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The Curious Case Of Marcus Smart
How has the point-Smart experiment worked for Boston, and what should they do with him in the future?
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Stats are accurate as of 5:00 pm ET Monday, 12/20/2021.
Few players in the NBA are as polarizing as Marcus Smart. He’s brash, loud, and physical; he brings intensity and slick passing to a Celtics team that sometimes lacks both, and most Celtics fans love him for it.
Smart also can rub opponents, teammates, and refs the wrong way. He makes some bizarre mistakes and has a lot more confidence in his shot than history would suggest he should. Some Celtics fans would trade him for a below-average sandwich.
To understand Smart, though, you need to watch him. And watch Marcus Smart for long enough, and you’ll catch yourself wincing in phantom pain. The man is constantly laid out on the floor. Whether he’s diving for loose balls, flopping, taking charges, or falling after shooting a layup, Smart spends more time on the horizontal plane than any other NBA player:
The energy is the whole deal with Marcus, the “heart and soul” of the Celtics.
Smart is averaging 10.8 points, 5.6 assists, and 3.9 rebounds this season. The eight-year veteran has been named to two All-Defensive teams and was the winner of the 2018-2019 NBA Hustle Award (yes, this is a real thing), and he’ll likely be in the fight for those honors again. He played a vital role as the Celtics went to the Eastern Conference Finals three out of four years from 2017 to 2020 (not long ago!). Although just 6’3”, he weighs 220 pounds and possesses the strength, lateral quickness, and intelligence to guard anybody in the league.
Indeed, Bball-index says that Smart spends 28% of his time on PGs, 27% on SGs, 18% on SFs, 16% on PFs, and 11% on Cs; it’s one of the more diverse defensive profiles in the NBA. His defensive estimated plus/minus, which calculates overall defensive impact, is in the 94th percentile.
Smart is the very vocal quarterback of the Celtic’s 10th-ranked defense and is averaging 2.0 steals per game, a career-high. The sheer variety of swipes is impressive. He’ll wrestle it away from a big man in the post, pickpocket an opposing point guard, jump a passing lane, or sneak in and steal a sloppy inbounds pass.
In the play below, he stymies a two-on-one fast break for Toronto by jumping, forcing a pass, and then blocking the second Raptor’s shot while still in the air:
That’s as heads-up a defensive highlight as you’ll see from anyone.
So we’ve established that Marcus is a heck of a defender. On offense, this is the first season that the Celtics have committed to playing him as a full-time point guard, although it’s primarily out of necessity.
He’s by far the best and most willing passer in an otherwise by-the-numbers Celtics offense, and it shows: Smart leads the team in assists and potential assists (which includes passes that would’ve been an assist if the teammate had made the shot), and the Celtics are +7.1 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Smart on the court.
However, he’s not a pure point guard by nature, and for every flashy assist, there’s a head-scratching turnover or forced shot. He’s the best of a bad set of options, the fastest snail. Acknowledging this reality, the Celtics have mostly used a point-by-committee approach. Ostensible backup PG Dennis Schroder actually leads the team in touches per game, followed closely by superstar wing Jayson Tatum, and other players like Jaylen Brown and even Josh Richardson take turns bringing the ball up the court.
The joint approach is partially because Marcus, who steadily improved his marksmanship to begin his career, has completely lost his shooting touch:
That’s a whoooooole lot of blue. He’s below league-average from virtually everywhere on the court, and it shows up in his shooting splits. Smart is hitting a blindingly poor 38.6% from the field overall and just 27.6% from deep (33.0% last year). It’s the second-worst three-point shooting of his career (although his total field goal %, somehow, is above his career average). Smart’s always been a bad two-point shooter, but he’s had years where he’s approached league average from deep. This ain’t one of them.
Despite the broken-arrow accuracy, Smart has never shied away from launching the ball. This can drive fans and teammates crazy, but there is a benefit to being trigger-happy. Sometimes Smart catches opponents closing out too hard, expecting a three-ball, and he’s able to squeeze past them into the lane, where he can survey the defense and find an open man. He’s also never afraid of the moment, and his clutch statistics have been quite good this year.
Smart’s best attribute is his passing vision. His handle is adequate, but nothing special. He doesn’t have elite athleticism on the ball, so he can’t easily blow by people to convert at the rim.
One counter to that: Smart loves to take funky layups in which he picks up his dribble a beat earlier than most people would. It leads to some strange-looking shots:
Smart does something approximating this peculiar shot several times a game. While it does allow him to get off layups that other players wouldn’t attempt, and he converts them at a decent rate, they are high-difficulty shots that don’t draw that many fouls.
Publicly naming Smart as a point guard has clearly changed Smart’s mindset: He’s averaging the most potential assists and shooting the fewest three-pointers of his career on a per-minute basis. He takes 4.6 treys per game, which still feels high considering his dreadful shooting percentage. Defenses often leave him open, inviting him to shoot, and Marcus should be willing and able to hit those. However, too many of his shot attempts come early in the shot clock and/or covered tightly:
This is not the shot the Celtics want Smart taking, and picking his spots is something he’s struggled with his entire career. Smart made adjustments to his playstyle this season for the positive, but he’s regressed terribly in his actual shooting efficiency, which nullifies much of his improvement.
So what about Smart’s future? Well, it’s complicated. He made waves earlier this season when he (correctly) called out Boston’s stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for not passing the ball, an imprudent public call-out from a player who’s had his own issues with shot selection in the past. The other Celtics were not pleased to have dirty laundry aired out in front of an audience.
Former Celtics coach and current Celtics GM Brad Stevens is Smart’s biggest fan, and Stevens signed Smart to a 4-year/$77 million extension this offseason that kicks in next year. Smart’s trade value at that price is unclear. While Stevens has a higher opinion of Smart than most, the Celtics continued stagnation may necessitate a trade, and Smart would be one of the most likely candidates.
Boston is currently .500 with slightly better underlying statistics and an easy remaining schedule, but they have been an overall disappointment this year. Smart, Tatum, and Brown have been constant companions for a half-decade now, and despite plenty of early success, the Celtics haven’t been able to break through the way they’d hoped. They’re starting to feel like the same old story each year. Worse, they just don’t seem to enjoy playing with each other much.
Smart’s defense is elite, but the Celtics have a roster full of solid defenders. They desperately need a natural pass-first point guard to compliment Tatum and Brown. Smart’s ideal role is as a secondary playmaker surrounded by better offensive players. He could focus on attacking rotating defenses off the dribble to get into the paint and spray out passes to shooters and backdoor cutters.
All that said, he’s still an excellent player despite his shooting woes. ESPN ranked him as the 49th best player in the NBA before the season, ahead of bigger names like Anthony Edwards and Andrew Wiggins. Having lockdown perimeter defense with playmaking juice is a rare and valuable combination, and he’s already achieved plenty of team and individual success in Boston.
The extension in the offseason is an indicator of the team’s faith in Smart. At just 27, he can still improve, and the core trio of Smart, Brown, and Tatum is a nightmare for opposing offenses (in the 97th percentile for defensive rating). They have outscored opponents by +6.4 points per 100 possessions overall together this season.
Despite his obvious warts, there’s enough history and statistical evidence to suggest that Smart is not the problem with the Celtics. He might be a little overtaxed as the starting point guard, but it’s hardly his fault that he’s the only one qualified for the role. I still believe in Tatum/Brown/Smart as teammates, but Smart is an admittedly tricky jigsaw puzzle piece to fit in. The addition of a pass-first point guard would go a long way towards smoothing over some of the jagged edges in the shapes of their stars.
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