Training camp isn’t just the opening of the NBA season, it’s also when optimism season hits full stride. Over the course of the summer, teams made key additions to their rosters and with those additions come a great belief and flowery quotes about why it’s all going to work. Then training camp opens and we get our first glimpses of these newly constructed teams and things are just great.
Player X has put on 15-20 pounds of muscle and just looks so much stronger. Player Y has lost 15-20 pounds and just looks so much quicker. The work on Player Z’s jumpshot has paid dividends — he cannot miss in practice. And then here’s your favorite team’s head coach, going on the record after a long practice, talking about how hard everyone is working and how they’re all coming together and how even though there’s a long road ahead, they have real belief in the foundation they’re building in order to accomplish their goals.
And it’s all so wonderful, we take that ethernet cable right out of the router and hook it right into our arm so we can inject the optimism right into our veins. We love it. The NBA, baby. It’s back. Here. We. Go.
If you can’t see the cynicism dripping off the paragraphs above, I’ll tell you flat out, I’m skeptical of these narratives. I’ve been at this write-about-an-NBA-team thing a fairly long time and history has taught me some truths — a main one is that training camp narratives can, often, shift into regular season realities that no longer apply quite quickly.
The things we see in camp are just that: things we see in camp. The nature of the practices and of going against your own teammates and the fact that everyone is at that stage of the year where things are fresh and new can create an environment that doesn’t translate to actual regular season basketball so easily. In other words, the real games start and the things we thought we knew a month ago don’t hold up under more scrutiny. It’s not that these things are always flat-out wrong or that initial optimism was totally unjustified, but that training camps often offer us the best version of things and narratives take hold based on early returns.
Regular season basketball (and, later, playoff basketball) has a way of shining light on things to make us readjust what we thought we knew.
This entire preamble leads me to Avery Bradley. While LeBron James and Anthony Davis will always be the headline grabbing talents for these Lakers, it’s Bradley who has been the talk of camp so far. The journeyman guard is being praised heavily for his defense and, apparently, has been a standout in practices and scrimmages for his “tenacious” work on that end of the floor. Don’t take my word for it, though, take Davis’:
“I’ve seen Avery play defense from afar, but to see it every day the way he gets after it and competes,” Davis said, “it’s pretty special. He can really guard the ball, to the point where Coach [Vogel] said, ‘If he’s on the ball, just pass it.’ He’s very special on the defensive end.”
Bradley being talked about like he’s the Lakers version of Patrick Beverly is certainly great, but, again, I’m not necessarily worried about camp narratives. As the old saying goes “iron sharpens iron” and Bradley putting the screws to Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, or any of the other Lakers guards isn’t the same as him going up against James Harden or Steph Curry1No offense to the Lakers guards!.
I get that everything I’ve typed above can come off as very wet blanket-ish. So, I want to be clear here, Bradley earning praise is great. But, it’s not the praise that matters to me, rather it’s the skill-set and approach Bradley brings to the table in the first place. I’d much rather focus on why that matters more than any success he’s having in practice.
You see, the Lakers sorely need a player who can pressure the ball at the point of attack by being a physical, pestering presence who has the ability to disrupt other team’s sets. The closest the Lakers have had to that over the last two seasons is Lonzo Ball, who was good, but not great at this 2Lonzo is a much better help defender whose instincts off ball can disrupt teams more than his work at the point of attack did., and only played in a total of 99 out of a possible 162 games over his two seasons in Los Angeles. Of course, Bradley has had his own issues with injury for the past several seasons and glossing over that would be irresponsible. But when he is available and healthy, his approach at the point of attack is exactly what the Lakers need defensively.
As we covered when talking about how Frank Vogel and Anthony Davis are a natural pair defensively, Vogel’s schemes have traditionally been built around rim protecting bigs who swallow up the penetration steered their way by a deliberate defenders at the point of attack. Now consider Bradley’s best defensive trait being ball pressure and how much more aggressive his approach can become when backed up by shot blocking bigs like Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard.
Said more simply, the downfall of ball pressure is how exposed it can leave your teammates when you get beat.3And you will get beat when pressuring the ball at this level. It is unavoidable. The guards in the NBA are simply too good.Mitigating that downside often falls on the defender on the ball to determine, on the fly, how much he feels he can get away with and how much he needs to ease up in order to avoid widening that exposure. With this group of bigs behind him, however, Bradley can dial the risk up and worry about getting beat less. This plays into his strengths more and should only increase his confidence. Whether that translates to effectiveness remains to be seen, but I’m a firm believer that ultimate success at the NBA level is tied to putting players in positions to succeed by allowing them to play to the best parts of their game rather than simply trying to limit where they may not be as great.
Throughout Bradley’s career, and especially in recent seasons, he’s been a player asked to take on the challenge of defending the other team’s primary perimeter offensive threat. Check out where Bradley falls on this chart published by the Athletic’s Seth Partnow on twitter:
Bradley is used to being out on an island, but the calculus of playing out there against the the league’s best shot creators is wildly different when the the guy behind you is Anthony Davis vs. when it’s Montrezl Harrell. Bradley will benefit from the former this year more than he did the latter last year.
And, ultimately, that is what matters more to me than the soundbites of what Bradley is doing right now in camp. Yes, his level of play in this environment matters4There’s a case to be made that his play in camp matters more as an indicator of his current health than how transferable this is to the regular season, by the way., but I’m more looking forward to having a player who has these tools in his box and how that can be applied within the context of how the Lakers can be the best versions of themselves.