Analysis: How the Lakers move forward without Avery Bradley

For a stretch of games in November and December, the Lakers were reinvigorated by what they called “the Avery Challenge.”

At the time, Avery Bradley was sidelined by a hairline fracture in his right leg, and without their best on-ball defender, their defense had slipped. The goal of the challenge was to play as well without Bradley on defense as they had with him.

The Lakers now know that if the NBA is able to restart next month in Orlando, the entire postseason will be a challenge after Bradley sidelined himself. The 29-year-old officially informed the team yesterday that he wouldn’t be joining the campus at Walt Disney World Resort, and he told ESPN that he made the decision in part out of concern that one of his children wouldn’t be able to join him for medical reasons.

The question for the Lakers now is what they’ll do without the player Frank Vogel consistently described as the team’s defensive tone-setter.

Bradley’s 8.6 ppg and 36 percent 3-point shooting were relatively humble contributions to the Lakers, but his on-ball defense was essential. The Lakers’ starting lineup, which also was its most-used, had a 101.4 defensive rating (outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions). Bradley’s defensive presence at 6-foot-3 gave the Lakers a ball-stopping guard who didn’t have to be ball-dominant on offense, where LeBron James generally runs the show.

“Picking up fullcourt and the other team’s point guard or the initiator of their offense has a tough time getting the ball over the (half) court and getting them into the rhythm of their offense,” Vogel said earlier this season. “So if we break the rhythm of their offense early, which is what Avery does for us, it just disrupts them.”

The natural successor to Bradley’s starting role is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has started 20 games this season and picked up in a starting role when Bradley was hurt. Caldwell-Pope was robust as a starter this season, averaging more points (11.1 from 8.8) and shooting more accurately (43.4 3-pt percentage from 37.2) than as a bench player. It’s worth noting that for the second straight year, Caldwell-Pope is also the Lakers’ most durable player, as the only one to play in every game in the regular season.

As a defender, the numbers are less encouraging: The Lakers give up more points per possession when he’s on the floor (107.0 defensive rating) than when he’s off (101.9). The starting lineup with Caldwell-Pope in place of Bradley has just a 3.4 net rating.

Arguably the most popular bench player in the NBA this season, Alex Caruso should also gain a firmer role: Similar to Bradley, Caruso offers humble contributions on the offensive end (5.4 ppg, 1.8 apg) but has been a key part of some of the Lakers’ best defensive lineups. The team has a 100.3 defensive rating when he’s on the floor, compared to a 106.7 rating when he’s off.

The Lakers have also leaned on Rajon Rondo for a bigger role when Bradley has been out. Statistically, Rondo has struggled, particularly on defense where advanced stats indicate he’s the weakest rotation player. His per-36 minute production is also down in assists, where he’s considered most valuable as a floor general, and his 3-point shooting has taken a dip after an early season rally.

Still — Rondo occasionally has games like a 23-point, 6-assist effort he had against Phoenix in February. While he’s 34 years old, he’s known to keep in excellent shape and “Playoffs Rondo” has a reputation for showing up big in playoff runs (his last playoff appearance in New Orleans in 2018 saw him average a double-double in points and assists).

The Lakers will have the ability to sign a replacement for Bradley, and an ESPN report indicates that replacement could be J.R. Smith. Smith was a mainstay on the Cavaliers teams led by James that went to four straight Finals, winning it all in 2016.

The veteran guard will be turning 35 in September and has not played a game since November of 2018. But he also has been working out in Southern California for months, and has worked out for the Lakers earlier this season (they eventually signed Dion Waiters). Critically, Smith is also represented by Rich Paul, who now accounts for five clients on the Lakers’ roster, including its two most important players. ESPN reported that Paul and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spoke Tuesday night about potentially adding Smith to the fold.

What the Lakers might have to wonder is what could be coming next: Dwight Howard has publicly expressed some reservations about the NBA’s restart, and as of Tuesday, Danny Green said on his podcast that although he thought Howard would join the team, he couldn’t be sure. While many Lakers have been in Southern California training together privately, Bradley was withdrawn from that group — Howard has spent most of the hiatus in his home state of Georgia, also largely removed from the team dynamic. 

Back when Bradley couldn’t play, the Lakers embraced it as a challenge to their top dog status. The key to winning a title might lie in whether the team can summon that energy once again.

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