DUMPSTER HOOPS: MEET AVERY BRADLEY, THE BEST DEFENDER IN AMERICA

Here’s a question for all the basketball lovers out there: Who is the best perimeter defender in the NBA? LeBron James, maybe? Could it be Tony Allen? Is it Andre Iguodala? Paul George? Nope. They are all good answers, but I put my money on Avery Bradley.

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I mean, is it official yet? Can we please just anoint Avery Bradley as the King of On-Ball Defense? Never have I seen someone play defense with such passion and such aggression. The way he blankets the opposing ball-handler makes something as simple as dribbling across half-court a challenge. The kid has endless stamina and seems to never tire out. There really might not be another player in the NBA that expends that much energy on defense. You might see it in college basketball, but that doesn’t exist in the NBA, anyway. It is unparalleled, unreal.

Sure, there are a full arsenal of long-armed perimeter players in the league who are elite defenders with freakish athleticism like Lebron, Iggy, Paul George, Iman Shumpert, etc. But guess what? All of those guys are at least 6’5″. Avery Bradley stands at just 6’2″. Yet, despite being undersized, Bradley is literally capable of taking on any player in the NBA one-on-one.

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The third-year combo guard out of Texas has shut down every top scorer he has faced this season, especially as of late. The night after Stephen Curry dropped 54 points at MSG, Bradley held him to just a 6-for-22 shooting effort from the field. Last weekend, the NBA’s soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard was held to just 5-of-16 shooting in a 12-point effort against Bradley. Last night, Jrue Holiday went just 6-for-17 from the floor with five turnovers in Philly’s loss to Bradley and the Celts. Different opponent, different backcourt, same results.

If you want fancy numbers to prove it, Bradley is second in the league in allowing a mere 0.678 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. Furthermore, opponents generate points on a mere 31.4 percent of plays against Bradley, the lowest number in the league for players with at least 225 defensive possessions. Pretty good, eh?

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Do you know what it is that makes Avery Bradley’s defense so incredible? It’s contagious. Bradley’s presence on the floor has completely changed the outlook of Boston’s season. The C’s are back to their defensive roots despite being an aging veteran team without a ton of athleticism. They started the season so poorly on the defensive end of the floor, but since Jan. 2 rolled around and Bradley finally made his way back into the lineup, the Celtics have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. His intensity inspired the rest of the team to put forth the extra effort on defense. Yet, Bradley also makes everyone else’s job easier at the same time. Look, for instance, at how much he disrupts something as simple as the pick and roll.

Not only did the C’s win six of their first seven games upon his return, but they have been able to maintain the losses of Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa to injury. Since his return to the lineup, the Celtics are 18-11 with Bradley and have dramatically improved when it comes to points allowed and field goal percentage defense. I don’t want to say this sudden transformation is all because of one player….but yeah, it’s all because of one player.

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On top of all this, my favorite part of this developing story is how much Avery Bradley takes pride in playing the role of defensive stopper. Bradley is still a work in progress on the offensive end of the floor, so for now, he is completely content being known as the lockdown defender, and he handles that role as good as anyone in the league. Guys like Lebron and Chris Paul and Kevin Durant are exceptional defenders; but they are also simply exceptional basketball players, period. They do everything well.

In contrast, guys like Tony Allen and Bruce Bowen have carved out lengthy careers in the league because of their defensive prowess. Bradley is the next player to fall into that line. But then imagine if he develops a great offensive game to accompany that constant defensive pressure? That’s a thought that might just bring tears of joy to the eyes of Boston fans everywhere.

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In short, if Avery Bradley doesn’t earn All-NBA Defensive Team honors, it’ll be the farce of all farces. There is a reason why he was literally the only player on the Boston Celtics roster that Danny Ainge did not consider trading at the deadline. He is the building block of this franchise for a reason. He is a game-changer. He the best on-ball defender in the game, it’s as simple as that. It seems like this is the year the rest of the league is finally learning about Avery Bradley.

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PICKING THROUGH THE WEEKEND TRASH: RONDO GOES DOWN

It was quite the weekend for Celtics fans. The beleaguered Boston Celtics, losers of six straight games, returned home on Sunday from a terribly disappointing overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night. That Friday night tilt would prove to be gut-wrenchingly painful in many ways, but the fact that the C’s blew a 27-point lead to a team that had previously lost 9 of its last 14 games says a lot as it is.

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Sunday wasn’t just any ordinary Sunday though. Not only were the hated Miami Heat in town for the first time all season in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, but it was the return of Ray Allen! Story lines galore at the Garden! But wait, there’s more… After “tweaking” his knee on Friday (and playing through the pain), Rajon Rondo was surprisingly announced as inactive for Sunday’s game and was headed to the hospital for an MRI on his right knee. The Celtics would go on to play arguably their best game of the season without Rondo and upset Miami in double overtime! 100-98. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett combined to play 94 minutes! The Truth posted a triple-double! But all of that greatness was mired by an announcement that came in the middle of the action, sometime after 2 pm. It went something like this: RONDO TORN ACL. Ouch. Paul Pierce’s reaction says it all.

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So the Celtics, regardless of their awesome win on Sunday, are officially at a crossroads. With Rondo, they were a playoff team that, well, probably wasn’t going to win many games in the postseason. Maybe Boston was potentially the No. 6 seed with an upset shot of beating a team like New York or Indiana or Chicago in the First Round. Now, the problem is that, even without Rondo, the C’s are probably still a playoff team; but now it’s as the No. 8 seed with zero chance of beating Miami in a seven-game series. The Eastern Conference is so shallow, only the 76ers, Pistons, or Raptors have any chance of sneaking into the top eight. If the Celtics keep the roster as it is, even if they finish five games under .500, they probably finish higher than Philly or Toronto, once again keeping them out of the NBA Draft Lottery. So what does Boston want to do from here? Allow me to explain the options…

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KEEP THE ROSTER IN TACT
If you take a look at their roster, the Celtics have 10 players under contract beyond this season. Paul Pierce’s contract (15 million/year) expires at the end of 2014, while Rondo, KG, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, and Avery Bradley are locked up until 2015. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jared Sullinger, and Fab Melo are under contract through 2016. The key behind all of this are the contracts of Paul Pierce and KG. You have to assume that they’ll retire at some point, right? This applies particularly to Garnett, who could be ready to hang up the sneakers after this season even though he’s in the midst of a three-year deal. That being said, I also doubt Pierce will have anything left in the tank when his contract is up. So if Pierce and KG are off the books at the end of next season (2014), that frees up over 27 million dollars for the Celtics, while leaving them with a handful of expiring contracts (including Rondo, Bass, and Terry) to use as trade pieces in 2015. Can that be the year that the Celtics make a run at a big name in free agency and/or make a move to get a top tier player through a trade?

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I know that fans don’t want to think that far ahead, but if they keep the roster as it is through the rest of this season and let Pierce and KG and Doc Rivers make one final playoff run together, it could allow the Celtics to have a lot more salary cap flexibility in the coming years. Not to mention that Boston could potentially suck ass in 2013-14 (especially if Rondo is slow to return to health and Garnett is gone), and could potentially move into the lottery of the 2014 NBA Draft, which could be the best draft in the last decade with guys like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins on deck. I know there are a lot of questions to be answered, but being mediocre for one more season might be the best way to ensure a quicker rebuilding process for 2014-2015. Plus, you have to think that KG and Pierce and even potentially Doc Rivers want to go out with pride, if it is in fact the end of their respective careers in Boston.

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MAKE A COMPLIMENTARY MOVE OR TWO AND WORK WITH WHAT YOU GOT
With the February 21st trade deadline looming over their heads, there are few types of moves the Celtics can make this season. Boston can beat any team on any given day because of two players: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Even with their age and declining skills, we’re talking about two of the best players to ever play the game, although it’s obvious that neither is as spry as they once were. Meanwhile, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger are certainly nice pieces as well, but let me be blunt: the rest of the team is very much expendable. If the Celtics are convinced they can still win a playoff series without Rondo, they absolutely need to shake up the rest of their roster. So basically, we’re talking about combining some kind Jason Terry/Jeff Green/Brandon Bass/Courtney Lee package with one of the young trade chips (ideally Sullinger and not Bradley) and hoping to come away with a solid point guard and/or a rebounding presence in the paint.

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Kyle Lowry is certainly a name that comes to mind, especially considering that the Celtics lack a true point guard without Rondo. Lowry is talented and affordable and would provide a great combination of offense and defense, while being a potential trade chip going forward when Rondo comes back. He’s the perfect stopgap, if you will, and could be easily attained especially with Toronto aggressively pursuing Rudy Gay from Memphis. Other stopgaps in the backcourt include Andre Miller, Rodney Stuckey, Luke Ridnour, and Jameer Nelson. As far as the frontcourt is concerned, I’m sure Boston would happily unload Bass or Terry or the young Fab Melo for someone who can grab a damn rebound. The list of affordable, easily attainable stopgaps there include: Paul Millsap, Jason Thompson, and Dejuan Blair, among others.

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MAKE A BIG MOVE AND START REBUILDING, NOW!
Now, a smaller complimentary move like that would essentially be a move for this season only. That’s basically giving Pierce and KG and Avery Bradley another asset or two to work with without completely overhauling the roster and hoping for the best. But what if the C’s do decide overhaul the roster? There are two directions they can go. On the one end, what if the Celts decided to package all of their young talent and see what it reeled in? If Bradley and Sullinger were packaged together, along with maybe a draft pick and some other pieces (Lee, Green, etc.), the Celtics could potentially acquire a young superstar like DeMarcus Cousins and start the rebuilding process a little early. I know Cousins is going to be nearly impossible to attain, but it’s the idea of Boston mortgaging nearly all of their assets for one star player that just sounds so enticing… and awful at the same time. On a lesser extent, Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay, and Al Jefferson are all available too! This idea I don’t like so much. Rebuilding around one good player and a bunch of trash is not really the way to go.

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Now consider including the likes of Pierce and KG into a trade to start the rebuilding process this season, and the idea becomes much more intriguing. Without having to surrender draft picks and, of course, Avery Bradley, the Celtics can go out and make a trade for the future with more ease. The only thing is that it would have to involve a contender. Garnett has a “No-Trade Clause” in his contract, so theoretically, he would probably say no to any destination other than maybe Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, or the Clippers. None of those teams have much to offer besides draft picks, which is why the Thunder are the most intriguing counterpart of the aforementioned teams. Would Jeremy Lamb/Perry Jones and a Houston’s first-round pick be enough for the C’s to unload Garnett? That’s for Danny Ainge to decide, I guess.

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On the hand, it would be much easier to deal Paul Pierce, who becomes an expiring contract next season and doesn’t have a “No Trade Clause.” Pierce would be a huge boost to a number of playoff hopeful teams including: Golden State, Utah, and, once again, the Clippers. Would the Celtics pull the trigger on a deal that involved them receiving Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, or Eric Bledsoe? I would do it in a heartbeat.

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Barnes or Thompson would become expendable if the Warriors wanted to make a push to win now. The Jazz have a glut of talented big men on their roster and definitely could shop one to get a veteran swingman like Pierce. And Eric Bledsoe continues to play behind Chris Paul. All three teams could give up one of these young assets for Pierce, and although you have to respect Pierce’s best wishes in regards to where he wants to finish his career, if he is willing to be shipped to a contender, and if you feel like you have to make a deal to ensure what’s best for your franchise going forward, a deal that includes any of these five guys would definitely be worth it.

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