Avery Bradley not as valuable to Celtics, NBA as we thought?

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25: Avery Bradley
BOSTON, MA - MAY 25: Avery Bradley /

As it turns out, Avery Bradley, and others with a similar game, aren’t exactly as valuable to the NBA

Blockbusters deals were aplenty this NBA offseason. Paul George and Chris Paul were moved for pennies on the dollar. The Minnesota Timberwolves swapped prospects for Jimmy Butler, and plethora of smaller moves altered the league’s talent spectrum. One of those deals involved Avery Bradley ending up in Detroit.

The Celtics swapped Bradley and a second round pick for Marcus Morris. Fans were surprised with the Celtics eagerness part ways with their two-way guard.  But they were placing their own price on Bradley, not seeing through the kaleidoscope of an NBA GM, who values something different.

Bradley is thought of as a premiere defensive wings, earning NBA All-Defensive first team in 2016. He made the second team at the age of 22 in 2013. He’s a solid scorer, reliable shooter and believe it or not, is only 6-foot-2. You would have never thought with his style of play. But I guess everyone looks bigger playing next to Isaiah Thomas.

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Anyway, Bradley’s player efficiency rating was nearly two points higher than Morris’s. Bradley nearly posted the same win share total despite playing in about 20 less games. Translation, on a per-game basis, Bradley is a better player than Morris. You didn’t need fancy numbers to tell you that.

But as the aforementioned Butler put it elegantly in a recent Bill Simmons podcast, this is the NBA and nothing is surprising. GMs think about more than individual talent or character when crafting trades. It’s about money and cap space. More importantly, it’s about acquiring superstars.

And Avery Bradley isn’t a superstar, and likely will never be one. The Celtics needed to make room for Gordon Hayward, whose star status shines much brighter than Bradley. In today’s NBA, its marquee names the bring home titles. Not defensively gifted stalwarts who struggle to create their own shots. Danny Ainge knows that.  So he took a loss, gift wrapping Bradley to the Pistons to bring on Hayward, a star.

You don’t need to be an NBA Einstein to realize the logic behind the move. But you may be wondering ‘why not Marcus Smart?’ Here is where the important discussion takes place.

Bradley is only three years Smart’s elder and consistently posts better number. Plus, Bradley is a superior defender making him the better compliment to the offensive-only Thomas. Bradley is also the longest tenured Celtic and a fan favorite.

Assuming Detroit would have done both deals, Ainge appears to have appreciated Bradley’s abilities more than Smarts. The proof is in the Celtics GM’s lip service to Avery following the trade, being quoted in the Boston Herald as saying:

"“(Bradley) did a lot of the dirty work and often didn’t get the recognition he deserved.”"

But Ainge ultimately sided with the player with a stronger offensive skillset. Smart is a shot creator, a guy who uses his body to knife to the basket. He’s a reliable finisher in the lane and smooth off the dribble.

Apart from being a defensive stopper, Bradley is a spot up shooter. He relies on his teammates to create looks for him. Despite the fact that Bradley was a more polished and reliable NBA player when he was Smart’s age, and is certainly more valuable now, Smart’s game is more appreciated in today’s NBA. Although not a star, Smart possesses more star qualities.

Ainge said it himself; Bradley does “dirty work” and is “underappreciated.” You don’t build championship teams around guys like that. Ainge speaks differently about Smart:

"“…if there was a pickup game with the guys in our locker room, Marcus would be picked first, second or third. No one wants to play against him.”"

Ainge held Smart on a pedestal. He viewed Bradley as, again, the guy who does the “dirty work.”

Going by the numbers and accolades, Bradley is the better player. But Smart has a more attractive game, offense first. He feels like a potential center piece. Bradley doesn’t, even if numbers say otherwise.

It’s also important to disclose the Celtics needed to clear up about $4 million in cap space next year in order to sign Hayward and not be bludgeoned with a major cap penalty. By flipping Smart in the Morris trade instead of Bradley, Boston would have superseded their cap limit. Again, money matters.

But the trade still reflects the value of an offensive weapon, a shot creator, compared to a defensive minded, gritty side piece. Even if the gritty player posts better number, the flashier athlete is more valued.

Take a look at the Houston Rockets deal with Los Angeles. The contracts work out where the Rockets could have held onto Patrick Beverly and a couple of the other players involved in the trade for Chris Paul had they only parted with sharp-shooter Eric Gordon.

It made sense on paper. Basketball Reference indicated Beverly was worth nearly two wins more than Gordon last year. And it seems it would better compliment the offensive minded Harden, now Paul as well. Assuming the Clippers would wanted him back, if would have been smarter for the Rockets to part with the shooting guard.

But Gordon is the flashier of the two; the three-point champion and elite bench scorer. Beverly is the in-your-face defender without the propensity to score big points. So even though his overall numbers were better, his value to the Rockets wasn’t.

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Beverly, an NBA All-Defensive first teamer, was expendable. Bradley, an All-NBA first teamer, was expendable. Both were branded as hard nose defenders. That’s not as valuable as hard-to-defend offensive players with a nose for the rim. Teams hold on to those players. Both trades are comparable. Both trades a reflection of what is most valuable in the NBA.