But his regression might be deceptive.
When he returned to the Celtics’ lineup on January the 2nd after two in-season months recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Bradley immediately supercharged Boston’s defense. His full-court harassments and merciless on-ball pressure, already notable in New England, started to get national attention and reinforced thoughts the Celtics had a future defensive player of the year on the roster. Danny Ainge, in the least breathless language he coould muster, compared Bradley’s game-changing defensive impact to that of Kevin Garnett.
He wasn’t wrong. It was Bradley’s insertion into the starting lineup in 2011-12 (along with KG’s move to center) that triggered a second half run and deep dive in the playoffs. Even with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee on the roster, the assumption was always that Bradley would return from injury, claim his spot in the starting rotation and make opposing point guards wet themselves in anticipation of racking up 8-second violations.
There was some worry, sure. Bradley had distinguished himself the season previous as a three-point shooter, particularly from the corners. He shot a solid 40.7% from that distance. Would there be residual problems with his shoulders that hampered his shooting in 2012-13? As he took the court for his first game, I reminded myself that Bradley, whatever he could bring on defense, could be headed for a mediocre year on offense. And despite that barrage of baseline cuts for layups that became legitimate weapons in 2012, he was hardly a deadly offensive player. Or even a very good one. He showed only the slightest hints of an off-the-dribble game and, whatever we thought of him, we knew he was no point guard.
Then Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and Bradley became, for much of the year, a point guard.
Three months and an 8.89 PER later, after Bradley turtled his way through the first round of the playoffs against the Knicks, battling foul trouble and watching his offensive game collapse (he eventually just stopped shooting three-balls completely) his confidence seemed shattered.
Were the added part-time duties at the point responsible for his troubles? Did they limit the amount of energy he could expend on defense? Were his shoulders still balky? Did his offense regress, as it seemed for so many of the other offensively limited Celtics, due to the absence of Rondo drawing defensive attention, creating passing angles and finding guys for open looks?
Was Bradley still just a 22-year-old guard who sat out almost his entire first season and much of his (strike shortened) second one?
In retrospect, yes. It was probably all those things that gave us 39.7% from the field (down from 49.8% in 2011-12), a miserable 31.7% from the arc, and a 12.5 point drop finishing at the rim (from 65.3% to 51.7%). Bradley was a brutal attacker in ISO situations, surprisingly horrible in transition (42.6%) and plain bad in just about every other category.
But how many of the factors that led to those grisly numbers will be in play next season?
None of them.
We may yet see the leap-year Bradley we’d hoped for this year.
It wasn’t all bad. Despite the added burden of handling the ball, Bradley actually reduced his turnover rate to an impressive 10%. The sheer volume of work he did on the bounce, and against pressure, will pay dividends in ways we’ll never be entirely able to quantify.
His defense was less overwhelming due to its familiarity but no less excellent. His Synergy numbers (courtesy mysynerysports.com) were terrific. Bradley ranked as the 16th best defender in the league in pure points-per-possession, with particular strengths limiting pick and roll ball handlers (Doc Rivers recently noted how happy he was with Boston’s PNR coverage this season; credit Bradley for much of that) and in situations where he went mano-a-mano (post defense and face-up ISO defense). It remains a wonder to watch this kid jolt back and forth, sticking with an attacker who’s trying to cross him over or change directions. Nobody in the league recovers better than Bradley in situations like that.
And, of course, there were some final flashes of the Bradley that Celtics fans fell so hard for in that final game against New York. Maybe he was on his way back.
The Celtics will surely move Bradley back to SG next season and that should enable a more efficient offensive game from him, at least in line with the results he put up after joining the starting rotation in 2012. Our questions, one year before he’s due for a jump in salary to at least the qualifying offer ($3.6M) remain the same as they did a year ago. Can Bradley muster enough of an offensive game to make himself a viable threat when his teammates aren’t drawing defensive attention? Will he ever be able to consistently get, and make, his own shot? Or do we have on our hands no more than a rock solid role player, one whose defensive impact is neutered by his limitations as an offensive player?
Just a few more months and we’ll start to find out.