Avery Bradley is 30th on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list, 113 points ahead of the next man behind him, Kevin Gamble. He appeared in fewer games for the franchise than Hank Finkel, Rick Fox, and Steve Kuberski. His second-most similar statistical comparison through seven seasons is John Bagley. He never played on a championship winner. His only major awards were earning second-team All-Defense in 12-2013 and first-team All-Defense in 2015-16.
By measure of accolades and accomplishments, Bradley is not an all-time great Celtic. But what he is, undeniably, is an all-time Celtic in everything the Green and White is supposed to represent. If his middling statistical standing in the franchise’s record books leaves you skeptical of his place, I hope the collective roared salute from approximately 18,000 fans at TD Garden Monday night helps you recognize what Bradley, returning as visiting player for the first time since his offseason trade to the Detroit Pistons, truly meant at a point in time when the Celtics were rebuilding and remaining competitive at once.
Bradley was the bridge from the New Big Three era of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen to the ascending contender that Celtics fans are all falling in love with now. He arrived as a raw, not-ready-for-prime-time guard out of Texas that Danny Ainge plucked with the 19th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. He was just 19, battled ankle injuries during his one season as a Longhorn, and quickly proved that he was not a point guard. You think Lonzo Ball hot-potatoes the basketball when he’s under pressure now, you should have seen Bradley then. He looked like nothing more than a defensive-minded combo guard who wasn’t especially adept at any part of the combo.
But he worked, and he worked, and he worked some more, improving and enhancing his skill set each season. It became apparent early that his defensive skills were not to be underestimated. And while he never became a true point guard, he became a terrific midrange shooter and strong finisher on back cuts who eventually expanded his range to 3-point territory.
By his third season, he had pushed Ray Allen to the bench, and eventually toward Miami. In his final season as a Celtic, he averaged a career-best 16.3 points per game while serving, along with Isaiah Thomas, as an avatar of an overachieving and wholly admirable Eastern Conference finalist.
In a perfect basketball universe, he would still be a Celtic, though with an 18-3 record there’s really nothing to lament about this team right now. Ainge did not want to trade Bradley this past summer. He had to when the salary cap ceiling was set at $99 million, several million less than projected, and it became necessary to clear room in order to sign free agent All-Star Gordon Hayward. Bradley and his $8.8 million salary were sent to Detroit for Marcus Morris in July. Bradley’s been terrific, averaging 16.8 points per game, shooting 42.5 percent from three, and playing his usual lockdown defense, as Russell Westbrook found out on his bricked last-second shot in the Pistons’ 1-point win over the Thunder Friday.
Asked Monday morning by reporters at the Garden about what he learned during his seven seasons in Boston, Bradley answered with his usual thoughtfulness and humility. “My time here, I really appreciated it,’’ said Bradley. “I feel like every step in your life is to help you get to the person you’re supposed to be, or in this case the basketball player I want to be. So I just look at all those experiences that I had, and I’m thankful for them.’’
Celtics fans will let him know they were thankful for him Monday night. I’m sure the organization will too, though whether they will prepare a video tribute to Bradley remained an unsolved question as of Monday afternoon. I hope they do put one together, not only because Bradley is worthy, but because I’m curious to see what would be included. His highlight last season, other than the winning jumper in the final seconds against the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the East finals, was countering Kyrie Irving’s every move during his attempt at a winning shot during the Celtics’ win over the Cavs during the regular season. I’m not sure Irving would be thrilled to see that on the video board at his new home. Maybe they can just show Bradley’s block of Dwyane Wade in the 2012 playoffs on a loop instead.
As it stands, team policy has been to show videos only for returning members of championship teams. I suppose the line has to be drawn somewhere, but considering Glen Davis and Eddie House got video salutes, it seems absurd that Bradley and, eventually, Isaiah Thomas would not.
No, they were not champions. They don’t rank among the greatest Celtics. But Monday night, Bradley’s class, effort, and perseverance deserve such acknowledgment. He was the embodiment of a Celtic in all the ways that matter. The fans know this. No doubt the Celtics do too. If they do put together a video, no audio will be necessary. No one will be able to hear it over the applause.