Why calls for the Celtics to trade Marcus Smart are tired and lazy
The Boston Celtics struggled to generate a consistent offense in the NBA Finals, particularly hampered by ball safety. And it’s been decided by some that this means it’s time, once again, to think about trading Marcus Smart.
Smart is unquestionably the most polarizing player in Boston sports. But the “Trade Marcus Smart!” takes this pop-up every time the Celtics hit a speed bump are tired and often gloss over the fact that Smart is far from the team’s biggest problem.
Alas, it’s the easy catch. You don’t trade superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. You don’t move Robert Williams III based on his development and sweetheart of a contract extension. No one takes 36-year-old Al Horford for a performance that makes you better without attaching a prohibitive amount of assets to him. Trader Grant Williams or Payton Pritchard isn’t particularly sexy.
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So it’s “Trade Smart!” because it’s splashier than “Use your trade exceptions to fix the inconsistent bench that really sank your Finals chances.”
Smart was far from perfect in the final. His defense against Stephen Curry wasn’t as sharp as it should have been. He couldn’t shoot at critical moments. He returned the ball. And he couldn’t stabilize an attack that too often went off the rails for long stretches. But the entirety of the 2021-22 season suggests Smart at point guard was the least of Boston’s problems.
A few numbers to keep in mind when tapping your keyboard to navigate the Trade Machine:
Smart takes the keys
The Celtics had a net rating of over 13.7 in the 1,170 minutes Smart was the clear leader this season, per position trailed by Cleaning the Glass. This ranked in the 99th percentile among all leaders.
The Celtics’ offensive rating with Smart as the sole point guard was a solid 119.0, a mark that would have led the NBA by nearly three full points had it stood. Boston’s expected win total with Smart’s point guard production was 70.
This continued a career pattern of Smart playing his best basketball when he was the primary point guard. For most of his career, Smart had been kept off the ball while playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker.
Even in the 2020-21 season, Smart only spent 27% of his total time on the ground at point guard. That percentage jumped to 51% last season. And the Celtics dominated during this period. Imagine if you deleted all those instances he saved sharing the field with Dennis Schroder, which is a good reminder of what happens when you prioritize attacking there.
The leader of a dominant starting five
Boston’s five starters, Smart, Tatum, Brown, Horford and Williams III, had a plus-24.6 net rating in 443 regular-season minutes. It was 4.4 points better than the next closest five-man unit (Philadelphia) with at least 250 minutes together. In fact, of the nine five-man units with at least 400+ minutes last season, the next closest group was plus-12.8 (Minnesota).
The Celtics’ starters were bullies for most of the second half of the year. There’s reason to think they’ve certainly inflated the numbers by dominating lower competition, but that’s exactly what top teams usually do.
Boston’s starting lineup has played just 138 postseason minutes together over 12 games due to injuries. Their net rating was a much less stellar plus-3.6, which is also an indication of rising competition.
It’s undeniably concerning that Boston’s offensive rating with those five has dropped to a mediocre 107.3 over that span. The defense was still elite but it’s fair to demand more from this group as a whole against the top teams.
Smart quarterback was the NBA’s best offense in the second half
After returning from a six-game absence on Jan. 23, quarterback Smart led the NBA’s best offense in the final 35 games of the season. The Celtics posted a 120.2 offensive rating during that span, which included a top-10 assist percentage (64.1, tied for 6th).
Smart seemed to find a better balance between finding his own offense and creating for his teammates, and any questions about his potential as a point guard faded during that streak.
Playoff turnovers weren’t a smart deal
While much of the responsibility for getting a team to be more careful with basketball undoubtedly rests with a point guard, it’s important to remember that Smart was far from the most egregious in terms of reduced safety of the ball in the playoffs.
Here’s a look at the Celtics’ player turnover percentage (with percentile ranking by position, according to data from Cleaning the Glass) compared between the regular season and the playoffs. Only four players among Boston’s eight-player core reduced their rotation percentage from the regular season to the playoffs and Smart was one of them:
Smart is key to Boston’s defensive identity
Are there any pass-first point guards who could better accentuate the Jays’ talent? Probably, though even those at the top of a dream wishlist would struggle to help the Celtics generate the kind of offense they did in the final 35 games of the regular season.
The most embarrassing part is the drop Boston would take defensively going from Smart to any average perimeter defender in the league.
We can discuss the impact of Smart’s defense and if he really was Defensive Player of the Year. What is indisputable is that the difference between Smart and a substitute level defender in his position is profound. There are certainly instances where Smart struggles – especially against bigger guards – but his overall versatility, as well as his ability to really harass opposing ball handlers on the first line of defense, have been invaluable in helping the Celtics. to post the best defensive rating in the NBA (106.2) this season.
We understand that there is little common ground with Smart. Either you unequivocally “love and trust him” (as Brad Stevens once suggested) or you’re steadfast in his belief that he’s the root of everything that ails a team, even if it’s is the one that was four and a half minutes from a 3-1. Leading the finals. Few reside anywhere in between.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t entertain thoughts about potential deals for Smart. There is some redundancy now with the addition of Derrick White and the Celtics running out of marketable assets.
There’s also a case to be made that he’s close to living up to his value given that: 1) He’s the reigning DPOY, 2) He’s playing on reasonable overtime, and 3) He’s coming off a season in which the Celtics thrived with him as the offensive quarterback. But Smart is also the kind of player who thrives as the third- or fourth-best part of a championship-caliber team and finding a business partner who would want him as, say, the centerpiece of a trade for a younger player with more benefits is difficult. to find.
The Celtics should definitely be interested in adding a steady ball handler off the bench who can take some of the stress off Smart and the Jays to lead the offense. After years of hearing people lament his 3-point shot, spare me the suggestion that the Celtics should get Smart further off the ball. Choose a path here, people.
Also remember what you lose if you move Smart. Good luck finding a point guard who has the versatility to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo for long playoff stretches when you’re desperate to give him another look. Good luck finding someone who can have the locker room ear, at least as long as Tatum’s voice keeps getting louder.
Boston’s most common assist-scoring combination this season was Smart to Tatum, who connected 113 times, the 16th-best total in the NBA last season. The next most common connections in the team? Smart to Brown (95 assists) and Smart to Williams III (62). No other combo was in the NBA top 100 this season for the Celtics.
The Celtics have more pressing needs right now. They need to come up with a succession plan for Horford. They need more wing depth to alleviate the wear and tear on the Jays. They have roadmaps for adding impact bench talent without having to send a centerpiece and risk rocking the boat into a team that finally has an identity.
The only thing that needs to be traded is the “Trade Smart” plugs.