By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
LAS VEGAS (CBS) — The Boston Celtics said goodbye to their longest tenured player on Friday, trading away shooting guard Avery Bradley and a second round pick to the Detroit Pistons for forward Marcus Morris. The deal was necessitated by the impending arrival of Gordon Hayward, which forced the Celtics to clear out some cash from their current roster to create enough room under the cap for a max signing.
The choices the Celtics’ brass had to pick from to clear that salary were not easy. Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and Bradley were all crucial parts of the C’s rotation last year, and each brought a unique collection of skills to the table on any given night. If it were possible, Boston probably would have preferred to keep them all for next season, but the Celtics were forced to trade one after the salary cap dropped to $99 million for the 2017-18 season.
Even though it was a tough pill to swallow, the Celtics ultimately made the logical choice here by dealing Bradley. The impending free agency of nearly the entire Celtics backcourt in the summer of 2018 made the trade of a guard a move Boston’s brass could have been considering even if Hayward’s salary didn’t necessitate it. Isaiah Thomas, Smart and Bradley are all going to hit the free agent market next summer, and each is due to earn significant raise. Thomas will be searching for a max deal, but he’ll probably get something in at least the $20-25 million range annually. Bradley could have been looking for around $15-20 million annually on a long-term deal. Smart is a restricted free agent, but he could command at least $10 million per year.
Paying all three of those players in addition to the max contracts of Hayward and Al Horford was never a feasible scenario for Boston. That would be a roster too top heavy with salaries and would have led to a monster luxury tax bill for 2018 and beyond. Knowing that, Danny Ainge had to make some decisions here a year early.
Thomas proved himself to be the most indispensable member of that bunch with an All-NBA second team campaign. In a league where offense is king and shot creation is essential, the Celtics clearly want to keep Thomas around.
With their All-Star point guard seemingly not going anywhere, that left the Celtics with the decision to choose between Bradley and Smart. Bradley is clearly the better player now and probably has more value around the league than Smart, thanks to his superior shooting and All-NBA level defense. Still, Smart was probably more appealing to keep for Ainge when you consider a few important factors. The fourth-year guard gives Boston a lot more cost control than Bradley over the next few years. Being a restricted free agent will limit Smart’s market next summer, particularly in a league that’s deep with talent at point guard. The Celtics might be able to hold onto Smart for about 60 percent of what Bradley could cost next annually in his next deal. That’s important for a team that’s loaded with big contracts already.
The other appeal of keeping Smart over Bradley is potential. Bradley has improved over each of his seven NBA seasons, but he may be close to reaching his ceiling. He’s a catch-and-shoot player offensively who can’t create for himself or handle the ball well. He’s a great supporting piece, but he’s about to be an expensive one. Meanwhile, Smart is just 22 years old. He’s already a complete menace on the defensive end and could turn into an above-average starter if he finds some consistency with his jump shot. There’s a lot of untapped potential here and the Celtics are believers that he can ultimately turn into a Kyle Lowry type guard.
Bradley had a great career in green, and the Celtics will miss a lot of what he brings. Their shooting gets worse without him, and defending top backcourt scorers will be an even bigger chore without his terrific 1-on-1 defense. However, in acquiring a cheap rotation player for Bradley in Marcus Morris, the choice was made relatively easy for the C’s. Ainge didn’t want to lose a free agent for nothing this offseason, so Bradley was the guy that made the most sense to move on from now.