Adam Kaufman

Celtics’ Overpayment of Avery Bradley Magnified by Lance Stephenson’s New Deal

The Celtics made Avery Bradley’s new four-year, $32 million deal official on Tuesday night. When news broke of the hefty pact, it was widely regarded around the league and most certainly in Boston as an overpay, even in spite of the logic Jodie Meeks’ contract with the Pistons helped set the market.

Today, Bradley’s deal looks even worse.

Pacers free agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson has reportedly departed Indiana for a three-year, $27 million offer from the newly-branded Hornets after rejecting a five-year, $44 million deal to stay put. The third season is a team option. Charlotte had some extra cash to burn after losing out on top target Gordon Hayward, who returned to the Jazz after having his four-year, $63 million offer sheet matched.

Stephenson was expected by most in NBA circles to command at least $10 million per year following two tremendous seasons for the Pacers in which the 2010 40th overall pick out of Cincinnati averaged 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game over an average of 78 contests.

In 2013-14, Stephenson was better across the board with 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists a game. He also shot 49.1 percent from the field and, as Celtics fans may remember, he enjoyed two of his league-high five triple-doubles against Boston.

Over Bradley’s last two seasons, he averaged 12.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.7 assists over 110 total games.

Both players are 23 years young. Bradley has a consistent history of injuries, while Stephenson was a part-time player (just 54 games and 557 total minutes) in his first two seasons. The Boston guard is more highly regarded defensively with an improving jumper, while the new Charlotte addition is a more dynamic offensive player, gritty defensively, and considered to be a bit of a head-case.

Ignoring Stephenson’s emotional, knucklehead tendencies for a moment – and who could forget when he blew in LeBron James’ ear during the Eastern Conference finals? – it’s entirely possible the guard didn’t want a long-term deal with the salary cap rising in the NBA in the next few seasons. If he performs well in the short-term and repairs his declining reputation, he could be in line for a substantial raise.

To that I say all the more reason Danny Ainge should have let Bradley walk in free agency and aggressively targeted Stephenson. A rebuilding franchise in need of quality assets equally requires as much salary cap freedom as possible, sooner than later. Like Jeff Green’s deal and the one belonging to Gerald Wallace that was absorbed in last summer’s blockbuster with the Nets, Bradley’s contract could prove to be another albatross if he continues to struggle to stay healthy. There’s no denying his ability, when able. That’s his biggest question mark, while Stephenson’s is the mental side of the game.

The former Pacers star is very self-aware of his numbers, fought teammate Evan Turner (another reported Celts target!) in practice prior to the start of the conference semis, and even drew criticism from Larry Bird for lacking professionalism for his shenanigans with James. Those incidents and maturity issues without a doubt hampered his future earnings with the various clubs that expressed interest in him.

In any case, I’ll take the better, more talented player on the shorter, cheaper deal every day of the week, especially one in his early 20’s who’s motivated to change. Bradley, for instance, can’t simply be motivated to remain healthy. In some ways, you might have even qualified Stephenson as a buy low opportunity, something Ainge loves to do, but he missed on this one – if Boston was ever realistically an option.

According to various reports, the Celtics, Heat, Mavericks, and Lakers also pursued Stephenson before he rebuffed the Pacers and chose the Hornets, where he’ll team with young talents like Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, and Noah Vonleh, plus the recently signed Marvin Williams. Yet another team that could make some noise in a deeper, parity-filled East.

If Boston been able to make the money work with a sign-and-trade using their $10.3 million trade exception before their latest three-team swap, Stephenson would have been an intriguing fit. He wouldn’t have been the difference-maker for a Celts team lacking in star-power, but he would have helped considerably and more likely to a greater level than Bradley projects to if his history is a precursor for the future. All the while, he would have earned about the same money and less overall in the long run.

Just something to think about going forward as we watch the young C’s develop. But try not to spend much time fantasizing about a Rajon Rondo-Stephenson backcourt if you’re ultimately watching a Marcus Smart-Bradley tandem next season.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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