There is no sense in discounting the power of momentum in sports, and when the NBA suspended its season in early March, Avery Bradley had it.
“He’s been hot the last five, six weeks or so,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said on March 8, after the Lakers beat the Clippers for the first time this season. Bradley made six of 12 three-point attempts that day.
“He was spectacular,” LeBron James said. “We know what we were going to get from him defensively, but what he gave us offensively tonight was gigantic.”
The Lakers had momentum then, too. That weekend, in addition to beating the Clippers, they beat the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks and were staring at the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2013. The two main reasons for their renaissance are James and Anthony Davis, of course, but the Lakers built an admirable supporting cast for their two stars, and Bradley’s contributions were growing more critical.
But basketball has been far from the only consideration for the league and its players during the last three months.
Because of that, the Lakers face an unprecedented playoff scenario, months removed from most of their regular season, during a global pandemic at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising sharply in Florida.
And they’ll face it without Bradley, a key role player. Bradley announced on Tuesday that he would not join his team in Florida because of concerns about his family and his young son, who has a respiratory condition.
The Lakers guards now include Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Dion Waiters, Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker. Caldwell-Pope is the most likely to slide into Bradley’s starting role as he did while Bradley was injured during the regular season, with Caruso the next in line.
Both players have been solid defensively for the Lakers. Caruso averages 5.4 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists and one steal per game, while Caldwell-Pope averages 9.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 0.8 steals per game.
After signing Waiters on March 6, the Lakers had been easing him into their system, with plans to play him in mid-March. Waiters worked out the same day that the Lakers got a look at JR Smith, who also played well in his audition. According to people familiar with their plans, the Lakers have had some conversations about adding Smith now that Bradley has opted not to play.
From the very beginning of Lakers training camp, Bradley, a two-time All-NBA defensive player, made his presence known.
He was a pest on defense and Vogel quickly made him a starter. The Lakers soon became one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. In their 10 games with Bradley to start the season, they held opponents under 100 points five times.
“He’s a dog,” teammate Dwight Howard said of Bradley during the season. “He gets out there, he guards the best perimeter player on the other team. He doesn’t let them breathe, and I really like what he brings to our team, the intensity on the defense end. Then on the offensive end, he’s a silent killer.”
Then they lost Bradley to a hairline fracture in his right leg that caused him to miss 13 games. In their first seven games without Bradley, they held only one opponent under 100 points.
That’s when Vogel implemented the Avery Challenge.
“Ever since Avery went out, our defense took a hit a little bit,” Davis said on Dec. 6. “The last two games we’ve been able to be the No. 1 team in defensive rating and we want to get there every time. We lay our hats on defense knowing it’ll fuel our offense.”
The Lakers weren’t helpless without Bradley, but they did take some time to recover from the shock of losing him. They’ll have about six weeks now to determine how they’ll recover this time.