Last month, the Boston Celtics reported that Marcus Smart will miss at least two weeks of action after lacerating his hand after swiping at and hitting a picture frame in his hotel room during Boston’s west coast trip. Now it turns out he could very well be out until the All-Star break.
It is unclear what caused the fourth-year guard to lash out, but it is worth noting that it came after a game in which Smart missed a buzzer-beating three-point shot against the Lakers, a shot which many viewed as selfish. Perhaps Smart was aware of the criticism. Perhaps he wasn’t. Either way, this incident is just another instance of Smart’s temper, or competitive nature, getting the best of him. Of course, he famously pushed a fan courtside back in his college days. Since joining the Celtics, some of Smart’s greatest hits include yelling at coaches, oversleeping during the playoffs, flipping the finger to a fan, cup-checking Matt Bonner, and of course, this latest incident.
To be clear, I do not bring any of this stuff up to call into question the character of Smart. Anyone who follows the Celtics knows how charitable he is and how much he does for the community. A handful of incidents in four years, especially looked at through one lens (we don’t know what the fan who pushed Smart said, for example) does not make Smart a bad person or one with character issues. And flipping off a fan, despite not being particularly endearing, does not hurt the team, and again we do not know what provoked Smart. It’s likely that the organization has accepted the apologies Smart has undoubtedly given for all of these and has moved on.
However, with his impending free agency, it is also possible that these transgressions have added up and will either force Smart to take a pay cut to remain with the team. Both parties were already unable to come to terms on an extension before the season started; it could lead to him being let go altogether. It has been reported that Smart may be available for a first-round pick in this year’s draft, adding even more fuel to the fire. Of course, Danny Ainge has a reputation for being willing to trade any player, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise; however, it is telling that the asking price for Smart is now public information.
It is also cannot be a coincidence that this news comes out right as Terry Rozier, who will still be on his rookie contract next season, delivers back to back spectacular performances after getting a chance to start a couple of games. Could those games reconfirm a stance the front office has already had? Perhaps they view Terry’s more favorable contract situation and a superior offensive game as more important than Smart’s versatile defense.
Smart will make most of his money based on his defensive performance, so that is a good starting point in assessing his value. To start simply, every year of his career so far, the Celtics have had a better defense when Smart is on the court. His ability to guard one through four without being overwhelmed by any matchup makes him invaluable to the Celtics system and his attention to detail when it comes to team defense have helped him become a master at drawing charges and gaining deflections.
He is one of the few players in the league who is as effective off the ball on defense as they are on the ball. Smart knows how to play the passing lanes and can just as easily rip the ball from his match-up in one on one situations.
Put him in a lineup with two lengthy wings (Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) and a wily big man (Al Horford), you then have the makings of a defense that even the most potent offenses will have trouble cracking. The Celtics give up only 98.9 points per 100 possessions with Smart in the game, a truly remarkable number in the pace-and-space era. Lose him, and there is bound to be some slippage on that end.
But this where things get interesting. When Smart is on the bench, the team surrenders only 101.5 points per 100 possessions. That number would rank second in the league on the season. That is despite giving heavy minutes to a rookie and a second-year player who have yet to even come close to figuring out all the nuances of NBA defense. The Celtics ability to craft an elite defense does not seem to be tied to giving minutes to Smart. If they continue to play at an elite level on that end during his absence the next couple of weeks, it could factor into Danny Ainge’s decision come the summer time.
It will be Smart’s lack of offensive improvement, however, that plays the biggest factor in determining what team he’s on and how much money he’s making next season. Smart reportedly shed a lot of weight in the summer in an effort to not only help him chase around quicker guards on defense, but to up his explosiveness and become quicker himself on offense. He also reworked his shooting form. And in the preseason, it seemed as though the efforts had paid off. Smart was nailing threes, creating space off the dribble, and finishing through contact with an ease he had not yet shown throughout his career. The hype, at that moment in time, was very real.
Once the regular season hit, Smart’s jumper and his ability to finish returned to his normal, which is to say they were nearly nonexistent. As of right now, he is just above 40% on two-point shots, and just below 30% on three-pointers. That three-point mark is somehow an improvement over the 28% he hit last season, yet still terrible for a player jacking about 4.5 threes per game.
It hasn’t hurt the Celtics much, if any, during the regular season. Yet come playoff time when teams are locked in and looking to exploit any weakness they can? It may be what ends up killing the Celtics. Even if Smart can hit at the same rate he did last postseason (39.7%), teams will not sell out to prevent him from shooting which will lead to a negative impact on the overall spacing.
Smart’s best quality on offense is his ability to handle, run the pick and roll, and find teammates once defenses commit to (for some reason) stopping his penetration. He is a legitimate crafty passer, and he creates easy buckets for big men rolling to the rim with well-placed lob passes.
In a Brad Stevens offense, there is always room for players who can handle the ball and make plays. I’m sure if Stevens had his choice, Smart would be back. The coach even went out of his way to tell the newcomers to the team that “they love him (Marcus) here,” after pointing out one of Smart’s hustle plays in a film session. But, because Smart has not improved on his shooting, there may not be a place for him on the team once Hayward is healthy. Once that happens, Smart’s ball handling will become less crucial as Hayward will likely be charged with leading bench units along with one of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Where does Smart fit in when grouped with three or possibly even four superior offensive players?
It’s hard to predict where the Celtics brass stands on Smart. They clearly value him, or else they would have never tried to reach an extension in the first place. His lack of improvement shooting the ball and his non-basketball transgressions, though, would be enough to put most teams over the edge. The decision on whether or not to bring him back to Boston could all depend on how he performs over the next few months, especially in the playoffs.