vogel can point to when showing other guards how he wants this team to play defense, whether the metrics of a previously bad starting lineup reflected it or not. And with Bradley’s shooting coming around after a hot week, it’s no surprise that lineups with him in them have a looked a ton better as a result.
So, should Bradley still be starting? As long as he’s shooting like this, it’s kind of hard to argue too hard against it, even if one doesn’t like his theoretical fit alongside all of the Big Three at once. Longer term, he may not be the answer there as the Lakers start to get players back and as he cools off, but for now, he’s been really good, and that has to be pointed out just as much as people were arguing against him when he wasn’t playing well.
And with his contract still non-guaranteed for another month, this hot stretch could not be coming at a better time for Bradley personally. If it keeps up, it may not be him the Lakers will move on from as they seek upgrades on the trade and buyout markets, whether he continues starting for the team or not.