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Pelton mail: Holes in Avery Bradley's defensive game?

From ESPN - August 12, 2017

This week's mailbag features your questions on why Avery Bradley's defensive metrics fail to impress, what the fate of a Colin Kaepernick in the NBA might be, an scrum-like offensive proposal and more.

You can tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to peltonmailbag@gmail.com.

"If Colin Kaepernick was a basketball player and was maybe a top 20-25 player at his position, would he be on an NBA roster?" -- Joseph Brown

I think the answer is probably yes, though with an important caveat. Some part of the Kaepernick situation is the unique nature of the quarterback position, where there's no rotation whatsoever, meaning a brighter line between starter and backup than exists in basketball. If we instead assume Kaepernick is really more like the 35th-best quarterback -- an elite backup -- he might never play a down, but the equivalent NBA player would still average 25-30 minutes per game even coming off the bench.

Certainly, the NBA has staked out a position far to the left of the NFL on social-justice issues, and the league's younger, more progressive owners and fans would work to the benefit of a hypothetical Kaepernick equivalent. Yet a cynic might note that the national anthem is the one place where the league has generally been quite conservative.

The NBA's anthem rule states that "players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture ... during the playing of the American and/or Canadian national anthems," which led to a suspension when Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protested during the 1995-96 season. Abdul-Rauf believes that his anthem protest led him to be blackballed from the league (and pretty much predicted exactly what has played out with Kaepernick in an interview with The Undefeated last fall) and there the evidence is much less clear.

During 1995-96, the season he was suspended, Abdul-Rauf was inarguably a quality NBA player. His 7.0 wins above replacement (WARP) ranked 52nd in the league. But Abdul-Rauf's play slipped after he was traded to the Sacramento Kings the following summer, and he rated worse than replacement level in 1996-97 (minus-1.0 WARP) and even worse in 1997-98 (minus-1.2 WARP in 530 minutes). About one in four players so ineffective in 500-plus minutes is out of the NBA the following season, and I would have expected the number to be higher than that.

Something similar is true of Craig Hodges, another player who believes he was blackballed from the NBA for his outspoken political beliefs. (Hodges even filed a lawsuit against the league in federal court.) While Hodges rated near replacement level in WARP in his final NBA season (1991-92) because of his high rate of 3-point attempts, his other advanced metrics were dismal and unlikely to rebound at age 32.

So while I suspect a basketball version of Kaepernick would in fact be in the league, there's not a good enough precedent in terms of ability to make a strong comparison.

@kpelton Hey Kevin, why do you think Avery Bradley rates so poorly on D in real plus-minus? Seems like a good defender. Curious about that.

Jared Cowley (@jaredcowley) August 9, 2017

Avery Bradley rated 1.7 points per 100 possessions worse than league average defensively in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) last season. He has rated somewhat better in the past (minus-1.2 DRPM in 2015-16, plus-0.7 in 2014-15) but never as the kind of elite defender his reputation would suggest.

Part of the issue, certainly, is that Bradley does not really contribute many steals and blocks for a top-tier wing defender. Compare his rates in the two categories last season to the perimeter players chosen All-Defensive ahead of him:

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