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Contrary to popular opinion, Avery Bradley has been essential to the Lakers’ defensive development

Frank Vogel has deployed Avery Bradley as a referendum on how he wants the team to play, even if Bradley himself won’t eventually be the best man for the job.

Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a winless preseason, the Lakers’ regular season started in an equally unsatisfying place, especially on the defensive end. Six games in, they’d given up no fewer than 115 points in any one game, and racked up the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA (111.0 points per 100 possessions). For the team that had ranked second and third on defense in each of their prior seasons under Frank Vogel — who said at a recent practice that defensive rating was the most important catch-all metric he uses to look at defense — their sudden inability to deter opponents from scoring was surely an unwelcome surprise.

However, the departure of perimeter stoppers in the trade for Russell Westbrook (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma), and in free agency (Alex Caruso and Dennis Schröder), may have given basketball fans a clue the team was about to regress defensively, though even the most pessimistic among them probably didn’t expect the team to slide as far as they did at first. With their staunch former first line of defense now scattered around the Eastern Conference and replaced by sweet-shooting, one-way vets, the Lakers’ bigs couldn’t possibly hold down an elite defense all on their own.

Suddenly, however, starting with the seventh game of the season — a 95-85 win over the hapless Houston Rockets — the Lakers quietly began to crack down on D, albeit with a two steps forward, and one step backward sort of progress.

Even accounting for the 130-point drubbing at the hands of their rival Boston Celtics, on the whole, the Lakers have been quite a bit better on D. Following the sixth game of their season, they’ve have had the 10th-best defense in the NBA (106.8 points per 100 possessions). Frank Vogel still openly hopes his team can climb into the top-five or 10 on both sides of the ball on a more consistent basis, but the team’s newfound defensive competency appears to be a significant step in the right direction.

“We’re not in the bottom three in defense, we’re in the middle of the pack, which is where I expected us to be with such a new group,” Vogel said after practice yesterday. He went on to address his outlook moving forwards in terms of attempting to win games today versus tinkering with lineups in order to find the best possible pairings, “I have a big picture mindset so I’m willing to take as much time as needed to experiment.” Finally, he claimed, “It’s not about what has happened, it’s about who we’re gonna be over the next month, who we’re gonna be the second half of the season. You know what I mean? Where are we going more than where we’re at.”

So what’s changed since the sixth game of the Lakers’ 2020-21 campaign to get the Lakers headed towards Vogel’s preferred destination? In each of the next 16 contests, Vogel started the game with preseason waiver-add and non-guaranteed contract player Avery Bradley beside Russell Westbrook in the backcourt, a streak that only ended with Bradley’s unavailability against the Kings due to a UCL (thumb ligament) sprain.

At first glance, it’s hard to see how Bradley’s insertion might have helped. He’s a decent point-of-attack defender, even if he lacks the athletic oomph of his earlier years before he crossed onto the wrong side of 30. Weirdly, the individual analytics tell a somewhat mixed story. The Basketball Index has him as a 91st percentile rated on-ball perimeter defender this season, and his transition D grades out as well above average, but teams are killing the Lakers in the half-court with AB on the floor (scoring 110.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass).

Combined with his negative shooting gravity and effectively non-existent shot creation, and he’s been one of the worst performers on the Lakers this season, grading out as the team’s second-worst offensive player, their fifth-worst defender, and their worst overall player with a -12.0 point differential. This season, the Lakers have the same point differential as the Pistons — the worst team in the league according to that measure — whenever AB’s on the court.

For a team with championship aspirations, starting a player that drags you down to the bottom of the league in efficiency seems like a no-go. However, Vogel has made it clear he doesn’t see Bradley as the detriment that the on-off numbers paint him as.

“Effort and intensity is infectious,” Vogel said earlier this week. “He plays extremely hard. I know the numbers you’re talking about. We take them with a grain of salt. When a guy is bringing that type of effort and intensity, it’s just an intangible thing that energizes the group and sets the tone for our defense.”

What seems odd about Vogel’s strategy is he’s apparently attempting to set a tone of high effort and intensity on defense with an often underperforming defender. However, Bradley’s lapses are typically errors of commission, rather than omission. Even when he’s overmatched athletically, he competes to the best of his ability, flying around the court in an attempt to get his body between his man and the basket.

Although some may read Vogel’s praise as a coverup for mismanaged substitution patterns, his concession of the reality of Bradley’s miserable on/off data suggests that he may know Bradley’s presence on the court costs the Lakers points in the present. Vogel has held steadfast because of his faith in the consistency and contagiousness of Bradley’s effort, and that little by little, the Lakers just might start to see the spreading effects of that infectious effort and defensive leadership by example.

According to The Basketball Index, Avery Bradley’s on-ball perimeter defense this season ranks in the 91st percentile, a testament to his relentless motor. His weak lower body and occasional tunnel vision have made him one of the worst defenders in the NBA at preventing second chance points (131.0 points per 100 plays), but it’s not typically for a lack of trying.

Here’s what it looks like when Bradley’s willingness to physically commit to every possession wins out:

Bradley sells out to keep his body between his man and the basket, winning the possession against a much bigger Caris LeVert when he tries to force a shot through three Lakers instead of kicking to the open Myles Turner in the corner.

In a similar effort with a divergent result, Bradley’s the first one back in an attempt to stop LaMelo Ball’s race to the rim on the possession below. He’s in his stance, squared up to the ball, but reaches with his hands instead of going straight up to contest the shot, or at least fouling with enough force to disrupt the attempt.

Again, Bradley’s works hard to stay in front of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but, at 31, no longer has the juice to contain the 23-year-old who leads the NBA in isolation points per game (7.9).

The other Lakers’ lapses look much, much worse. Here’s the defensive nadir of the Lakers’ season so far (from the third quarter of their triple overtime loss to the Kings at Staples Center):

Since the Lakers are switching everything on this play, Melo needs to step out and contest Haliburton’s shot after LeBron switches with him onto Metu. Instead, he does...nothing. On this coverage, the communication was as minimal as the effort. Bradley may have overcommitted in closing out to the shooter to allow a blow-by, but perhaps in Vogel’s eyes, he would have at least given him something to work with.

Here, Monk’s lethargic leap over the screen leaves room for Giddey’s slip to Bazley, which in turn creates a chance at the rim.

Even if he struggles to stay in front of his man at times, Bradley always fights through screens, “getting skinny” when necessary to stay attached to his man and make him work for every point. Instead, Monk’s momentary indecision opens a door to a Thunder basket, and what ultimately turned into a Thunder comeback.

By inserting Bradley to open halves, Vogel is effectively laying down a framework for how he’d like his off-guard to operate on defense, the aspect of the game Vogel’s earned a reputation as an expert in.

Bradley’s not especially good, but starting games with him on the floor appears to be an attempt to encourage those around him to match his willingness to sprint up and down the court. Despite being in his post-prime, Avery Bradley’s hustle has him ranked seventh in average speed on defense among 286 players averaging at least 15 minutes of burn per appearance this season.

Even with sub-par defenders, effort and scheme can make for viable perimeter defense, especially when the rim deterrent of Anthony Davis is on watch behind them.

Across the Lakers past six quarters, following Frank Vogel’s tirade during halftime against the Kings, the Lakers have operated as if they’ve been one of the best defenses in the NBA all season long. They posted a defensive rating of 71.7 in the second half in their win over Detroit, and a 93.9 mark in their first blowout of the season in their rematch against the Kings.

Look at how Malik Monk — one of the team’s biggest defensive offenders — stays right with his man, helps off of him to contain Buddy Hield’s drive, then scampers back to Davis to contest the tough jumper without fouling.

Even Wayne Ellington, perennially a matador on the perimeter, slows Hield’s drive just enough for Monk’s help to matter as the entire team’s defensive effort and connectedness prevents the penetration.

More and more, it seems, Vogel has his offensive weapons buying into a defensive system that only works with Bradley-esque commitment to trying. Still, lineups with both Monk and Ellington are +7.2 points per 100 possessions with a 99th percentile offense and an eighth percentile defense. If Monk, arguably the team’s fourth-most potent offensive weapon, and Ellington, the team’s purest shooter, can commit to defense like the above on every possession, Vogel will eventually be able to lessen Bradley’s role the rotation by the time it really matters with peace of mind, functionally turning his offense-only weapons into a collection of two-way players.

Although Vogel’s 2020-21 defense is far from being a sure thing, recently, it’s looked viable, and better than it’s been all year. For a team who started out the season as poorly as they did on defense, it’s a step in the right direction worth recognizing. And if Vogel’s gamble to use Bradley’s try-hard intensity to set an example for the Lakers’ other perimeter players on defense pays off, he’ll have a chance to build another elite defense around his most potent offensive players, a combination that could allow the Lakers to optimize the Lakers’ chances at another title.

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.

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