Throughout his two tenures with the Lakers — and particularly his current one — Avery Bradley has been of-maligned by fans (full disclosure: myself included), particularly for his struggles on the offensive side of the ball.
But the Lakers’ commitment to a small-ball lineup with LeBron James at center has produced positive results, and had ripple effects on the team’s offense. Among those has been improved play from Bradley, which could not come at a better time for his chances to stick on the roster, because the Lakers only have until Friday, Jan. 7 to decide whether to guarantee his contract for the season, or let him go.
Over the last four games since the Lakers have fully committed to small ball by starting James at center, Bradley has an overall net rating of +10.5 in 117 minutes, and only Malik Monk and LeBron James have better offensive ratings during that span.
“He’s done a great job for us all year,” Frank Vogel said after Sunday’s win over Minnesota. “A difficult circumstance for him, bouncing around early in the season. Obviously, he’s a part of what our culture has been the last couple years.
“He sets a great tone for us on the defensive of the ball, and he’s really brought a lot on the offensive side as well.”
That last part is true, especially lately, as the small-ball lineups the Lakers are going with have accentuated some of Bradley’s offensive strengths, while further minimizing many of his weaknesses.
When it comes to the former, one of the obvious benefits of having James at center is that it opens up the court. While it’s most discussed as more space for James, Russell Westbrook and others to drive to the rim, Bradley has shown a different benefit of all that added breathing room with his off-ball cutting.
Over the course of the season, Bradley has scored 24 points off cuts, but 10 of those points have come in the four games since the team committed to going small. For all of Bradley’s faults, he still has a high IQ in understanding spacing, and when and where to cut to find openings, particularly when all eyes shift to the ball.
A direct benefit of not having a center or big on the court is that there isn’t a player hovering in the dunker’s spot on offense. As a result, Bradley can punish opponents for ball-watching by cutting backdoor for open layups.
Specifically, Bradley and James have developed a chemistry that often shows itself in those very scenarios, where James draws the attention of defenses and Bradley cuts to the rim to score.
“He knows exactly how to make his mark on the offensive end around guys that handle the ball, guys that attract a lot of double teams, guys that attract a lot of eyes,” James said. “He knows how to be effective on the offensive end.”
To James’ point of playing off players who attract eyes, Russell Westbrook and James have assisted on 12 of the 24 points Bradley has scored off cuts, with a pair of Bradley’s free throws coming from a James pass as well. Good things are happening when he goes to the basket without the ball.
By opening up the floor, the emphasis on Bradley being a floor-spacing shooter is also reduced. Bradley has been an average spot-up shooter this year, ranking in the 63rd percentile, per Synergy. Over the last four games, only 46.9% of Bradley’s field goal attempts have been 3-pointers. Prior to the commitment to small ball — a time in which Bradley was often playing with another big — 59.4% of his field goal attempts were 3-pointers.
Bradley has been an above-average shooter from 3-point range this season, but defenses don’t respect his jumper and, therefore, he never created the gravity needed when he started alongside Anthony Davis and a center. By going small, the Lakers are encouraging Bradley to get more of the types of shots he’s good at, and putting less pressure on him to take the kinds of looks he’s less adept in.
In switching to a small ball lineup, the Lakers are committing to a philosophy that can benefit a number of players on their roster, Bradley among them. And with a decision on his future with the team necessary in the coming days, Bradley’s strong play couldn’t come at a better time for himself. Or the Lakers, for that matter.