Completed in the shadows of the opening night loss against the Miami Heat last Tuesday, October 30, the Boston Celtics picked up Avery Bradley’s option for the 2013-14 season. In two years with the only NBA team he's known, the 6'2" guard has excelled on the defensive end, fitting in splendidly with a group that lives and dies on that side of the court.
But the purpose of this article is not to analyze Boston's decision. For several reasons—including Bradley’s inexpensive $2.51 million price tag and the fact that he’s only 21 years old—it was both obvious and expected. Picking up this option was the definition of a no-brainer—minimal risk, maximum reward. Management groups all across the league have done the same with their own 2010 draft picks (ex. the Clippers and Eric Bledsoe) without beating an eye lash.
Instead, what I want to do is look at how Bradley might fit in as Rajon Rondo’s starting backcourt mate beyond next season while exploring the possibility of him playing for a different team sooner than any Celtics fan would like.
Let’s first look at what we know. The Celtics were much better last season with Bradley on the court, and his late season contributions were a major reason why Boston was able to advance as far as they did. There’s no denying Bradley can play heavy minutes in an NBA game. But looking at who he is as a contributing player, and where he stands as a developing asset are two very different things as the Celtics look to the immediate future.
Danny Ainge will have the opportunity to sign Bradley to a contract extension next offseason. If the two parties are unable to land an agreement, the third-year defensive savant will become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014.
Once Bradley comes back from his shoulder injury, serious questions pertaining to how comfortable he is fighting through screens, whether his jumper has improved, and if he’s nervous at all about finishing in the paint will be asked.
I haven’t the slightest clue how concerned Boston is with their presumed long-term starting shooting guard’s shoulder, but I’m sure all three of those issues have been or will be discussed at some point between Doc Rivers, Ainge and Bradley himself.
Bradley is one of the five best perimeter defenders in the NBA. His full-court pressure not only makes opposing point guards uncomfortable, but when he picks up his man at the opponent’s baseline, opposing offenses are effectively cut off at the head. Point guards are unable to look over at their coach for a play call (for fear of Bradley picking their pocket) and by the time they cross the half-court line, it’s usually too late for a set to be run with flawless timing.
On offense he’s much less polished, especially when it comes to creating for himself off the dribble. Here’s a shot chart that shows all of Bradley’s shot attempts between three and nine feet last season.
Bradley shot 18.9 percent from this distance (the average for shooting guards logging at least 20 minutes per game was 37.5 percent). Until he shows a consistent ability to run an offense, make plays for others, and create some individual production, the book on how successful a career Bradley can have can't be written. Besides that, other questions remain.
What if Bradley isn’t able to develop his offensive game by the end of next season? What if his action is still dependent on others feeding him on baseline cuts? What if an increased shooting volume causes his three-point percentage to dip into dangerously low territory (which would simultaneously devastate Boston’s spacing and chances of becoming an above average offensive group throughout Rondo’s prime). What if he dislocates his shoulder in March?
Tons of speculative questions are asked when a team is thinking of extending a rookie contract, but unless he falls off a cliff, I'd be absolutely shocked if the Celtics don’t come to a quick agreement with Bradley as soon as they're allowed to negotiate. If somehow that doesn’t happen, things could get complicated.
In the summer of 2015, Bradley would be a restricted free agent hitting a market that could include LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng and Dwyane Wade. Predicting where his dollar value would be in two summers is borderline impossible, but given Bradley's age and elite defensive ability, it's safe to say more than a few organizations would be interested (one most likely being the Chicago Bulls, who should have ample cap space by then and would love nothing more than to place a pitbull beside Derrick Rose).
In this league true contenders need at least two superstar-caliber players. Bradley probably won't become that secondary piece alongside Rondo, but if the Celtics lock him up, what they will have are two things: an incredibly valuable defensive contributor and a tradable asset capable of sprucing up any package should a superstar become available. Either way, hanging onto him beyond next season should be an absolute priority.