Avery Bradley: Is Defensive Player of the Year Realistic?

Mar 5, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) works against Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) during the third quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 120-103. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) works against Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) during the third quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 120-103. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Does Avery Bradley have a chance at being named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17?

Boston has known for a while that Avery Bradley is one of the best defenders in the NBA, but it was unknown if the rest of the league knew that. After being named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012-13, Bradley failed to be recognized for his defensive efforts over the next two seasons. He averaged fewer steals per game but his defense wasn’t lacking, rather the Boston Celtics were going through a rebuild.

It’s fitting that after a year in which Boston won 48 games, surprising everyone in the NBA, Bradley returned to being recognized for his defensive efforts. This time, though, the NBA named Bradley to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.

While Bradley is extremely deserving of the honor, it was somewhat surprising. When discussing elite wing defenders names such as Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Tony Allen and Jimmy Butler come up, with Avery Bradley on the outside looking in. Either way, the NBA took notice of his career-high 1.5 steals per game and, most importantly, that his defensive efforts go beyond the stat sheet.

Bradley would love to become a common name on All-Defensive Teams, but he’s setting his goal a little higher than that.

After finishing sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year, he told ESPN’s Chris Forsberg, ” That’s my goal: To be Defensive Player of the Year.”

That’s a hefty goal for any player, especially for someone who didn’t even lead his team in steals per game a season ago. Jae Crowder led the Celtics with 1.7 steals per contest, with Bradley ranking a mere 23rd in the league.

Becoming the Defensive Player of the Year isn’t completely out of his reach, though. After receiving no votes in 2014-15, Bradley garnered 14 points this past year. Still, he has a lot of ground to cover to catch the likes of Leonard and Green, who have made this a two-man race over the past couple of seasons.

With Kawhi Leonard just now hitting the prime of his career, it would take a special season to dethrone him. He’s been named the Defensive Player of the Year the past two seasons and won by over 100 points last season. Leonard has a chance to be considered one of the best defenders in NBA history if he keeps up this pace, especially when considering the odds he’s faced up to this point.

The Defensive Player of the Year honor has historically been an award for big men. Centers took home the award in 17 of the prior 18 seasons leading up to Leonard’s back-to-back wins. Ron Artest in 2003-04 was the last wing player to win the award prior to Leonard and a guard hasn’t taken home the award since Gary Payton in 1995-96 – Bradley was just six-years-old.

There have been a lot of great defensive guards since Gary Payton but, right now, Bradley has the best chance of ending the drought for guards. With Tony Allen being 34-years-old and his best defensive years behind him, it’s Avery Bradley’s turn.

Although, as previously mentioned, Leonard is just 24-years-old and his defensive production won’t slow down anytime soon. When comparing Bradley’s 2015-16 defensive statistics to Leonard’s, they simply don’t compare.

Bradley’s 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks and 2.9 rebounds per game dwindle in comparison to Leonard’s 1.8 steals, one block and 6.8 rebounds per game. Despite only standing at 6-7, Leonard has proven to have the skill set to consistently outperform big men in an area of the game they have dominated in throughout history. He’s a great shot blocker when considering his height, ranked 12th in the NBA in steals per game and is a solid rebounder. Historically, those are the attributes great defensive big men have had, expect Leonard is doing it as a small forward and can guard all five positions.

Strictly based off statistics, Avery Bradley stands no chance. He’s averaged more than three boards per game just twice in his career and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Crowder continuing to lead Boston in steals per game over the next couple of seasons. Luckily for Bradley, voters saw what was so special about his defensive game last season, and he’s now in the spotlight.

Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

When discussing Bradley’s defensive efforts, they go beyond the stat sheet. As preciously mentioned, his statistics lack in comparison to other elite defenders and his 2.8 defensive win shares ranked just fifth on the Celtics, and only 0.3 points higher than Isaiah Thomas. Although, you really need to watch Bradley to see his impact on both ends of the floor, especially on defense.

He’s not a ball hawk who plays the passing lanes, rather he’s one of the toughest on-ball defenders in the league. Due to Thomas’ 5-9 height, Bradley is usually switched onto the taller and more explosive guard in the opposing team’s back court. Every night he faces off against All-Star caliber players, guarding point guards to small forwards.

His defensive responsibility and importance on that end is only matched by a few players in the NBA. This is best seen during the playoffs last season in Game One of the Celtics first round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks. Jeff Teague finished the game with 23 points and 12 assists, however he struggled for most of the game before Bradley went down with an injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the series.

After Bradley went down with 6:42 left in the fourth quarter, Teague had nine points and two assists. Sure, Teague had 10 assists with Bradley on him, however that was also due to the fact that the Celtics were shaky on defense the whole game, allowing Al Horford and Paul Millsap to dominate in the paint. Bradley suffocated Teague and forced him to pass by never giving him an open look.

Besides, holding Teague to 14 points and 10 assists in three and a half quarters is a lot more efficient than nine points and two assists in half a quarter – on pace for 72 points and 16 assists. It gave the Hawks life at the end of the game and eventually propelled them to a key Game One victory.

Bradley only recorded one steal and a block during Game One, yet he was easily the best defender on the court for the Celtics. The problem is, how will voters view a player who doesn’t put up gaudy statistics?

Since 2000-01, all but three players who have taken home the Defensive Player of the Year award have averaged at least one block and steal per game – two averaged 0.9 steals per contest. Plus, Ron Artest is the only player in that time span to average fewer than the 6.8 rebounds per game that Leonard grabbed last season – Gary Payton only player to win the award with fewer than five boards per game (4.2).

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Avery Bradley jumped into the national spotlight for his defense this season, however major individual awards usually go to players with eye-popping numbers. The good news is that the league is becoming wing player dominant, even on the defensive end, and Kawhi Leonard has broken the mold that wing players can’t be consistent winners of the award.

Still, at just 24-years-old, it seems like the only way the award won’t go to Leonard over the coming years is if he gets hurt or Draymond Green steals it away. Bradley is a great defensive guard but, as annoying as it may be, he’ll need to put up bigger numbers to be considered a true threat to Leonard and Green.

With Bradley’s lack of impact on the glass, a top-five finish seems to be his ceiling. With Leonard’s and Green’s defensive versatility, and Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan blocking 3.7 and 2.3 shots per game, respectively, while also pulling down an insane amount of rebounds, Bradley’s numbers and defensive effort will easily get lost in the mix.

Next: Is There Too Much Hype Surrounding the Celtics?

There’s no taking away from the immense responsibility Bradley has on the defensive end for the Celtics, and being named to the All-Defensive First Team will only draw more attention to his off-the-stat sheet impact. He’ll continue to be a pest on defense to the best guards in the league but, unless he doubles his rebounding production, he doesn’t have a legitimate shot at winning the award.