The Celtics elected to not name a team captain this season. Brad Stevens said that, “we’ll have leaders. They’ll all come to the front.” Well, it’s only the preseason, but Marcus Smart has already stepped up. He arrived at camp twenty-five pounds lighter and seemingly 25% quicker, hoppier, and nastier. Skeptics will attribute his transformative summer to his pending contract year, but Smart remains focused on what happens on the floor, saying, “My main focus is to come in here and get ready for the season. We'll handle that when that comes and worry about that, and control what we can control."
But more than his weight loss, Smart seems to have taken more of a leadership role in the locker room. At Media Day, Al Horford said that with only four returning players from last season, Smart has shouldered much of the responsibility with shepherding the younger players and showing them what Brad is looking for. Stevens said of Smart, "Marcus is a critical part of our team. I think ultimately we want our identity to be a team that gets better every day. And I think his mindset, his competitive spirit, his toughness, his will - all of those things make teams better."
And now, entering his fourth season with an opportunity to join the starting lineup, Smart has also exhibited a rare leadership trait: selflessness. With the roster turnover, Stevens wrestled with starting Smart in place of the departed Avery Bradley, but Smart made the decision easy for his head coach:
"Coach Stevens called me in and he was talking to me, and debating whether to start me or take me off the bench," Smart said after practice Tuesday afternoon. "I told him in that meeting to bring me off the bench: 'That's OK. You don't have to start me.'"
In Monday’s preseason opener against Charlotte, Smart came off the bench and mixed-and-matched with the starters for 9 points (3-for-7 from behind the arc), 4 rebounds, and an assist. He was a terror on defense and covered everybody from Kemba Walker on the perimeter to Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller in the post. Presumably, the starting back court spot was between Smart and Jaylen Brown before Smart eventually volunteered to come off the bench, but let’s not get it twisted: Smart, right now, is the better player.
Entering his second season, Brown will have the opportunity to share most of his playing time with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. Even though he’s been tasked to be a lock down defender in the mold of Bradley, that new Big Three make things easier for him on the offensive end. Smart won’t have that luxury.
If Brown and Aron Baynes are the Opening Night starters, Smart could possibly see a lot of time with the second unit and will be flanked by Marcus Morris (who is only 28), third year guard Terry Rozier, third overall pick and 19-year-old Jayson Tatum, and possibly some combination of rookies Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele, and Semi Ojeleye. He’ll spearhead a youth movement for a franchise with Banner 18 aspirations.
Championship teams aren’t unfamiliar with using players on their rookie contracts in impact roles. The Golden State Warriors got key contributions from Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw in last year’s near perfect run in the playoffs. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are notorious for finding untested commodities and turning them into battle ready vets instantaneously. However, the Boston incubator is a little different.
|Bench||Average age at start of season|
|Bench||Average age at start of season|
|Taylor-Gordon-Tucker-Mbah A Moute-Nene||29.8|
By virtue of the Brooklyn trade, the Celtics have a stable of lottery picks that will be the foundation for years to come. However, that investment comes with some pressure. Boston doesn’t have time to wait and see what they’ve got for the next couple of years. By signing Hayward and trading for Irving, the clock is ticking, but instead of Danny Ainge combing through free agency for players that complement his stars, the team will rely on its youngsters to grow up fast. This makes Smart’s influence all the more important as a bridge between the young players and the vets.
Both Smart and Stevens have pointed to Marcus’ familiarity with the system as a motivating factor to bringing him off the bench, but I think ultimately, it’s Smart’s ferocity that makes him a perfect candidate for sixth man. It’s contagious. For a lot of teams, that first person off the bench traditionally acts as an energy boost, instant offense that will keep the ship afloat while the starters get some rest.
That’s not Smart.
In his Players’ Tribune article from last season, he wrote:
...I still come off the bench — which means I don’t always know when I’m coming in, or how many minutes I’ll play. But I like my role. It suits me. Coach Stevens says he thinks of me as the Swiss Army Knife — whatever we need in a particular game, that’s what he’ll ask me to do. I pride myself on playing just about every position on the court.
When Stevens tinkers with the starting lineup, he has to consider all the logistics. Can Jaylen cover up some of Kyrie’s defensive deficiencies? Baynes keeps Horford at the 4, buut could the team use a boost at the beginning of games with the more versatile Marcus Morris? With Smart, there’s less concern about fit because when he’s in the game, he’ll find ways to affect the game. Also in that Tribune piece, Smart talks about “winning plays” and further explains that they’re “a concept that has become part of our team culture.” That’s Marcus Smart. Consider his return to the bench a “winning play.”