— -- How much could Avery Bradley help a contender?
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday that the Pistons have made Bradley, who can be an unrestricted free agent after this season, available for trades after falling three games back in the race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
In theory, Bradley's defensive ability makes him an ideal fit for a team with aspirations of advancing deep in the playoffs. However, he hasn't made the impact Detroit hoped this season and ranks 91st among shooting guards in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) this season.
So would Bradley actually be worth what Wojnarowski reports has been a "significant" asking price from the Pistons?
Never anything better than average in terms of scoring efficiency because of his heavy reliance on long 2-point attempts, Bradley has seen his true shooting percentage drop from .548 last season with the Boston Celtics to .497 so far this year in Detroit. Dan Feldman of NBC Sports points out that ranks 66th of the 68 players with at least 500 shot attempts this season, per Basketball-Reference.com.
In conjunction with fellow former Celtics Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas struggling with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bradley's decline has occasionally been attributed to leaving Boston coach Brad Stevens' system. Besides the fact that this narrative ignores Kelly Olynyk playing just as well as ever for the Miami Heat, I don't see much common ground in how the three players have dropped off.
Thomas is coming back from a hip injury serious enough that it kept him off the court for more than seven months, while Crowder has suffered across the board but particularly as a 3-point shooter. That's one place Bradley is performing as well as ever: he's shooting 38.1 percent on 3s with the Pistons, down a tad from the 39.0 percent he shot last season but better than the 37.1 percent he shot overall during four seasons with Stevens.
Instead, Bradley's decline can be traced inside the arc. He's making 42.3 percent of his 2-point attempts, his lowest mark in a full season. Bradley is attempting shots inside three feet at a lower rate than last season, but more than 2015-16, when he hit an unsustainable 71.8 percent of those attempts.
More than anything, Bradley is less efficient because he's not making as many of the long 2s he favors: 34.1 percent, having never previously shot worse than 38.7 percent in a full season.
Any team acquiring Bradley should feel comfortable projecting he'll score more efficiently than he has so far this season.
The Bradley conundrum
The disconnect between Bradley's reputation and his advanced stats comes largely at the defensive end of the court, where he's considered one of the league's best stoppers. Bradley was voted to the All-Defensive first team in 2015-16, and when he was left off last year's All-Defensive teams in part because he missed 27 games because of injury, rival shooting guard CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers expressed his disagreement on Twitter.
Avery Bradley the best perimeter defender in the league and I don't think it's close. Him and chief #firstteamalldefense- CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) April 2, 2016
Matchup data from Second Spectrum powered by NBA Advanced Stats backs up Bradley's prowess as an individual defender. Over the past five regular seasons, Bradley has matched up with 18 players for at least 200 possessions, a list that includes most of the league's best guards. These players have averaged 10 fewer points per 100 plays they've finished with a shot attempt or trip to the free throw line when matched up with Bradley than they have overall.
Even Stephen Curry, the league's greatest individual offensive force, has been less efficient when matched up against Bradley. Curry has scored 11 fewer points per 100 players against Bradley than overall. Last year's MVP runner-up, James Harden, doesn't quite qualify for the 200-possession cutoff but has seen a far greater decline in his efficiency than the typical player: 30 fewer points per 100 plays with an effective field-goal percentage (eFG) of .375 when matched against Bradley.
Given those stats, it's difficult to understand why Bradley's teams have allowed more points per possession with him on the court each of the past three seasons, as noted by Bleacher Report's Tom Haberstroh. That trend has been exacerbated this season, with Detroit's defensive rating increasing by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Bradley on the court according to NBA Advanced Stats.
To some extent, the discrepancy can be explained by opposing shot-making. Second Spectrum's quantified shot quality (qSQ) metric shows opponents are only getting slightly easier shots this season with Bradley on the court. Based on qSQ, we'd expect them to post a .512 eFG on the shots they've taken with Bradley, as compared to .507 without him. The much larger actual difference in eFG (.549 vs. .509) is most likely random, not because of bad defense by Bradley or anyone else.
At the same time, never in the five seasons Second Spectrum has tracked using NBA Advanced Stats has Bradley's team posted a lower qSQ -- forced more difficult shots, that is -- with him on the court. As Cleaning the Glass' breakdown of on/off differential in the four factors shows, there's also no trend of Bradley's teams consistently forcing more turnovers, grabbing more defensive rebounds or allowing fewer free throw attempts with him on the court.
The team numbers strongly suggest that Bradley's elite individual defense hasn't translated into better team defense. His attentiveness to shutting down his opposing number may prevent Bradley from making plays as a help defender, giving the offense the same benefit they get from an elite shooter with high gravity who keeps a defender close nearby.
I think that makes Bradley something of a defensive luxury. He's not capable of making a weak defensive team good all by himself, but can elevate one that already has strong team defense to compensate for his weakness. With that in mind, let's evaluate how Bradley fits three potential trade suitors.
How would Bradley fit?
Because of the Cavaliers' defensive woes, and their need for a stopper in playoff matchups, they'll inevitably be linked to Bradley. However, I suspect the Cavaliers might have just the kind of atrocious team defense Bradley can't solve on his own.
Beyond that problem, the big question with Cleveland will be the price the Pistons demand. I wouldn't give up the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick for Bradley, but the Cavaliers' own first-rounder might not be enough.
I'm on the fence about Bobby Marks' suggestion of including Crowder and Stanley Johnson in a larger deal. While I expect Crowder to return to form at some point, that might not happen in time to help Cleveland's chances of winning a championship this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Bradley looks like an ideal fit for the Thunder, who need a wing stopper after losing Andre Roberson to a ruptured patella tendon. Adding Bradley would allow the Thunder to keep Paul George in the freelancing role in which he's excelled this season, and George's active help defense would help compensate for Bradley's shortcomings.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma City doesn't really have the right parts to make a deal with the Pistons. A deal for Bradley would have to be built around one of three players: guard Alex Abrines, wing Kyle Singler or forward Patrick Patterson. Patterson is a key rotation player, so the Thunder wouldn't want to include him. Singler's contract is onerous enough to probably be a nonstarter, so Detroit would have to value Abrines as part of a package with a first-round pick in the distant future to make a reasonable deal.
My favorite fit for Bradley is the with the Sixers, who could bring him in ahead of a potential run at Bradley in free agency this summer. That would enable the 76ers to re-sign J.J. Redick, whose rights they would otherwise have to forfeit to sign Bradley or another free agent starter. Is that worth giving up a first-round pick, assuming that's the eventual price? I'd probably say yes, given that Bradley could help Philadelphia's current playoff push.
The Sixers and Pistons could haggle over which players to send back to Detroit. Philadelphia's preference would surely be to trade Jerryd Bayless, who's due $8.6 million in 2018-19. Detroit would presumably rather get the expiring contract of center Amir Johnson, on a one-year deal for $11 million.
Bradley's defense may not be as helpful as advertised, but as the final piece for a team that's already fourth in defensive rating and has Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as help defenders, he could be a difference-maker for Philadelphia.