First and foremost, I'd like to start by establishing the fundamental premise that there are two guard duos in the NBA right now that are clearly head and shoulders above the rest -- Parker-Ginobili and Westbrook-Harden. Those backcourts are the gold standard, and at least in the case of the OKC twosome, probably will be for quite some time. Both combos give you everything you could want from your guards, and then some, and those four players each have legitimate All-Star level talent.
Nevertheless, the league is in an interesting place right now, I think, with respect to the level of talent among guards and how they are distributed amongst the various teams. Perhaps due to the changes over the last few years in handchecking rules, we're seeing a boom in speedy, ball-dominant point guards who can score, while at the same time there's quite a paucity league wide of really good, versatile off-guards and pure point guards who can create good looks for others. So while many teams have one or two really good guards on their roster, it's not so clear that many teams have guards that play together and complement each other really well. Therefore, I think it's worth exploring the question of which team can lay the claim to having the best backcourt -- outside of San Antonio and OKC, that is.
This should be an especially exciting topic for Celtics fans, I think, given what has become perhaps the biggest and least expected storyline of the season for the Green Team -- the development of Avery Bradley. Simply put, Avery has gone from a limited role player -- a player with one or two NBA tools -- to a very solid player (3 or 4 tools) with the potential to become more than that.
At the start of the season, Avery was a player with one clearly defined A-plus NBA skill -- on-ball pressure. It was clear that because of that, he had a good chance of at least carving out a career for himself in the league, somewhere. Yet over just the past couple of months, he has transformed himself into a player with three or four clearly defined NBA skills. In addition to his perhaps league-best ability to pressure the ball handler without fouling, he also has shown a high level ability to move off the ball (primarily cutting to the basket, not coming off screens like most shooting guards) and, most recently, to nail corner threes at a high percentage. He's also shown an ability to be a defensive playmaker (cue footage of the epic block on Dwyane Wade), and there's some evidence that he could be a high level scoring threat in the open court, as well as a threat to use a pretty nifty cross-over to make pull-up mid-range jumpers or get to the rim.
Really, Avery's development is just one more reason that the shortening of the season as a result of the lockout is a shame, because given another 20-30 games as a starter, Avery probably would have had a great case for the Most Improved Player award. In April alone, Avery has started 13 out of 14 games, playing 33.5 minutes per game, and has averaged 15.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.6 assists while shooting 52.7% from the field and a blistering 63% from beyond the arc. Those numbers are even a little bit better when you focus on the games in which Avery has played ideal starter minutes (30-39), which is a larger sample size of 17 games. Compare that to last season, when Avery played in only 31 games, averaging 5.1 minutes in those appearances, and averaged a paltry 1.7 points on 34.3% shooting.
Sure, we should probably temper our expectations; we should anticipate that Avery will take some steps backward before he takes many more forward. The game Tuesday night against the Heat, which ought to have been an opportunity for Avery to dominate, but was instead painful (in fairness, it was for everybody involved), is an example of that. He could come up big for the Celtics in the upcoming post-season, helping them to play the spoiler for season-long favorites Miami and Chicago, or he could struggle in the harsh spotlight and increased pressure of the playoffs. This article could seem very silly a month or two from now.
Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, what should we expect to see from Bradley moving forward? Will he become less effective as his role grows and opposing teams gameplan for him more, or will he become more effective as he gains in experience and confidence and continues to work on his game? Put another way, how much potential does Avery Bradley have? What is his ceiling? We know, at least, that going into college he was considered to have talent on the same level as John Wall, so there's reason to believe that his ceiling could be very high indeed (though the freakishly athletic Mr. Wall has had his own problems so far with meeting expectations). It's important to remember that this summer will be Avery's first opportunity to have a complete off-season and training camp with the team, since he was dealing with injury his first year, and the lockout the next. His recent growth is even more startling when considered in that light.
Regardless, what we can say for sure right now is that although the Rondo / Bradley combo doesn't blow you away with explosive scoring, as neither player can, at this point, consistently create their own shot in a half-court set, you'd be hard pressed to find a faster duo in the league. Even more exciting for the Celtics (and scary for opponents) is that Rondo and Bradley could arguably be the starting backcourt this year for the All-Defensive 1st team. Those two are breathtaking on the defensive end when they are at their best, putting all kinds of pressure on the ball and creating chaos in passing lanes. Bradley alone has at times shut down the other team by making it a struggle for them just to get the ball across the half court line. As far as offense is concerned, even though you could say that Bradley has gotten most of his offense from easy looks off back-door cuts and open jumpshots, you could just as easily argue that Bradley will have plenty of those chances as long as he's playing alongside Rondo, who is probably the most talented and certainly the most prolific facilitator in the league right now.
Maybe the best news of all for the Guards in Green is that they are so young compared to their competition. There are some comparably formidable duos out there -- Rose-Hamilton, Sessions-Bryant, Conley-Allen, Wade-Chalmers, Paul-Williams -- but none of them have the youth and potential that Rondo and Bradley do.
It's possible that this discussion is premature; like so many other guards we've seen have great stretches over the past couple of seasons, Bradley's recent excellence could be nothing more than a brief flash which subsides into role-playing decency, which would still leave the Celtics in a good, but not great, position. Nevertheless, it's hard to watch what Rondo and Avery have done together recently -- causing turnovers, initiating fast breaks, terrorizing ball-handlers, and hooking up on alley-oop dunks -- and not smile while thinking about what they might do to the league over the next few years. Here's hoping that this season is simply the start of great things for Rondo, Bradley, the Celtics, and Celtics fans for many years to come.