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Waiting on Marcus Smart extension is a risk for flexibility

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Celtics could be looking for a bargain, but is it worth it?

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart is different. It feels like there’s no precedent for gauging his value. We know the price of elite scoring, stellar shooting and tangible skills that can be measured using statistics. It’s harder to tally the price on charges taken, boxing out players twice your size, and tearing through screens.

How do you quantify this? It’s become commonplace for Smart to make plays like these, here on Richaun Holmes, latching his hands onto a ball up for grabs and strong-arming possession back into the Celtics’ hands. It’s a steal, but it’s so much more than catching a pass from the other team or a simple strip.

Smart’s effort is unwavering and his defensive versatility, strong hands and sensational positioning on the court always put him in position to do something that blows everyone’s mind. Remember the Smart Play of the Night? He famously shut down Paul Millsap in the playoffs, ripped the ball out of Jimmy Butler’s hands in the final moments of a game, and did this.

Boston has to make a decision on how much he’s worth to them in short order. Smart and the rest of the 2014 NBA Draft class who had their options picked up are in the last year of their rookie deals. If teams want to extend these players, they have until October 16th to do so or wait until the summer. That date is now days away.

Number-one selection Andrew Wiggins has a five-year, $148-million deal on the table in Minnesota. Smart, according to Shams Charania, has heard nothing from the Celtics. Boston’s silence and Smart’s expression of wanting to remain in Boston may indicate that the Celts want to play a waiting game.

If they want to keep him, that’s a risk—but it’s one that Danny Ainge may take anyway for the sake of future flexibility.

Smart’s market is not Wiggins’. Kevin O’Connor notes that many rookie extensions over the past five years have been no-brainers. Smart’s widely documented battle with his jump shot, his role on the bench, and spending his first three seasons behind other ball-handlers all bode well for Boston signing him below Wiggin’s paycheck.

André Roberson, an even more offensively challenged guard, just received an extension of and average of $10 million per year. That’ll likely be the minimum Boston could re-up him for in extension negotiations, and that would be pressing.

It’s hard to imagine why Boston wouldn’t want to keep Smart, but it’s reasonable to see them having a difficult time judging his value long term.

The Celtics have two things working for them: Keith Smith’s projection of only five teams currently having cap space next summer as the NBA cap increases expect to flatten out, and the recent class of restricted free agents.

If few teams have room, that’ll increase the usual hesitancy to tie up cap for 72 hours in a restricted free agent offer sheet on a player like Smart. This summer Nerlens Noel sat in RFA for months before signing his qualifying offer. JaMychal Green waited until the end of September before signing a two-year deal with the Grizzlies.

Should Smart hit a similar wall in next summer’s free agency, with stars like LeBron James, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins commanding the league’s attention, Boston could get him back at a discount. Smart isn’t without a counter though.

Like Noel, Smart could play on a qualifying offer in 2018-19, which would be a hair over $6-million. He’d then enter 2019 free agency unrestricted.

Boston’s salary is currently about $109 million for this season. If they signed Smart for anything over $12 million per year, that could put them over the 2018-19 luxury tax threshold projection of $123 million. Then in the next summer, they’d have to contend with a possible Kyrie Irving free agency as he can opt out after 2019.

That may be getting too far ahead but not with the consideration of future free agents, such as Anthony Davis (up after 2021), or a possible trade coming into play. A change in Smart’s salary on the roster substantially shifts the position Boston is in, and shifting into tax territory inherently boosts expectations.

It’s also important to consider that Smart’s new salary would be what would match in any potential trade, for better or worse.

With all that in mind, it’s not surprising that Boston is taking their time on Smart’s extension. He wants to be back, the team likely does as well, but the numbers matter with their salary status. Letting Oct. 16 come and go allows for a possible summer bargain, but not without risk.