On March 23rd, the Celtics were three games above .500, grinding their way towards another postseason — perhaps the final one for this core group. They were still fantastic defensively, a cohesive unit well-practiced in Tom Thibodeau’s system, but age had permeated the rotation and a favorable seed was unlikely.
Ray Allen had gone down the night before with an ankle injury, and Doc Rivers had a decision to make. Boston’s offense had struggled all season, but Allen’s ability to use screens and spread the floor was still a vital part of what they did well. Replacing the future Hall of Famer would be difficult.
After a five-game losing streak in mid-February, they had begun to click, going 10-4 over their last 14. Rivers tried veteran wing Mickael Pietrus for one game for matchup purposes against Philadelphia’s bigger guards, then settled on second-year guard Avery Bradley. The move would have a profound impact on their season.
Since Allen’s injury, the Celtics have managed to not only sustain their winning ways, but now lead the Atlantic Division, with a great chance for home court advantage in the first round. Bradley, who was legitimately one of the least productive players in the entire league before he entered the starting lineup, has been the key to their re-birth. What changed? And, what does this have to do with the Clippers?
The second one first: There’s a good chance that in Eric Bledsoe, the Clippers have their own version of Bradley. And for a team that that’s the antithesis of the Celtics defensively, this possibility deserves a look. Obvious connections between Bledsoe (18th) and Bradley (19th) have existed ever since they became the second and third point guards selected in the 2010 NBA draft, and the answer to “what’s changed?” for Bradley (and the Celtics) can tell us a lot about the Clippers and Bledsoe.
As players, the two have strikingly similar profiles. Less than two years into their careers, both have managed to lived up to, even outperform, reputations as strong, athletic defenders. Finally healthy after missing nearly two months, Bledsoe (22 years old) has allowed only 101 points per 100 possessions this season, with Bradley (21) just behind, at 102. They have become two of the premier defensive guards in the league — John Hollinger had Bradley on his All-Defensive first team — with impressive instincts for players with so little NBA experience.
Offensively, both possess the attributes to be true point guards, but even as draft prospects, there were signs that they could excel playing off the ball — as they have been asked to do often this season. Take a look at their DraftExpress scouting reports:
“While he’s certainly not the most dynamic offensive threat at this point, Bradley was very solid in spot up situations. With a sizeable 30.5% of his touches coming from such opportunities, he shot a second ranked adjusted field goal percentage of 60.9%. The least prolific player running the pick and roll (.57 PPP) and a mediocre isolation player, Bradley was heavily reliant on his jump shot to score points.”
“Despite not projecting as a shooting guard on the next level, Bledsoe would have some nice tools to play the two. He ranks as the third most efficient shooter in this group in terms of points per-shot from jumpers at 1.08 per-attempt. Despite hitting just 35.3% of his jump shots off the dribble, Bledsoe shot a ridiculous 66.7% adjust field goal percentage in unguarded catch and shoot situations.”
You could argue that the two were so similar as prospects, it really didn’t matter which one Neil Olshey or Danny Ainge took. Like he does now, Bledsoe struggled more with the turnover than Bradley in college, but both shot around 38 percent from three and both looked like frighteningly disruptive forces of energy. With such potential, the real organizational challenge would be developing abundant tools into utility, finding ways to incorporate unique attributes into systems built around superstar teammates.
And so when we look at where the two stand today, what become evident are the effects of injury, coaching, and role. In Year One, an ankle injury and Rivers’ mistrust of rookies limited Bradley to 30 games. Bledsoe, conversely, was asked to start immediately. This year, it was Bledsoe who sat to start the season, while Bradley worked his way into the rotation and ultimately the starting lineup.
When compared to Bledsoe’s up-and-down minutes last year, Bradley’s development curve has certainly been more traditional. With the injury behind him, he earned playing time this season with his defense — a one-man full court press.
But I asked a few of the writers at Celics Hub what happened to make him more than just a one-dimensional role player, and their response was universal: “confidence.” Rivers made a concerted effort to empower the player for whom he had little patience only a year before by putting him in position to get easy buckets.
Ryan DeGama told me, “Doc pushed him to emulate Andre Miller’s off-ball cutting. Bradley has good burst and nice instincts and on a team with Rondo and Garnett, if he creates a passing lane, they find him. Like the defense, it gave him another thing he could do well. Thusly, his confidence swelled.”
Michael Pina compared his evolution to the rapid spreading of a virus, from a player who seemed to struggle with the pressure of playing in Boston to a guy against whom teams now have to gameplan. “The D was always there,” he said, but it’s his aggressiveness offensively that has completely changed the Celtics’ dynamic and expectations for this season and beyond (when Ray Allen may not be around).
“I remember when he first knocked down two corner threes in a game and I thought to myself, the Celtics have their Bruce Bowen. Then a week later he was knocking down mid range shots off the dribble, getting to the basket, dunking. It was crazy.”
While you could question the way Vinny Del Negro handled Bledsoe as a rookie — his minutes were all over the place — Del Negro’s hands were tied by injuries to Davis and Randy Foye. Where he differed from Rivers, though, was the role he designed for his young project. Rather than play to his strengths, Del Negro’s offense called for him to either run the show for an inexperienced lineup or situate himself in a corner with Eric Gordon initiating pick and rolls or going off the dribble.
Since he rejoined the rotation this year, it’s been more of the same. His minutes remain inconsistent with Foye and Mo Williams in the mix and whether he’s leading the second unit or playing alongside Chris Paul, he’s often asked to create out of unfavorable positions.
The jumpshot isn’t there yet, and we’ve yet to see him utilized with screens or movement off the ball the way Bradley has been so successfully. Kevin Arnovitz recently suggested on ClipperBlog Live that guys like Ronnie Brewer and Dwyane Wade, when he was younger, have gotten by simply by making hard cuts. But it has to work within the offense.
And right now, the Celtics offense is getting the most of Bradley. As DeGama mentioned, Rivers knows that by nurturing him and putting him in position to work off the ball, he gives his team another viable option without disrupting any primary action with Paul Pierce or Garnett. Bradley has become more of a threat to score in different ways, but it’s not unreasonable to see the same from Bledsoe, who put up slightly superior shooting numbers in college.
Bledsoe, on the other hand, has to rely heavily on creating transition opportunities for his points. Pina pointed out that he’s is 3rd in the league in the percentage of his baskets that have been scored on the fast break (35.6%). On the other hand, Bradley is at 21.8%, which ranks 72nd overall.
Bledsoe is able to make an impact like this because he is so active on defense — he’s averaging 4.7 rebounds, 2.9 steals and more than one block per 36 minutes — but you can’t help but wonder if there is more there, with only a few small tweaks. (For reference, Bradley is averaging 3.2 rebounds, one steal and .4 blocks per 36).
At the end of the day, it’s the defensive impact that Bradley has had that makes you think about Bledsoe. In writing about how stellar the Celtics lineup has been with Bradley, Arnovitz wrote:
Did you see Bradley’s block of Dwyane Wade two Sundays ago? Did you see him deny Wade on the perimeter and lock onto him off every screen and curl? Bradley’s prowess as an on-ball defender also allows Rondo to play off the ball, where he can use his long branches to play passing lanes and do a little gambling.
Bledsoe hasn’t had the opportunity to show off against Wade yet, but doesn’t that sequence sound familiar, Clipper fans? Bledsoe does stuff like that all the time, it seems. If you substitute Paul for Rondo above, would the alignment would be any less advantageous?
By replacing Allen, who had lost a step on defense, with Bradley’s suffocating pressure in the starting lineup, the Celtics defense managed to improve what was already one of the stingiest units in the league. The Clippers have struggled to stop penetration from the wings, as well, but they don’t have Kevin Garnett to anchor theirs. Neil Olshey alluded to this in his recent interview with Arnovitz — when they can’t stop penetration, they are vulnerable on the back end to a simple drive-and-dish.
If they want to cut down on giving up corner threes and open looks at the rim, it could be in their best interest to go with a lineup that limits the amount of times Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have to help and recover.
Let’s look at lineups for a second. According to 82games.com, in Bledsoe’s top four most common lineups (totaling 25% of his total minutes played) he is accompanied by one of Mo Williams or Nick Young, Bobby Simmons at the three, and primarily Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin up front. Blake Griffin is a member of two of those units, totaling 23 minutes. None include DeAndre Jordan.
If you take his 20 most common lineups (and that’s every one he’s played with for more than two minutes), Bledsoe has only shared the court with Paul for 18 minutes this season. In 10 minutes Bledsoe played with Foye, Butler, Griffin and Jordan, they were +12 — a small indication of what he could do with a reasonable supporting cast. We know very little from such a small sample, other than that he has spent most of his time on the court with the second unit. He hasn’t played enough with the starters to know anything for sure, but if we can take anything from Boston, it could be worth a shot.