"I brought toughness to this team. It’s kind of what was missing, not aggressive and tough on defense. I brought a defensive mind to this team. We became one of the best defensive teams in the country. We have a chemistry between each other and a bond that keeps us real close throughout the game, no matter what’s going on. Brotherhood: it’s kind of our motto. We try not to argue amongst each other. Once you start doing that, you start to lose focus. We try to stick together throughout the whole game." - Marcus Smart
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Marcus Smart was talking about his time with the Boston Celtics when he said this. Yet he made these comments three years ago when he was still playing college ball at Oklahoma State. Even then he was admired as a leader and a hustle player whose intensity gave him the edge.
When Marcus Smart was drafted by the Boston Celtics, he transformed this team in the same way he transformed his college club, the Bulldogs. Sure, he brought his defensive skill-set to the Celtics, but more than that he brought an identity to this Boston squad that had been lacking.
It was the acquisition of Smart that made the Rondo trade a possibility and in some ways an inevitably. When Boston drafted the young guard, they saw the opportunity to build not around a player’s ability but around his identity.
Smart’s focus, his energy, his drive, and perhaps more than anything his hustle have all become defining features of the current era of Celtics basketball. While his ambition and his intensity are a perfect fit for a franchise that has always pushed passionately for championship glory.
This season he has been instrumental in several big wins and has shown up in key moments. He seems to make hustle plays exactly when they’re most needed. He’s been described as the avatar for Boston’s productive chaos and the embodiment of their winning formula.
Despite all this praise, opinion is still divided on Marcus Smart. For every article dubbing him central to the Celtics’ success, another article will describe him as a faulty cog in Boston’s well-oiled machine.
Fans are even more at odds with one another than the analysts, with some fans seeing Smart as the Celtics’ saviour and other seeing him as an over-hyped false hope.
Like so many other players on this current roster he has passionate supporters as well as his fair share of fiery detractors. Part of this is, of course, his often admonished offensive woes.
Despite his much admired defensive ability, Smart hasn’t quite developed as the offensive threat that some had hoped. This season saw his three-point percentage drop considerably from 33.5% in the 2014-2015 season to 25.3% in the 2015-2016 season. However his two-point percentage saw a mild improvement from 41% to 42.7%, and this is with increased attempts and fewer minutes, indicating that his offensive decision-making is maturing. Regardless his troubles on the offensive end are even more a subject of scrutiny this season than they were last season.
Even still, players and coaching staff gush over Smart’s intangibles and his ability to impact the game in ways not reflected in the box score. Isaiah Thomas described Smart as "a special player" while Brad Stevens has said before that Smart "impacts winning."
To me part of the reason opinion is so divided is exactly because of Smart’s central role to Boston’s rebuild. In a lot of ways he has come to represent Boston’s success or failure. As the embodiment of Boston’s controlled chaos, he also doubles as the personification of the Celtics’ rebuilding success.
How people perceive Smart seems directly tied to how they believe Boston’s rebuild is going overall. In fact, almost every criticism that is said of Smart could just as easily apply to the entire Boston team.
Comments about lacking offensive ability and relying too much on grit, drive, hustle or being too defensive-minded are slights that can easily be levelled against Smart and the Celtics overall in equal measure.
So all of this makes it difficult to look at Smart’s season individually.
Smart isn’t the type of player who can be judged in a vacuum; his impact and influence on this team is almost immeasurable. The attitude he carries with him has taken over the Celtics locker room. Smart’s admirable leadership abilities at such a young age seem to be at least part of what spurred IT and Jae Crowder to realise their roles as leaders on this team.
His ability to impact the game goes way beyond intangibles and hustle plays and any other kind of immeasurable on-the-court action. It goes even deeper than his infectious energy and intensity. His mindset is that of a leader and a champion, and he influences everyone around him to share his attitude.
That is what people mean when they say Smart is a ‘special’ player. He’s a player whose identity is so influential that the team has grown with him just as he has grown with the team.
I don’t see Smart and the Celtics severing their somewhat symbiotic relationship anytime soon. Ainge and Stevens know what they’ve got in Smart. They know that his shot will start falling because he’s the type of player to work on it. They know that his defense and his decision-making will only improve because he’s the type of player to push himself to be better. They know that in Smart they’ve got the type of player that defines a team.
So despite losing his starting spot and facing a few unfortunate injuries and despite his three-pointer not developing and some average overall games, this has been a good season for Smart because it has been a good season for the Celtics.
Smart progressed as a player, and the Celtics progressed as a team. Together they look better than they did last season or even at the beginning of this one. Of course I want to see him improve more, just like I want this team to get better. But the fact that Smart’s hustle-loving, never-say-die, all-for-one and one-for-all attitude has been adopted by this entire Celtics squad shows just how important he already is to this team.
By inspiring and influencing his teammates, Smart has brought the hustle back to Boston, the city where it belongs.