You may not have noticed it at the time, but a torch was secretly and quietly passed to Avery Bradley as the modern Big Three era in Boston ended. It may have gone unnoticed because Bradley is not the chest-pounding, feral screaming, torrentially sweating squad leader we once had, nor is he the ice-in-his-veins, clutch shooting, rancid trash talker that Danny Ainge once built the franchise around. He is not considered to be the greatest shooter to play at his position, nor do we expect him to be. He is, however, an amalgamation of these things, and before we knew it, he became the center point of a revitalized Celtics franchise.
As the only player to remain since the Big Three days, Bradley is the bridge between that era and the current one, but you need to look closer that than that. Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk are the only are the only two Celtics to survive the 2013-14 season that resulted in a 25-57 record. The rest of the roster, including Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass were unceremoniously traded or released into the pastures of free agency. Bradley attracted trade proposals that would net equal or greater value than what we got for Rondo, but Danny refused that possibility of adding yet another lottery pick to the stash at the cost of his shooting guard of the future.
“The biggest grumble you’ll hear about the deal is that Boston overpaid."
This is what Chris Forsberg said after Bradley signed a four-year contract worth $32 million following the depressing 2013-14 season, and he had a point. When you can summarize your summer with a lottery pick and resigning Avery Bradley, you know it’s going to be a long rebuild. Or so you thought.
Our hindsight goggles make it easy to see that Bradley should not be underestimated. I mean, it was only a year before we re-signed him that he showed us some of the most inspiring four minutes of Celtics playoff basketball we had ever seen.
For those keeping score at home:
7:28 remaining: Bradley steal and layup
7:21 : knocks inbounds pass off Raymond Felton.
7:15 : Assist on Paul Pierce three-point shot
6:41 : Second steal of the quarter
6:39 (Not shown in video) : Bradley makes two free throws
4:41 : Bradley finishes tough layup through contact
3:37 : The third steal of the quarter, leads to uncontested dunk
A 26 point deficit became just four, but that was as close as it got. Forcing a game seven of that series would have been nothing short of miraculous after falling behind three to nothing in the series and failing to score 80 points in any of the first three games. It was far from a fairytale ending to the storybook dream we lived in 2008.
Noticeably absent from that highlight video is Walter Ray Allen, who (in)famously cut ties with the Celtics in 2012 to join the Miami Heat. It was assumed that Allen felt slighted by the Celtics organization after he lost his starting job to none other than Avery Bradley, who emerged as an important piece while Allen was sidelined with an injury. Celtics fans turned on Ray Allen quicker than you can say “Johnny Damon”, as you would expect when one of your key championship pieces decides to join a rival.
If you’re still mad at Ray Allen, I think it’s time for you to reconsider. Bradley credited his veteran teammates for his personal improvement in an interview back in 2012.
“But especially Ray. Once I started playing the 2-guard, he wanted to help me out, so that I could be the best 2-guard I can be”
He went on to explain that when he was practicing his shooting, Ray would always call him out on his mistakes and make him fix his form.
Ray Allen is now 41 years old and not playing professional basketball. Avery Bradley is currently 25 years old and the longest-tenured member of the team. Are you still angry? Because with no Ray, there’s no Avery.
In 2016, we continue to see Bradley improve. Through three games he’s leading the league in three-point field goals made with 12, while also leading in three-point shooting percentage at 70.6. It’s a minuscule sample size, but still an unprecedented jump in long range production from Bradley. He’s also grabbed 26 rebounds during this span, which appropriately has him tied for 26th in the league in that category. Every player ahead of him is either a power forward, a center, or Russell Westbrook. The only other Celtic with as many as 20 rebounds is Jae Crowder.
Bradley’s offense has predominantly been a mix of layups on sharp cuts to the basket with some long two pointers sprinkled in. Bradley has already scored 50 points on jump shots alone this season, which leads the league. The only players with more than 40 points on jump shots so far are Kyrie Irving (48), Russell Westbrook (46), and Deron Williams (41). Again, it’s a minute sample size, but since when have we ever had the opportunity to lump Avery Bradley’s name in with so many All-Stars?
What is his ceiling? Didn’t he break like three ceilings already? I was convinced 2015-16 Bradley was the peak. 15 points, outstanding defense, two rebounds, two assists, and one or two steals every game. He’s opened 2016 averaging 21.3 points, eight rebounds, and four assists. Is it sustainable? Maybe not, but was it expected? No.
While many think that the Celtics can contend to make the conference finals, nobody thinks they can make it past Cleveland. They’re probably right, but if Bradley plays out the year at an All-Star level, do we need to reconsider the possibility that the Celtics can contend? The Achilles heel of the Celtics right now is the bench, and with Marcus Smart set to return on Wednesday, we could get a better glimpse of what the Celtics are can really do against the hubristic Chicago Bulls.