The Price of Contention: Bradley Traded to Detroit, Olynyk Released as Celtics Look to Threaten Cavs in East with Hayward

Avery Bradley was never going to handle like Kyrie or shoot like Steph, but he was always going to make life miserable for them. Defense is sometimes obvious (a steal, a block, a last-second shot-clock violation) but often subtle. Avery Bradley’s defense is both obviously great and subtly effective. He is a wing scorer’s nightmare. He fights through every screen with his wiry frame, he gets as low to the ground as possible (without bending over, which makes the crouch so effective) in isolation, and he reads passing lanes like children’s books.

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Avery Bradley’s toughness, instincts, and long arms wreak havoc on perimeter scorers.

When Bradley signed his 4 year, $36m deal three years ago, Bradley was deemed “overpaid” by a Wall Street Journal hoops analyst. I got into a Twitter back-and-forth with the guy. I gave him several reasons why Bradley would be worth the deal:

  1. The cap spike would make his “overpaid” claim ridiculous by year three of the deal.
  2. At age 23, and with his work ethic and gradual shooting improvement from age 21–23, Bradley wasn’t done improving.
  3. The fact that shooting guard wasn’t a position of depth in the NBA.

Bradley was probably worth closer to $12m two years ago, and would have been worth even more this year, if he hadn’t missed 27 games due to injury.

Avery was forced into some point guard duty during the pre-Isaiah years. The 2012–13 Celtics stumbled into the playoffs at 41–40, then faced the surprising Knicks in the first round. Rondo had torn his ACL earlier in the season, leaving the Celtics with an assortment of less than ideal options at the point. Journeymen Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams were added. Crawford had a scoring streak during that spring that probably tripled the length of his pro hoops career (even got him a deal in China). T-Will never realized the potential that he’d showcased in college. Jason Terry was never a point guard, but even he was given ball-handling duties at times. The Game 6 playoff box score from that tragic first round series that signaled the end of the Pierce-KG era (Ray famously departed one year earlier, and Perk had been shipped off to OKC for Jeff Green) shows the team started only one guard: Avery Bradley. The other four starters: Garnett, Pierce, Green and Brandon Bass.

The point: Avery was forced to play point. Avery at age 22, in his third season, when his handle was shaky, and his passing was shakier. It was miserable. Pierce could be seen trudging wearily up the court with the ball toward the end of the series. That era of the Celtics was officially over. Jordan Crawford, for all of his misadventures, was not the answer going forward.

The link below the box score reads, “If you’re Danny Ainge, how do you make the Celtics relevant again with this aging roster?”

cue Zach Lowe’s “Free Agency Winners and Losers” story that ran on ESPN today.

Boston earned this with one of the greatest rebuilds in sports history. The Celtics aren’t even supposed to be here now, eyeing LeBron. Fleecing Brooklyn was about Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and those extra picks. It was about 2020 and beyond. Along the way, they nailed the side moves too many teams neglect — or fail to notice at all. They stole Isaiah Thomas. They insisted on Jae Crowder as a throw-in to the Rajon Rondo trade. Boom: Forty percent of the starting lineup on a conference finals team, from found money.

Being good drew Horford. Getting better drew Hayward. Now Boston can play for 2018 and 2022.

I think about that now, because Bradley was just traded to Detroit for combo forward Marcus Morris, whose contract (two more years at a meager $5.5m per year) allows Boston the wiggle room to squeeze prized swing-man Gordon Hayward onto the books for the next four years.

Bradley will now be a Piston. Stan Van Gundy is relieved to dodge the Kentavius Caldwell-Pope max-offer and have Bradley for one year, as Detroit figures out which way to turn in the suddenly depleted Eastern Conference.

Most of the Celtics-related media coverage has focused on the joy of landing a star free-agent, as it should be. The drama of the Utah-Miami-Boston free-agent meetings, followed by the added confusion of July 4th’s “Did he or didn’t he decide?” led to Celtics Nation breathing a sigh of relief and palpable optimism for the next five years. We got our cake and we’ll eat it too. Compete now against Cleveland and Washington. Compete in 2020 against Milwaukee, Miami, and Philadelphia.

Gordon Hayward brings an offensive dynamism the Celtics lacked when Isaiah stepped off the court. At Isaiah’s size, Hayward’s ability to initiate offense allows for the possibility for the C’s to allow him to pick his spots, rather than drive the entire offense. So do Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics can now afford to extend Marcus Smart, who won’t be pushed into the East Finals role (starting PG) that he took over when Isaiah’s hip forced him out. The Celtics can now afford to give Terry Rozier one more year to confirm what they see in him. If Smart hopes to become a modern Dennis Johnson, Rozier might look to become a modern…who is a high-jumping, ultra athletic combo-guard, drafted without a dependable jumper? Yes, someone like Avery Bradley. Rozier’s first-step is better than Avery’s, but his defense won’t reach those heights. Here we are, talking about Smart and Rozier, when Jaylen and Tatum will dominate the “2020 Celtics” talk. This team is still loaded with talent, retained the two future picks that roster-constructionists salivate over (BKN 2018, and the PHI-LAL-SAC future lottery spot).

Since Hayward chose Boston, I’ve been crossing my fingers that they didn’t trade Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart. The sign-and-trade rumors of Crowder to Utah had me kind of excited for Utah, but prematurely mourning the loss of the truly KG-like ferocity of either Crowder or Smart. Bradley seemed like a foregone conclusion, with his impending free-agency. They couldn’t afford to keep him if they planned to re-sign Isaiah and Marcus. So here we are…Gordon Hayward is a Celtic. Avery Bradley is a Piston. Marcus Morris is a Celtic. We even added some big-man depth to replace Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. One minor-key plot twist: Kelly signs with Miami, which might mean we see him in the first round of the playoffs nine months from now. Amir, creaky legs and all, heads to Philly to show the young fellas how to handle their business.

What a whirlwind we’ve witnessed since the Draft night trade. Celtics fans should be thankful for Avery Bradley’s steady growth, and how he helped us bridge the gap between 2013 and today. He was worth every damn penny.

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Check out my new hoops memoir, The Dusty Jumper.

The Dusty Jumper is a collection of personal essays and reflections on the game of basketball, fandom, and identity. From childhood memories of growing up with the Boston Celtics, to playing the sport as a means of coping with adolescence, this is about basketball as a means of connection. Whether playing, watching, reading, and writing about the NBA, or absorbing the intensity of being in the arena, the game has me firmly in its grasp. This book is my way of appreciating basketball and fandom.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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