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Playing Avery Bradley Big Minutes is Costing the Clippers Badly

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Doc Rivers said Avery Bradley is “unstatable”. He’s not.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Avery Bradley has been a punching bag of Clippers’ fans all year. The shooting guard began the season firmly cemented in the starting lineup, and has remained there with no signs of Doc Rivers wavering on him, even as his numbers fail to improve. In fact, when asked about Bradley’s playing time a couple games ago, Doc said that he’s “un-statable”, which I take to mean that stats can’t encompass what he brings – or that no stat would have any effect on Doc’s thinking with Bradley. As much as I like and appreciate Doc, either of those opinions would be ridiculous, especially in 2019, with the wealth and depth of information we have on statistics and how valuable they can be in evaluating players. First, let’s dive into Bradley’s numbers, and examine how they portray the veteran guard. Spoiler: they say he’s very bad.

Catch-all advanced stats have fallen out of favor recently, as they don’t adequately sum up a player’s contributions on their own. They do, however, paint a general portrait of how good (or bad) players are: the best players in the NBA are usually top-ranked in advanced stats, the worst mostly feature towards the bottom. There’s not one advanced stat that paints Avery Bradley as a positive player.

In basketball reference’s wins shares per 48 minutes, Bradley has a -0.026. Keep in mind that the default league average is .100, and superstars are usually over .200. Anything under 0.03 or so is dreadful. Basketball reference has another stat called BPM, which rates players based on their box score stats and their team’s performance per 100 possessions. Per the stat’s explanation, a BPM of -2 is replacement level, and -5 is “very bad”. Avery Bradley has a BPM of -3.3. ESPN’s RPM tries to determine how a player impacts their team while they’re on the court – not a ranking measurement, as it’s sometimes used, but a rough determination of whether a team is better or worse when a certain player is on the court. Avery Bradley ranks 466th out of 474 players with an RPM of -4.61, and is 472nd in ORPM with a -3.64. All these stats rate Bradley as anywhere from “pretty bad” to “one of the most negative players in the NBA”. On a side note: every player behind Bradley in RPM is on one of the worst teams in the NBA, or in other words, they’re not expected to be helping win games.

Players don’t perform in a vacuum, however. If Bradley was playing badly, but every other guard on the roster was at his level or worse, starting him and playing him big minutes would be perfectly justified. That has not been the case. Every Clippers guard (and almost every Clipper, period) outperforms Bradley in these metrics, save Ty Wallace’s worse BPM. Everyone acknowledges that these catch-all stats are imperfect, so let’s consider some other numbers.

NBA net rating defines how good a team is: it is their point differential per 100 possessions. Offensive rating is how much a team scores, while defensive rating is how much they give up, and taking one from the other gives the total net rating. Players have ratings too, which is how the team performs with them on the court. Avery Bradley has a net rating of -4.5: the team gets outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions (this is a lot in such a large sample size) with him on the court. This is lower than every Clipper but Sindarius Thornwell, Johnathan Motley, and Marcin Gortat. The next lowest player is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with a -1.6. Meanwhile, when Bradley is off the court, the Clippers have a net rating of 5.6, which means that they are effectively 10.1 points per 100 possessions better with Bradley off the court this season than on. That’s a staggering figure for a player who’s receiving the 3rd most minutes per game on a relatively good team.

The Clippers’ starting lineup clearly comes off the worse for wear, as both Shai and Gortat have negative on-court net ratings, and significantly positive off-court ratings (though Shai’s is significantly better than Bradley’s on both counts). However, it’s not just a starting lineup issue. The Clippers are positive with both Harris and Gallinari on the court, and are negatives with Harris off. So yes, the starting lineup is obviously not working, but the glaring negatives are for Bradley alone.

So much for Bradley. He’s by all accounts been a negative player for the Clippers this season (on both ends, by the way), and significantly so. What about his replacements? Well, Shai too doesn’t fare too well by net rating (though much of that slide has come with Shai’s fall-off in recent weeks), but Lou Williams, Tyrone Wallace, and Pat Beverley all look great by net rating. Now, they play together on the 2nd unit with Montrezl Harrell, so one could argue that it’s not that those individual players are better than Bradley, but that they’re better together, or are feasting off superior teammates. Leaving aside the notable point that if a bench unit is *that much* superior to the starters, some of those bench players should probably be starting or playing bigger roles, let’s look at some more basic statistics.

Avery Bradley has the second-lowest assist rate of any of the Clippers’ guards, ahead of just Ty Wallace, and well behind Pat or Shai, to say nothing of Lou. That makes sense, as Bradley is the truest “off-guard” of the quintet, but it does speak to his lack of ball-handling and playmaking skills. Bradley has the lowest rebounding % of the group, somewhat behind Shai and Lou, and eons below Ty and Beverley. His true shooting is an absolutely paltry 44.8%, with the next lowest Clipper being Ty, at 47%. Beverley is at 53%, and Lou and Shai are both 55.8%. Bradley is the weakest and least efficient scorer of the Clippers’ main rotation guards, and it’s not close.

Doc Rivers’ response (as well as Ralph Lawler and Corey Maggette’s) would be that Bradley isn’t played for his offense, or rebounding, or passing, but for defense. Leaving aside that offense is 50% of the game (and that rebounding is a HUGE part of defense), if Bradley really was a strongly positive impact defender, he’d still be worth playing at least somewhat significant minutes. The real issue this season is that Bradley’s defense hasn’t come close to matching his reputation as an “All-NBA defender”.

The stats above indicate that Bradley has been at best “average” on the defensive end. But knowing that they’re better off without him defensively by net rating (and most other metrics), it’s worth considering how good he’s been defensively this season. Look, there’s no denying that he’s an absolute pest on the ball. He gets right up into guys’ jerseys, he’s pretty good and swiping without fouling, and he doesn’t let up. The issue is that all of those things don’t mean he’s actually making the team’s defense any better.

On Monday, Bradley got picked apart in the pick and roll by New Orleans, and that’s not the first time that’s happened this season. Due to his size, he’s best at the point of attack on smaller guards, and he’s mostly done a good job on such players. However, switching is common in today’s NBA, and Bradley lacks the size or strength to be able to do much defending bigger wings. Off-ball defense has also been an issue for Bradley: he doesn’t fight over screens as well as he used to, and he’s been burned many times this season by shooters running around the court off picks.

Overall, Bradley’s probably been fine on defense this season. But fine isn’t good enough when considering how bad the rest of his game has been, and how poor the Clippers have been defensively as a team this season (they’re down to 22nd in defensive rating, and would be even lower if you removed the first couple weeks of the season, when the Clippers were good on that end). If the Clippers are already really bad defensively, and Bradley isn’t making much impact (if any), on that end, then what’s he doing out there?

Not all of this is on Bradley, of course. The Clippers’ starting lineup has a net rating of -7.5 (which is very bad for a starting lineup on a good team). The pieces in it don’t fit together at all: it severely lacks ball-handling and playmaking, both things which Bradley is bad at, but which the rest of the lineup doesn’t compensate for either, especially with Shai slumping. He’s also a poor fit in Doc Rivers’ (very effective overall, to be fair) egalitarian offense based on multiple ball-handlers and playmakers with pick and roll action for almost everyone on the court. He’s just not competent at doing those kinds of things, and should be limited to spot-up threes and cuts to the basket when teams cheat off him too far. If he did so, he’d at least be more effective and less frustrating on offense, if still equally limited.

Really, there’s not much more to say about Bradley. He’s been the worst Clippers’ rotation guard by a mile, dragged down by simply horrible offensive numbers. His defense has been around average at best, but he’s so limited in all other aspects of his game that non-All Defense level performances mean he’s a strongly negative overall player. Worst of all, the Clippers have four guards who have made a more positive impact than Bradley, and he plays more minutes per game than all of them.

Doc Rivers, in the same interview where he said Bradley is un-statable, told reporters that if they think Ty Wallace can play defense like Avery Bradley, they need to go back and watch more film. Meanwhile, Ty Wallace has the best defensive rating on the team of any rotation player (a sterling 102.7), and by this writer’s eye test has been more impactful, versatile, and plain better on the defensive end than Bradley all season long. Ty is younger, quicker, longer, and consistently makes smart, winning plays on that end despite his lack of Bradley’s signature peskiness. If Ty shouldn’t pick up more of Bradley’s minutes, at least Pat, who’s just as pesky a defender, but is far superior as a rebounder, passer, shooter, and scorer, should get a boost.

Doc Rivers truly will forget more about basketball than I will ever know. The same goes for every member of his coaching staff. However, Avery Bradley is not “un-statable”. Numbers can certainly lie, but it’s highly unlikely they are in this case, as they all point in the same direction. Additionally, the anecdotal evidence of almost every basketball writer on Twitter, on blogs, and in the national media is that Bradley has had a poor (putting it nicely) season. If Doc wants to play him rotation minutes, that’s fine. Want to keep him as a token starter to “set the tone”? Sure. But playing him 29+ minutes per game is harming the Clippers, and to keep doing so when every game matters borders on irresponsible.