Avery Bradley vs. Lance Stephenson

Avery Bradley vs. Lance Stephenson
July 16, 2014, 1:30 pm
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Lance Stephenson reportedly signed a three-year/$27M contract with the Charlotte Hornets today, and my first reaction was — man, I love that the “Charlotte Hornets” are a thing again. The NBA is a better place with that brand back up and running.  I really hope they invite Kelly Tripucka back for opening night.
 
My second reaction was and is the actual purpose of this post — to touch on the obvious comparison between Charlotte signing Stephenson, a 23-year-old, 6-5, monster shooting guard, for three years/$27M (with a team option for the third year, meaning there’s only $18M guaranteed) and the Celtics signing Avery Bradley, a 23-year-old, 6-2, undersized shooting guard, for four years/$32M, with all of it guaranteed.
 
The Bradley signing raised some eyebrows in Boston when it was first announced a few weeks back. And still, a lot of people don’t think that Bradley is worth it. And then, to see Stephenson, who is undoubtedly more talented than Bradley (and probably more than 90 percent of the NBA) sign for fewer years and less guaranteed money — well, that probably won’t do much to ease the local discontent.
 
Like I said, “Born Ready” is one of the most purely talented players in the world. Unlike Bradley, he’s incredibly durable — having missed only eight games in his two years as the Pacers starting shooting guard. Last year, Stephenson averaged more than 35 minutes a night and posted 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He led the league with five triple doubles. By comparison, Stephenson would have finished second in total points on last year’s Celtics, second in total rebounds (only 43 behind Jared Sullinger) and first in total assists. The guy does everything.
 
So, at this very moment, would the Celtics be better off moving forward with Stephenson at the deal he received, or Bradley at his deal?
 
I’ll take Bradley every time, and it’s not even close.
 
For all that Stephenson brings to the table — he takes so much away. He was a terror behind the scenes for Indiana last year. According to multiple reports, he was a driving force behind the Pacers second half meltdown. He’s a loose cannon, and one that certain teams are built to deal with or able to convince themselves that the reward is worth the risk.
 
For instance, teams like Charlotte — that made the playoffs last year, will bring most of that roster back next year, already has a foundation with two great leaders (Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker) and oh by the way, a team that’s looking to make a splash, kick-off this Hornets re-branding in style and do everything they can to erase the foul memory that lingers from a decade of “Bobcats basketball.” A team that, honestly, isn’t even worried about winning a championship right now; that just wants to prove that they can compete and gain some much-needed and long lost relevancy.
 
That’s the Hornets.
 
On the other hand, the Celtics were one of the worst teams in the NBA last year, will bring most of that roster back next year and have no real leadership or foundation to speak of. Yeah, I know, there’s Rondo — and Jared Sullinger is a great young leader in his own right — but we don’t know if either of those guys will be in Boston tomorrow or after this year’s deadline or this time next summer. The Celtics are still in limbo. They’re not desperate for relevancy — not yet — and they only and always have a championship on their mind. They’re trying to build one.
 
To do that, you have to start with a foundation, and Lance Stephenson isn’t a foundation player. He’s not a guy you build around. He’s a mercenary, and will continue to play that role for Charlotte, and the next team he plays for, and the next team he plays for. I guarantee that this isn’t even close to Stephenson’s last stop. He’s much too volatile. He’s the definition of high maintenance — and that’s the last thing the Celtics are looking for right now. Not just as it pertains to Stephenson, but any player like him. They have enough to worry about as it is.
 
Even more, let’s go best-case scenario. Let’s visit a bizarro world where the Celtics let Bradley walk, signed Stephenson for the exact money he got in Charlotte, and Stephenson plays to his full potential — an All Star talent. How much better are the Celtics? They still don’t have a center. They’re in the playoffs but still not competing for a title. Sure, maybe you have something to build on, but by the time you’re ready to strike, Stephenson’s ready for free agency, has been bitching for at least a year about being underpaid  — and will be looking for a massive contract. OK, now what?
 
Meanwhile, there’s Avery Bradley. He might be on the books for more years and much more guaranteed money than Stephenson, but then there’s this —
 
Over the next two seasons, Stephenson is guaranteed $18M while Bradley will get $14.9M. So with Bradley, the Celtics have more short-term flexibility to do what they need to do if the right opportunity presents itself.
 
For the two seasons after that (2016-17/2017-18), Bradley’s guaranteed $17M, which is a considerable increase, but don’t forget that that will coincide with a considerable increase in the NBA salary cap. Proportionally, his cost might not increase at all. At the same time, by 2016, Stephenson is guaranteed nothing — the Hornets have a team option for year three. That said, if he’s not worth the $9M to pick up that option, he probably wasn’t worth the $18M you already paid him; so that’s a wash. I’m just saying that in reality, the guaranteed money isn’t all that different — plus Bradley puts you in better financial situation in the here and now.
 
And while Stephenson is the definition of high-maintenance, Bradley is the lowest of the low.
 
I’m not talking about his injuries, although obviously that’s a concern. If Bradley can’t stay on the court, this contract will be remembered as a total bust. (On the bright side, I’ve seen a few pictures of Avery this offseason and it looks like he’s been hitting the weight room. Maybe he’s taken a page from Rondo’s offseason notebook and will come back jacked and more prepared to handle the rigors of an 82-game season.)
 
But injuries aside, NBA players don’t come more low maintenance than Avery Bradley. Off the court, he just works hard, keeps his mouth shut, goes with the flow and pops up at community and charitable events all over town. On the court, he’s obsessed with defense; takes more pride in that than any other part of his game. On offense, you don’t even need to call a play for him. He’s just there. Moving without the ball. Blending in. That’s what he does (when he’s not forced into playing point guard, at least). He blends in. He can do it in any offense, within any roster.
 
And I know, offense isn’t his strong suit. When his shot’s not falling, it’s hard to watch. But with Bradley’s work ethic, I’m willing assume that the jump shot will continue to improve. And while, even at his ceiling, Bradley doesn’t have the talent to take over a game the way that Stephenson can, I’ll say this:
 
Avery Bradley will win an NBA title before Lance Stephenson does. If I’m trying to build a championship team, I’ll take Bradley over Stephenson every single time — while admitting that Stephenson is a better player with a higher ceiling — even if it takes guaranteeing more years and money.
 
And in conclusion, I really love that the Charlotte Hornets are back.
 
Now bring back Kelly Tripucka!
 
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine