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Tuesday, 11 July 2017 16:24

Case of Avery Bradley v Marcus Smart: The Boston Celtics Defense Rests

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Did Danny Ainge trade Avery Bradley away because some in the organization view Marcus Smart as a better defender in today's NBA?

I had a perplexed look on my face Friday morning when I got the alert around 10 a.m. that Avery Bradley had been traded to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. My immediate reaction was one of confusion, then disappointment and anger, followed by acceptance and approval, but then confusion again. My entire morning consisted of a bizarre bastardization of the seven stages of grief.

In a saturated media era, I hopped online at the TV studio to read some immediate reaction, then got in my car to drive home and flipped to a podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Tom Haberstroh discussing the trade, which apparently broke just prior to recording. I saw a few people with similar takes to mine, though I’m unsure if those were just blind laundry fandom. Lowe and Haberstroh seemed to think it was a very good move.

In the CLNS Celtics Newsfeed group, Tyler Trudeau texted his confusion before Cory Prescott listed the reasons he loved it.

In the end, that is probably the hallmark of a quality trade, people with similar interests and goals coming down on both sides of a deal. So, Danny Ainge moving on from Bradley a year before he was due a huge pay-hike to bring in more frontcourt depth - a weakness with the loss of Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk - and presumably open up playing time for his prized youngsters makes sense to those who believe in those young players and the necessity of NBA media’s new darling term of “switchability”.

Those who aren’t fans of playing both sides of the fence (building through draft and winning now), who want to attack Cleveland and Golden State immediately and maybe aren’t as gung-ho about the young crop are left scratching their heads a bit at what appears to be another half-measure that cowers from tough-decisions down the road.

One’s take is always going to be shaded by prior beliefs. No one comes to the courtroom bench to judge a deal with zero baggage or motive.

There’s going to be sub-sets throughout this offseason-long argument as well. Two starting spots have definitively been opened up. Does Marcus Smart start at shooting guard? Does Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum fill one of Brad Stevens’ three-position system? Does Jae Crowder start with former and perhaps current rival Gordon Hayward? Is Ante Zizic a starting center in the NBA? Is Al Horford comfortable with swapping Morris for Johnson and having to once again feign the center position?

Here, though, let’s seek to answer one question that should at least hypothetically be at the heart of this trade and grander offseason play: Is Marcus Smart as good or better than Avery Bradley as a defender?

The offensive gap, as Keith Smith notes, is wide, even cavernous if you ask me. Bradley’s effective shooting percentage last season was 53.3, a full 11.1 greater than Smart’s 42.2. You’re welcome to dive deeper into the numbers, and they are jarring, but we have to get to defense here and not soak up your summer with 2,000 words on how well each moves off the Isaiah Thomas-dominated ball.

The easy starting point is an agreement that both Smart and Bradley are plus-defenders who have developed a reputation on that side of the ball. In the case of Bradley it is a league-wide rep, while Smart is more locally, granted with four fewer years of playing nationally-televised games.

Despite occupying largely the same role on a basketball court at that end, the two portray pretty different defensive styles. Bradley relies on quickness of both his feet and his hands, while Smart’s wide base and arm muscle utilizes brute strength.

Just think about the defensive highlights of each that stick out in your mind. Bradley bottling up the ultra-quick Kyrie Irving at winning time of a game against Cleveland or draping John Wall and Jimmy Butler in decisive playoff games. Smart bodying up and taking the ball away from a $30 million a year power forward in Paul Millsap or making Bojan Bogdanovic look like a schoolkid.

 

According to Smith, there are some in the Celtics organization that believe Smart is either currently or very close to becoming a better defender than Bradley, who did however outrageous it sounds, slip from 2016 First-Team All-NBA Defense to a total snub in 2017. That’s still high praise, but maybe Smart is up to the task.

Smart has a solid two inches and 20 pounds on Bradley, which can’t be discounted as his potential backcourt mate remains somewhat of a diminutive punchline on the defensive end. Perhaps Bradley’s perceived slippage last season can be explained a bit by him also being slightly undersized for the modern two-guard.

With the exception of Chris Paul, Thomas and Kyle Lowry (who outweighs Bradley by 30 pounds), the All-NBA team guards of the past three years all hold minor to significant size advantages on the Pistons’ newest acquisition. En route to a potential title, Boston might see backcourts like Beal and Wall, Lowry and DeRozan, Irving and Smith, Westbrook and George or Curry and Thompson.

There are other factors to account for, though. Boston cast away a guy who had been playing NBA-caliber defense for six-plus years. Smart has half of that experience and in terms of playing really strong defense, you could argue less than that. He certainly came to prevalence in 2016-17, but prior to that his reputation was more for outrageous flopping than gritty, stand-your-ground stops.

The flopping history, sparse year-to-year improvement on the offensive end and some well-publicized eruptions directed at teammates, opponents, coaches and fans are worrisome. Five or six of those game-sealing or momentum-shifting steals will stand out in year-end highlight reels, but they are worth a grand total of five or six wins. Day in and day out effectiveness on the defensive end can be worth a whole hell of a lot more for a team with championship aspirations.

Beyond the health and availability concern, which we can touch on, has anyone ever had much doubt when it came to Bradley as a player on the defensive end and even of late offensively, or person? He seemed to improve one or more aspects of his game each year, became a plus-shooter and excellent player off the ball and melded into the defensive style that was called upon by Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens and the NBA as whole.

Bradley’s injury history has always been a bone of mind-numbing contention with fans, and 2016-17 was no different as he appeared in just 55 regular season games. He’s missed big playoff games with ailments that run the gamut of body parts and some of that probably does stem from his size disadvantage.

On the other hand, Smart’s 79 games played as a third-year man is promising. He was out multiple weeks as a rookie and sophomore in the league, but in general does appear to be more durable and that may have weighed in on Ainge’s decision just as much as a fear of 2018’s impending cap crunch.

I say it with some sarcastic disdain earlier, but switchability and the modern NBA offense requires more than size and strength. The league is very much a mental game these days and I can’t say that the Celtics of July 11 are better than the Celtics of July 7. #GetBuckets

There were other ways to fit in Gordon Hayward’s money without sacrificing Bradley, and it would be fun to make an honest drive at the title without a figurative and literal hand tied behind Boston’s back.

 

Contact Mike Walsh on Twitter @CLNS_Walsh

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is the CLNS Media Network's Boston Celtics Content and Newsfeed Manager.

Mike is a graduate of Marist College with a degree in sports communications. He spent three years as a NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, where he was the site's top Boston Celtics writer.

Mike is Sports Editor of The Berkshire Record Newspapers and host of Berkshires Sports Extra in Pittsfield, MA. He can be reached by email to Mike@Walshclan.org or via Twitter @CLNS_Walsh.

Personal Website: www.WalshWrites.com