The Boston Celtics were the most interesting team entering the 2017 NBA offseason. It’s not often that the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference goes into the offseason with the first pick in the draft. The Celtics also had cap flexibility, a treasure chest of draft picks and several talented players on bargain contracts to include in trades.
The Celtics ultimately traded the rights to the first pick in the draft to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for the rights to the third overall pick and its 2018 first-round pick (technically it is the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick that Philadelphia acquired from the Phoenix Suns in 2015). Notably, the 2018 first-round pick will instead become a 2019 first-round pick (acquired from the Sacramento Kings) if the Lakers’ pick doesn’t land in the 2-5 range in the 2018 draft. With the third overall pick, the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum from Duke.
The Celtics then made the biggest free agent signing of the offseason, luring Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz. Hayward agreed to sign a max contract with the Celtics, which made it necessary for the Celtics to shed some additional cap space. The Celtics went through multiple trade scenarios with several teams, but ended up sending guard Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for forward Marcus Morris. The deal created $3.8 million in cap space for the Celtics, which allowed them to sign Hayward to a max contract, while also preserving their $4.32 million room mid-level exception.
In landing Hayward, the Celtics add one of the most talented and versatile small forwards in the league. With little doubt, adding Hayward and Morris makes the Celtics a better overall team. However, the loss of Bradley is significant, especially considering the role he played for the Celtics. Isaiah Thomas has made incredible strides during his six years in the NBA. He is a big-time scorer, a good shooter, solid playmaker and is lethal in big moments at the end of close games. However, for all of his incredible talents, Thomas will always be a liability on defense. At 5-foot-9, Thomas is simply unable to guard the Russell Westbrooks and John Walls of the world and is reliant on others to take on these assignments.
That’s what made Bradley so important to the Celtics. Boston still has Marcus Smart and other versatile defenders to step into this role, but Bradley was particularly well-suited to take these tough assignments from Thomas, which allowed him to guard spot up shooters and less lethal offensive players. From Stephen Curry to Jimmy Butler, Bradley has the size, speed, strength and intelligence to effectively guard the deadliest point guards, shooting guards and small forwards. C.J. McCollum may score 20+ points against Bradley in a head-to-head matchup, but McCollum will have to work hard for each point and will likely be too worn down put forward his best defensive effort that night. It’s no wonder players like Devin Booker were flabbergasted when Bradley wasn’t selected to an NBA All-Defense team last season.
No Avery Bradley all-defense?! On the behalf of the players… he deserves it!
— Devin Booker (@DevinBook) June 26, 2017
It should be noted that while Bradley is one of the best lockdown defenders in the NBA, his defensive metrics have not always supported the notion that he is an elite defensive player. Part of the explanation for this could be that Bradley frequently played alongside Thomas, which could have skewed his individual numbers. Another part of it is Bradley doesn’t generate a ton of steals or block as many shots as other top-tier wing-defenders.
Bradley is at his best when he is asked to shut down a player like Curry or Westbrook. He takes the assignment personally and makes life as difficult as possible for his opponent. Perhaps in Detroit, Bradley will find a way to balance locking down a single opponent with the need to be a more effective team-defender. However, even if Bradley simply contributed the same sort of defense moving forward that he has in the past, the Pistons will be happy to have him on board.
Additionally, Bradley is the type of low usage guard who is comfortable playing off the ball, cutting to the basket and knocking down three-pointers when possible. This isn’t the case for Smart, who is a point guard with a shaky jumper. Smart, more so than Bradley, needs the ball in his hands to make a significant impact on offense for the Celtics.
As stated earlier, the Celtics got better this offseason – even with the loss of Bradley. Adding Hayward, Tatum and Morris without giving up Smart, Jae Crowder or Jaylen Brown gives the Celtics the deepest collection of forwards that can, to varying degrees of effectiveness, guard up to four positions. This is the sort of defensive versatility that each team with championship aspirations is trying to add, which is the obvious response to the Golden State Warriors’ offensive dominance. Just one example of this is the Houston Rockets. Houston had to give up some quality players, but went out and added Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to the roster. These are three defensive studs who are able to guard multiple positions and switch seamlessly, which is necessary to have any hope of slowing the Warriors down. The Celtics have their own version of this and are likely best equipped to handle the Warriors’ potent offensive attack.
Trading Bradley now also removes the difficult situation of losing him for nothing after next season. Bradley will become an unrestricted free agent and will be due for a significant pay raise. Moving him now and getting an affordable and talented player like Morris in return is a decent alternative. However, don’t be surprised if the Celtics don’t make the massive leap forward that many expect them to with the addition of Hayward. Assuming Thomas recovers from his hip injury and Hayward and Morris fit well within the roster, the team should be better. But losing Bradley’s shooting, improved playmaking abilities and lockdown defense will very likely be noticeable next season. The Celtics will be a top-tier team next season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t miss Avery Bradley.
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