Few, if any had great expectations for the Boston Celtics in 2013-14. The new-look Celtics, under the guidance of rookie Head Coach Brad Stevens have surprised many by not only leading the Atlantic Division, but more importantly the entire team has surpassed individual and group expectations in the early going. Young players have shown dramatic improvements, many having the best season of their careers while the veteran group have all happily settled into their roles off the bench. While there are an overwhelming number of positives to the Celtics’ surprising start, it also raises a number of questions for General Manager Danny Ainge about this season and for the future of the franchise. Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford, the teams’ current starting back-court are two players who are in the last year of their contract and Ainge must start making decisions as to re-signing, trading or losing his two young combo-guards.
According to Bleacher Report, Ainge recently offered Bradley an extension, showing his desire to keep the talented 23 year old in green long term. The deal, however was rejected by Bradley and his team which now leads both parties towards an uncertain future.
In fact, that’s why, according to a source, the Celtics offered him a four-year, $24 million deal (with a team option on the fourth year) this past offseason, but he turned it down. That’s because he wants at least $8 million per year, which another source confirmed. Bradley will be a restricted free agent next summer, so things could get “tricky,” as one source said, for the Celtics to keep him.
Bradley is having the best season of his young career under Stevens’ coaching and has seen a solid jump in production from 2012-13. Starting in all 26 games this season, Bradley is averaging 13.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 45 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown. The numbers are not eye-popping but they also correlate with some of the best on-ball defense in the entire league. His combination with Crawford in the backcourt has been a revelation for the Celtics, who many thought would struggle without the leadership of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. He has a reputation around the league as one of the most aggressive perimeter defenders in the NBA and last season was awarded with a place on the All Defensive Second Team. Finding a “fair” deal for Bradley may be more difficult than you would expect, as despite some exceptional talents he has some obvious flaws to his game they may prevent the young guard from ever joining the game’s elite.
Bradley has shown that he is among the very best in the league defensively. His on ball pressure, ability to get in the passing lanes and disrupt a teams’ entire offense are a rare combination natural talent and effort that few in the game possess. His shooting continues to improve, slowly becoming a solid option from three point range to add to his reliable mid-range jumper. He is an active player off the ball offensively, able to find easy buckets off back door cuts and he flies down the court in transition. He has the athletic ability and wingspan to finish above the rim and his highlight reel shows some powerful dunks and impressive shot blocking ability for a player of his size.
His size is where the first concern over his future development lies. While he has good length, Bradley is 6’2” and it is obvious that his best position, at least offensively is at shooting guard where he remains undersized. Bradley does not possess the ball handling, nor the playmaking ability to play the point guard for more than limited stretches and the Celtics have seen this first hand after Bradley was forced to play the position in Rondo’s absence last season. His 1.3 assists are not just low for a guard, it is among the worst in the league and would be a disappointing number for most big men. He does not have the natural ability to handle the ball like most point guards at the top level, his inability to create for himself or teammates off the dribble makes it unlikely he will ever develop into a real game-changer offensively. Lastly, Bradley has battled injuries since he was drafted in 2010. Just last season he was forced to miss the start of the 2012-13 campaign after undergoing surgery on both shoulders and while he seems to be feeling no ill-effects from the surgeries so far, a colorful injury history is less than helpful when it comes to contract negotiations.
So where does that leave the team and Bradley when it comes to negotiating a new contract? The fact is that with his restricted free agent status, the Celtics run the risk of another team coming in and overpaying for his services and being stuck in the unenviable position of losing a player they spent years developing or handicapping themselves financially in order to match the offer. Ainge’s attempt to lock up Bradley early was a smart one, and while you would assume he left some room for negotiations with his initial offer, it is hard to see him matching the $8 million-plus that Bradley and his manager are apparently after. A quick look around the league shows that talented young guards like Jeff Teague, Mike Conley and Brandon Jennings were only able to command that contract figure and while they are not the defender Bradley is, Bradley has not shown the potential that they had when negotiating those deals. A player that the Celtics are familiar with, Tony Allen is an example of an outstanding defender (perhaps the league’s best) with limited offensive upside and he received just $5 million a season in his last contract. Now while Bradley’s age, potential and advantage on the offensive end gives him much more value, Allen’s deal shows that there is a definite cap on a players worth in the NBA, despite exceptional defense if they are limited offensively.
Bradley declining Ainge’s offer for an extension also suddenly opens up the very real possibility that the talented guard could also be included in a trade prior to the February trade deadline. We have seen in the past that general managers can prefer to use a pending free-agent as a trade chip if they know that they will be unwilling to match their contract demands. At 23, with an All-Defensive Team selection under his belt and with his restricted status allowing any team that deals for him the ability to match offers in the offseason, Bradley would likely have a great deal of value around the league. It is unlikely that Ainge would want to go down this path but if he feels Bradley’s management will push for a deal he simply would not match, we could see a premature end to Bradley’s stay in Boston.
The most likely course of action will be to await the return of Rondo, whose pass-first ways allow Bradley to do what he does best. When the two have been able to share the court they have shown tremendous chemistry and cause chaos for opposing back courts with their defensive prowess. If the Celtics make another significant improvement with Rondo’s return to the line-up and with the potential for Ainge to add talent to the roster via trade, the Celtics may be closer to a return to the top than most predicted and losing Bradley could suddenly be even more devastating than it would be now. If Bradley pushes for a deal near $10 million a season he will likely be leaving to the highest bidder, but if a middle ground can be found between Ainge’s 4/28 offer and Bradley’s figure of $8 million a year, he could be a fixture in Boston for years to come.