There are some inevitabilities with the Marcus Smart experience.
If you lust for his signature winning plays — like, say, the absurd game-saving block against OG Anunoby in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series against Toronto — then you simply have to live with the nights where Smart tries to channel his inner Steph Curry beyond the 3-point arc.
Both are the byproduct of an insatiable desire to win. Or maybe it’s an insatiable desire to not lose.
As Smart reaffirmed during the 2020 playoffs, “I hate losing more than I love winning.” It was his way of explaining what triggered Boston’s locker room Royal Rumble after Game 2 of the East finals, which is a whole ’nutha part of the Smart experience.
The bottom line with Smart is that, more often than not, he positively impacts winning. The Celtics seemingly always have a chance to pull off a miracle with Smart on the court because he simply refuses to accept the other outcome.
Still, the last image of Smart this season was him hoisting 22 shots during Boston’s season-ending Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat in the conference finals. And even though Smart’s 3-point barrage in the first half helped Boston stick close in that game, Smart’s hefty shot total didn’t sit well with some Celtics fans on a night he finished second only to Jayson Tatum (26) in shot attempts.
Ultimately, the Celtics probably are not in the East finals if not for Smart’s irrational confidence on the offensive end. With Kemba Walker fighting his shot as minutes piled up in the Toronto series, the Celtics needed an offensive jolt and Smart gave it to them. The byproduct was that he hoisted 84 shots in the East finals, including a whopping 47 3-pointers. He shot just 31.9 percent beyond the arc, this after connecting on 24 of 61 3-pointers (39.3 percent) against Toronto.
Both Celtics coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge came out in support of Smart in the aftermath of Boston’s playoff exit, suggesting that it’s not the quantity of shots they care about, but the quality. The NBA’s tracking data suggested that 16 of Smart’s 22 shots were open (4-6 feet of space) to wide open (6+ feet of space). Alas, Smart was 3 of 13 on those “open” shots, including 2 of 10 on 3-pointers.
Smart certainly isn’t immune to ill-advised attempts and our mind flashes to a particularly head-slapping fadeaway in the final minutes of Game 2 against Miami that might have led to some pointed discussions before Boston’s locker room blowout. There’s an argument to be made though that, with his 3-point improvements the last two seasons, Smart has earned a bit more of a green light.
Certainly there is a happy medium, somewhere between Toronto-series Smart who needs to give the Celtics a jolt and Miami-series Smart, who probably could have deferred to others a bit more.
Here’s what the data tell us: The Celtics did not perform this season whenever Smart’s points and shot total spiked. Boston was a mere 1-9, including 0-2 in the postseason, whenever Smart scored 23 points or more. The more intriguing number is 3-point attempts. When Smart took six 3-pointers or more, the Celtics were 21-22 this season, including 4-7 in the postseason. When he took five 3-pointers or fewer, Boston was 28-6, including a perfect 6-0 in the postseason.
Now, some of that might be a product of necessity. Smart’s shot total naturally increases whenever the Celtics are down a starter and he gets elevated to the first unit. And it’s not as simple as saying that Smart simply cannot shoot more than X 3-pointers per game. Boston doesn’t win Game 2 of the Toronto series without Smart going 6 for 11 beyond the arc (he had 19 points that night).
What we can say more definitively is that, when the Celtics are near full strength, their best basketball comes when Smart’s biggest impact is on the defensive end.
At the risk of oversimplifying the exercise, the Celtics were 6-1 in the postseason whenever Smart’s individual defensive rating was 103.5 or lower. Take away the Philadelphia series and Boston was 1-6 whenever Smart’s defensive rating was higher than that number. This isn’t totally unexpected given the amount of minutes that Boston’s starters logged (Smart was at 38+ minutes per game) but it does play into the notion that Boston’s defensive intensity is at least partially connected to Smart’s play.
Beyond his knack for game-changing plays in pressure moments, Smart’s greatest value is his defense. He’s now a two-time All-Defense first-teamer who probably deserves greater consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. When the Celtics were desperate to bottle up Kyle Lowry or Goran Dragic in the postseason, Brad Stevens deployed Smart as the stopper.
But it made us think back to something Stevens routinely notes: Soar with your strengths. The Celtics have so much talent, particularly on the offensive end, and it’s clear that Smart’s greatest value is when his focus is on the defensive end.
Here’s another thing we’re pretty bullish on: Smart has a far greater value to the Celtics than anything the team could get for him in return on the trade market. We say this because of the frequency we see trade machine ideas swim through our social media mentions.
Smart has two years remaining on the four-year, $52 million extension he inked in July 2018. His name will invariably come up in trade chatter, if only because the Celtics do not have another salary in his tier. Heading into the offseason, Boston has only Smart ($13.4 million next season) slotted between Daniel Theis ($5 million) and Jaylen Brown ($23.8 million). We’re excluding soon-to-be extended Jayson Tatum from that mix for obvious reasons.
But there’s a reason the Celtics haven’t moved Smart for the Clint Capelas of the world. His value is far greater to Boston than both his salary and trade value could command in return. Teams are not going to move high draft picks or premium talent for Smart, in part because of the concerns about his offensive potential.
The truth is that Smart has established himself as a crafty playmaker who could further thrive if the Celtics beef up the bench unit around him this offseason. Still only 26 years old, Smart is both part of Boston’s young core but also the team’s longest-tenured player and a vocal leader.
Every championship team has a player like Smart. Someone whose intangibles and impact on winning is far greater than his salary slot.
The good news is that Smart is getting better as an offensive player. He simply needs to find a better balance and recognize when the Celtics need him to be Curry, and when they simply need him to be plain ol’ Marcus Smart.