Avery Bradley made the decision to put his family ahead of his job, and that’s commendable. There are things that are more important than basketball, after all.
As a result, he won’t be joining the Los Angeles Lakers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where they will hope to bring home the franchise’s 17th NBA championship.
Family comes first, but while we can empathize with Bradley’s decision, that doesn’t mean winning without him will be easy.
On the surface, it would appear that losing Bradley, while not ideal, is merely a flesh wound for the purple and gold behemoth that sits atop the NBA’s Western Conference. After all, Los Angeles has already shown they can succeed without Bradley, going 13-1 while he recovered from a leg injury.
They have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the team’s best shooter, who can slide into the starting lineup. And Alex Caruso is deserving of more minutes off the bench. Danny Green can bump his minutes up a bit.
Add in new-Laker Dion Waiters, a dash of Rajon Rondo, maybe even a little Quinn Cook, and the ability to sign a player to replace Bradley, with JR Smith a likely candidate and everything should turn out just fine, right?
Not so fast. Sometimes, things that sound great turn out to be anything but when you actually dig into it, like Cheez-It Pizza (a real thing) or “X:Men Origins: Wolverine” (also unfortunately real).
In terms of simply replacing Bradley’s minutes, the Lakers have the guard position covered. However, there isn’t a candidate on the roster or the free-agent market that can do what Bradley does on the defensive end of the floor, and that’s where the Lakers will need to excel in the playoffs.
Caldwell-Pope, the odds-on favorite to take Bradley’s spot in the starting lineup, has provided plenty for Los Angeles with his floor spacing this season. He’s hitting 39% from deep, feasting on the open looks that come from playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
He also has a reputation as a solid defender, but that largely followed him from his time years ago with the Detroit Pistons. This season, he has posted one of the poorest defensive ratings on the team, sitting only a sliver above Rajon Rondo, who is 34 years old and would struggle to stay in front of the folding chair that Yi Jianlian courageously battled against (look it up, kids).
Caldwell-Pope’s offense has largely made up for his defensive woes this season, and frankly, he hasn’t been put into a position to succeed there. At 6’5,” Caldwell-Pope has been consistently asked to defend big wing players like Paul George.
The Lakers haven’t had many wing defenders with size to turn to this season, which has put Caldwell-Pope into no-win matchups that magnify his defensive shortcomings.
Still, the bottom line is that when the Lakers have replaced Bradley with Caldwell-Pope in their starting five, their defense has suffered. The starters see their opponent’s field goal percentage increase from 43.7% to 48.4%, their three-point shooting go from 35.3% to a whopping 42.9%, and points given up per 100 possessions jump from 102.2 to 114.3.
Those are huge differences, summed up by a defensive rating drop from 101.4 with Bradley to 113.6 with Caldwell-Pope. He does indeed improve the offense compared to Bradley, but only enough to bump the starter’s offensive rating by about 3 points, not nearly enough to offset the defensive nose dive.
On the plus side, it’s possible that with Bradley out for the season, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel can scheme around Caldwell-Pope in order to minimize the defensive decline. While he isn’t the pest that Bradley is, Caldwell-Pope isn’t quite as bad as the numbers make him out to be.
Caruso has also rated as a Bradley-level defender on the season, so perhaps boosting his minutes significantly, even if he doesn’t start, can help bridge the gap. In fact, if anyone is going to slide in and save the day, it may very well wind up being Caruso. But on his first full NBA contract and with no playoff experience to speak of, it may not be fair to ask that of him.
Bradley brought so much energy to the defensive end of the floor; which in turn spread to the rest of the team. With the Lakers potentially having guards like Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, and more standing in their way, Bradley’s absence is going to be noticeable.
The Lakers still have the best tandem in basketball with James and Davis. They have a veteran supporting cast that knows what it takes to win, and the bodies at Bradley’s position to fill in.
But don’t think for a second that losing Bradley isn’t a big deal or something that can simply be compensated for by the next man up. This is a stinging blow for the Lakers.
The question now is can they still find a way to get the job done?
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