Avery Bradley became a salary cap casualty, and that's a real bummer for the Celtics

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4750/" data-ylk="slk:Avery Bradley">Avery Bradley</a> will still be breathing down <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4724/" data-ylk="slk:Gordon Hayward">Gordon Hayward</a>’s neck. (AP)
Avery Bradley will still be breathing down Gordon Hayward’s neck. (AP)

The Celtics are better for adding Gordon Hayward, and they’re worse for subtracting Avery Bradley. What the sum or difference of those moves turns out to be this season and beyond is yet another in a long line of highstakes gambles by president of basketball operations Danny Ainge this summer.

Boston’s trade of Bradley and a 2019 second-round pick for Detroit Pistons forward Marcus Morris stings. The difference in Bradley’s $8.8 million salary and Morris’ $5 million price tag this season was enough to fit Hayward’s max contract under the cap, and while Hayward is better than Bradley, the net gain of one without the other makes the Celtics far less formidable than they would be with both.

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Hayward is a 27-year-old playmaking wing who shot 40 percent from 3-point range and manned one of the league’s toughest positions for a Utah Jazz team that finished third in defensive efficiency in 2016-17, earning an All-Star roster spot for his contributions. He is undoubtedly an upgrade for the Celtics.

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But Bradley is arguably the NBA’s most underrated player. He isn’t the playmaker Hayward has been, but he shot 39 percent from 3 and found easy baskets moving without the ball, all while warranting All-Defensive recognition on the other end. His departure is a downgrade for the Celtics, no doubt.

And Bradley’s move to Detroit stings for more reasons. The 26-year-old is the lone holdover from the “grit and balls” Celtics. He never complained about Boston’s rebuild, even as the $32 million deal he signed in 2014 turned from a poorly-graded contract to one of the league’s biggest bargains. And five years after double shoulder surgery robbed him of his chance to help the 2012 Celtics beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, he led them back to Round 3 with a different cast in 2017.

Now, as Boston inches closer to a potential Finals appearance with Hayward in the fold, he became expendable — nothing more than a cap casualty. And he may not have known it when the news hit:

That’s a hell of a way to treat a guy who gave the Celtics seven solid years of service.

Bradley grew up in Boston, from an underwhelming rookie who shot all of 34 percent in his injury-riddled first season, to one of the NBA’s best 3-and-D wings. He was a quiet leader in the locker room, taking questions from the media when others wouldn’t during the franchise’s brief downturn. He had his son in Boston, the same week his mother died, and he was the one consoling Isaiah Thomas on the bench after the All-Star point guard lost his sister on the eve of their first-round playoff series.

Boston has love for this man, and yet he became a financial burden. Welcome to NBA free agency. Bradley is working on the final year of his below-market deal and is expected to command a healthy pay raise as an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Celtics either had to move Bradley, Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart in order to clear the $29.7 million space necessary to sign Hayward:

Either that, or dump Terry Rozier and ask Hayward to take less than max money to keep together a core that reached the conference finals and took the Cleveland Cavaliers to five games sans Thomas:

The Celtics chose Bradley, even though he is right now the best player of that bunch. Crowder has three years left at an affordable $7 million per season, and Smart is a still-improving restricted free agent next year. Shopping Crowder, as Boston reportedly did in sign-and-trade efforts with Utah, seemed to make the most sense, since Hayward would take most of his minutes, and the improved but streaky shooter had regressed defensively since suffering a knee injury in the 2015 playoffs.

The Celtics were seemingly more concerned with next summer, when Thomas, Bradley and Smart will all be free agents. Technically, the organization could have kept them, since Boston owns all their Bird Rights, but the luxury tax penalties from their combined contracts would become a financial problem.

So, here we are, with the Celtics essentially swapping Amir Johnson (Al Horford’s frontcourt partner who joined the Philadelphia 76ers on a one-year deal), Kelly Olynyk (a backup big who moved to the Miami Heat for a $50 million deal) and Bradley for Hayward, Morris and rookie big man Ante Zizic.

Is that enough to challenge the Cavs, who have stood pat in free agency? That would have been a lot easier if the Celtics could still throw Smart and Bradley at Kyrie Irving. Same goes for competing with the Golden State Warriors, who Boston split its last two regular-season series with, mainly because those two backcourt bulldogs can keep up with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well as anyone.

That’s a bummer after the Hayward bonanza. A necessary bummer, maybe, but a bummer nonetheless, especially when the return is the worse Morris twin and not Paul George or Jimmy Butler. Boston has a tendency to brace its fanbase for the best in a way that makes relatively less spectacular upgrades seem like a letdown, and trading Bradley for another below-average rebounding big man fits the bill.

Signing Hayward — the best free agent to change teams this summer — was a great move for the Celtics, but it’s a little less so when it means moving on from Bradley. Boston had built its recent success on high-character, high-motor players, and few, if any, represented that mold better than Bradley. And his teammates knew it. How that manifests itself in terms of chemistry remains a question, especially since Crowder has also been vocal about being shopped for potential upgrades.

You’re telling me the three years and $21 million left on Crowder’s deal couldn’t have fetched an asset better than the return they got for Bradley? And if Hayward truly wants to play for a championship in Boston, as he indicated in his Players’ Tribune announcement, he couldn’t have taken a little less to ensure at least one run with Crowder, Smart and Bradley in the fold? That’s the best Boston team.

This is the cost of free agency, apparently. And maybe Pistons fans feel the same way after their team renounced free agent wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope almost immediately after trading for Bradley. Why can’t we keep both? Because it would cost too much? These are all questions fans should ask of their teams in an era when it’s going to take some serious paychecks to compete with Golden State.

Even if Kevin Durant took less so the Warriors could keep their core together for the next few years, we shouldn’t expect Hayward to do the same, and we shouldn’t expect teams to pay outrageous sums for rosters that will likely lose to Golden State anyhow. But Boston took a big step forward when they signed Hayward, and less than a week later the Celtics had to take a little step back as a result.

It’s hard to complain from a Celtics perspective, since they got their man, but the collective bargaining agreement sure stinks sometimes, especially when the bridge between two beloved Boston teams is the casualty. Avery Bradley deserved better, but there’s no room for emotion under the salary cap.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!


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