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Assessing the Zhaire for Bradley trade: Is Tony Bradley for real?

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Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz - Game Four Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

I was a big backer of the Draft Night 2018 trade-down and Zhaire Smith selection. I thought the Miami pick had tons of value and I thought Smith had a higher ceiling, though a lower floor, than Mikal Bridges (whom I also loved), and that this was a reasonable trade off, and a great one given the additional pick. I felt Zhaire’s impressive play given his extreme youth made him quite likely to succeed. Obviously I never expected the Attack of the Sesame Seeds that, while thankfully survived by Zhaire, derailed his early career. Things don’t look great for Smith at the moment given that, after the Sixers traded him to Detroit, the Pistons waived him. Of course he is still only 21, he’s a talented athlete and a hard worker, and I very much hope that he turns into a heck of a player, which could certainly still happen. As I write he is an unrestricted free agent and if the Sixers decide to pick him up — assuming there’s no rule against that, which I seem to recall maybe there is! — I’ll be well pleased!

Of course the trade-down is now widely hated among Sixer fans since in addition to it costing us Mikal Bridges — a solid pro but one who, at age 24, is unlikely to ever develop into a star — it also got us the asset that became the heart of the Tobias Harris trade. Now that Al Horford is gone, hating on Tobi is the favorite sport among Sixer faithful. As best I can tell, what people really hate about Tobi is that he plays so much basketball. Reading the comments of observers, one gets the impression that people think true value add comes from guys who spend their in-season evenings in street clothes. Did you know that last year Tobi played about as many minutes as Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle combined? If Tobi had taken half the season off, perhaps he could have put up better per-minute numbers when he did play! Instead he went out their night after night and did battle. He didn’t always dominate, but he did win more Bell Ringer awards from LB readers than every other Sixer except for Ben Simmons, so he must have been doing something right. And he did it all while playing out of position at SF. Of course what really enrages fans is that Tobi makes so much money. But Gordon Hayward, who is still not all the way back from a major injury, and not obviously better than Tobi, just signed a deal that runs until he is 34 years old for about the same money, so it looks to me as though Tobi’s deal is right around market for a high-quality, durable, good-personality non-star who can score. I’m as likely as anyone to fall into the trap of believing in high-efficiency players who rarely actually put the ball in the hole, but I think the last few years should have persuaded us all that you can’t win a title with a team of nothing but George Lynches. If someone has a list of players who are above-average starters, who can get their own shot at the good-not-great level Tobi can, are not defensive liabilities or injury-plagued or ancient or hard to deal with, and who are available for modest trade and salary compensation, please share. I think it’ll be a short list.

Oh, and the trade? All those extraordinary assets we sacrificed? One was Landry Shamet, who is not a good player and likely never will be. Another was the Miami pick, which looks like it will be bottom 5 given how well the Heat played this year. Another was #19 in this year’s weak draft. And then cap filler and a couple of seconds, right? Honestly, big whoop! Some of the players people wanted to draft at 21, i.e. around 19, this year were still around at 49 and 58, or even as UDFAs. When John Hollinger says Paul Reed is the #12 player in the entire draft and you get him at 58, are you seriously going to tell me the #19 pick is worth half of Tobias Harris? That is insane. Insane overvaluation of the potential draft picks represent over the reality of a living, breathing Tobias Harris who will play quality basketball for you every damn night. People complain about the players we could have taken with those second-round picks we gave up in deals — “woe is us, if only Carson Edwards and Admiral Scofield were here!” But they rarely explain how they are going to get around the limitation on roster spots, or explain whom they’d cut so we could fit these legends-in-the-making. When I pushed people last year to tell me whom we should sacrifice to make room for Carson if we’d not traded him, the person they wanted to have walk the plank was Shake Milton. Because, you know, he hadn’t looked that great in Summer League! Again: people were angry that we didn’t take a significant chance of losing Matisse Thybulle because they thought it was so important to have Carson Edwards instead of Shake Milton. Indeed they are still angry about it, even now when we know that Matisse is a super-exciting player and we also know that Shake is a better prospect than Carson!

Folks, it’s really easy to get your hands on young talents. Every year half a dozen or more exciting players people wanted in the early 30s go UDFA. You can just pick them up, all you need is roster spots. It made the Process great fun. But once your roster is full of guys who can actually play, the game changes. Now the challenge is to convert a large number of pretty-good and not-good-yet players into a handful of actual quality starters and rotation guys. It’s difficult and expensive, and we did it with Tobias Harris, and we should be glad.

Or so I claim! But that’s not my main point today. My main point is: we got Tony Bradley! I limited myself to one exclamation point because, let’s face it, there’s a tremendous chance Daryl will be sending him elsewhere before Christmas Day. So, I won’t get too, too excited. But, people, this is a really exciting acquisition. Let’s start with counting stats:

Per 36:

FG: 6.8 of 10.3, 66.7%
REB: 14.5 total, 6.0 offensive
AST: 1.2
STL: 0.8
BLK: 1.8
TOV: 1.6
PTS: 15.5

Actually, let’s start with the ultimate counting stat, MP, Minutes Played. Bradley played 11 minutes a night, he was basically the full-time backup to Rudy Gobert on a fine Jazz team. That means something all by itself. Bradley is a real NBA player, a smart coach looked at all Earth’s billions and decided that every night he should give the crucial backup C minutes to Tony Bradley. Now, of course they dumped him to make room for someone else, and Detroit did the same, so I’m not saying that just because he played means he’s great! But I am saying that playing all year in the NBA is, all by itself, enough to put him in an elite fraternity.

It still adds up to only around 600 minutes, so grains of salt are appropriate. But taking it for what it is, it looks as though Bradley is a super-efficient offensive player,, hitting a remarkable two-thirds of his shots. Very few turnovers. With only 1.2 assists/36 he is no Kyle O’Quinn as a passer, but he does contribute via offensive rebounds. And I mean really, really contribute — he was first in the entire NBA in offensive rebound percentage, and by reputation he gets a lot of tap-outs as well. A 7’5” wingspan doesn’t hurt! As you can see he scores 15.5 points per 36 which is not bad. His True Shooting percentage was top-10 in the NBA, at least I read that somewhere so hopefully it’s true! (Editor’s note: If you qualify the list to include only players with at least 150 FGA, Bradley finished 9th in the league in TS%. He falls to 11th if including players with 100 FGA.)

I didn’t include three-point shooting stats; as you may know he shot 1.000 but it was only 3-for-3 so I won’t make too big a deal out of it. What I will say is that he is legitimately working on the three, he took a few dozen in the G-League and he understands this is a skill he needs to develop. Obviously whether he gets there or not makes a huge difference in his long-term value. For the moment let’s focus on next year, and assume he won’t be a sniper so soon. Does that make him useless to the Sixers? Hardly! I understand that folks now think Ben Simmons can only take the floor effectively if surrounded by four members of the Curry family, but that really isn’t so; Ben was part of dominant units with a not-so-great-a-shooter Joel Embiid early in his career, and when Joel got hurt in the Spring of 2018, Ben and Amir Johnson, nobody’s idea of a stretch 5, went on a monster run. Reddick, Ilyasova and Beli provided enough shooting to go around. What about defense? The numbers look great. Tons of steals and blocks, 2.6 stocks total per 36 is exceptional. The defensive rebounds aren’t as stunning as the offensive but they are good.

Importantly, Tony Bradley is only 22 years old. Many people were unhappy that the Sixers failed to draft Killian Tillie, who is also 22. If we had done so people would be super-excited to have him. But Tony Bradley, a mere 2 months older than Tillie, is not a long-term project who might be competent someday. He is an actual NBA player right now; he played meaningful minutes last year while Tillie was attending classes and fraternity beer bashes. Three and a half years ago, Tony Bradley was cutting down the nets, having won a national title years before Killian Tillie approached his NBA future. I recognize that I started this post with Zhaire, and Zhaire’s youth has not sufficed to make him an NBA star. And who knows, maybe Bradley will be laid low by an allergy while Tillie zooms to stardom. I can tell you, though, that if right now two teams played that were equal except one had Tillie at center and the other Bradley, I’d bet on the Bradley team to win by 5 points.

But look, we’ve moved beyond the time where we put all the weight on counting stats. We can do better now. The trade just happened, I want to get this article out tonight, and I’m blind so checking all possible stats is not easy for me. Indeed, Kevin, do me a favor and check that I didn’t screw up the counts of Bell Ringers and Minutes Played for Tobi above, thanks! So let me just say this: the best all-around statistic I know of is 538’s RAPTOR. According to RAPTOR, Bradley was a +1.1 on offense, per 48 minutes, and a +1.6 on defense. +2.7 total. If that were his true level of ability — which it probably isn’t since it’s based on a small sample — then he would be a top-10 center in the NBA right now. And that was in his age 22 season that he posted those figures! If we lop off some for random variation, then add some back in for going from 22 to the coming season’s 23, where do we end up? Hell if I know! But here are the positives:

  1. He had some of the best advanced stats in the NBA last year
  2. His traditional stats were also excellent
  3. His measurables like height, weight, wingspan, frame are consistent with him plausibly being a fine center
  4. He was a top high school recruit (#17 in the USA per ESPN) and played very well at the highest level in college so being good is not new to him
  5. His numbers reveal two major weaknesses only, and one, long-range shooting, we can see he is progressing on and there’s plenty of history of centers learning (Baynes, Wood, Dedmond, B. Lopez, M. Gasol, etc.), and the second, fouling too much, is one almost all young centers suffer from and many overcome
  6. He was a first-round pick and was on many sleeper lists; I remember being upset when the Lakers took him!
  7. Daryl Freaking Morey seems to think he has value
  8. The guy we traded for him got cut!

In all seriousness, I recognize that 600 minutes of impressive adjusted plus-minus figures do not an All-Star make. Probably he’ll be a journeyman, a Hernangomez or similar. But, that said, it sure looks like he was a solid NBA center at age 22! I don’t think it will be at all surprising if he ends up being a long-term quality starter. And if that happens, remember, you heard it here first!

And as to Zhaire: I hate to lose him, hate to give up on him. It’s hard to resist the sunk cost fallacy. But take a look at what Zhaire has accomplished, and then do the same for available free agent Shaquille Harrison, and ask yourself which of the two you would use the Sixers’ empty roster spot on. Or check out our recent addition Dakota Mathias, or any of a dozen other players we could add right now. I do think there’s a case that Zhaire is the most attractive of these folks to use a spot on; again, he’s 21, Shaq is 27 and Dakota 25, sometimes it’s worth investing for the future. But Z is pretty far down the depth chart, and we’re trying to win now — it certainly isn’t obvious he’s the best use of a slot when every minute he plays comes out of Tyrese Maxey or Matisse Thybulle or Shake Milton. If Zhaire had never played here, and we read that Detroit had just cut him, how many Sixer fans would be outraged if we didn’t drop Tony Bradley to pick him up? None, that’s how many! This is a variant on the sunk-cost fallacy that researchers designate the “endowment effect.” Actually the famous study of this involves the NCAA Tournament; they ask people how much they would pay for good seats to the Final game, and people say $500 or something. But if they give them tickets and ask how much they would require to sell those tickets, the answer is far, far higher. That’s what we’re doing with Zhaire, or at least it’s what my brain is doing to me with Zhaire. It’s very human, but it doesn’t make any sense when you think about it, and we should work to resist it. Because resisting it is one of the steps one needs to take to go from thinking like a normal executive to thinking like Daryl Morey.