There’s no denying that Marcus Smart is the emotional leader of the Boston Celtics. His winning mentality and hustle plays have endeared him the hearts of Celtics fans around the world. But as beloved as Smart may be, there are still occasional discussions about the prospect of trading him should the return be suitable.
When looking back through Celtics’ history, it becomes difficult to pinpoint a previous trade that fractured the fanbase in a similar way if Smart ever got moved. Ironically, the deal that holds the most resemblance involved the man who would inevitably have to pull the trigger on moving Smart: Danny Ainge.
Ainge and Smart are comparable players on the floor, both gritty defenders who lead by example and aren’t/weren’t the biggest stars on their team. Neither Ainge nor Smart will ever face accusations of taking nights off; instead, they’re the type of player who holds others accountable on every possession, ensuring their lofty standards remain adhered to by their teammates.
“It’s hard to find those guys that care and do anything it takes to win. I just prefer those. That’s part of being on a team and having your teammates help each other through it, and coaches that know the players and their personalities, and know weaknesses and challenges. That’s just what you have to deal with on a team.” - Danny Ainge speaking to Chris Forsberg for ESPN in 2014.
Ainge clearly sees himself in Marcus Smart. When on the floor, Ainge was a pesky defender, ferocious scoring threat, and one of the best all-around athletes the league had to offer. Smart, on the other hand, has always projected as more of a bench player, capable of swinging the momentum of games with his no-nonsense brand of defense.
“I got myself in trouble a few times on the court. I don’t worry too much. I’d much rather try to calm a player down than try to light a fire under somebody. I’m a big fan of passionate players.” - Danny Ainge speaking to Chris Forsberg for ESPN in 2014
The Marcus Smart Experience is something that divides the fanbase. Some love his occasional blow-ups while others loathe them. However, almost every fan in the league would love to have Smart on their team, just like every player would much prefer playing with him than against him. The “win at all costs” attitude ensures that Smart’s contract provides value outside of the box score, just as it did for Ainge on those legendary championship teams.
“He would be picked #1 by all of his teammates in our scrimmages because they didn’t want to play against him.” - Danny Ainge speaking to Toucher & Rich in 2019
With the similarities between both players, we can look back in history to see how the Celtics faired following the trade of Ainge and further strengthen the argument for Smart to remain in Celtics green.
Has Danny Ainge ever yelled at Marcus Smart for losing his cool?— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) January 22, 2020
"No, no. Oh no. I think he sees a little bit of himself in me so it’s like when you have a kid, you can’t really get mad because you did it and now your kid knows what you used to do. You just gotta let it go." https://t.co/sHUo5bLG4t
During the 1988 season, rumors circulated that Ainge was being shopped around the league for a possible trade. The Celtics had an abundance of shooting but were thin on the block, which made the aging Ainge a tradeable asset.
A trade eventually materialized with the Sacramento Kings which saw Ainge and Brad Lohaus head west and Ed Pickney and Joe Kleine join the Celtics.
While the trade to Sacramento worked out swimmingly for Ainge, it was disastrous for Boston. Neither Pickney or Kleine hit the heights many had hoped for when parting with a talent such as Ainge. What added further insult to injury was that Ainge hit the ground running in Sacramento, where he averaged 20.3 points per game in the 28 games following his trade.
The lesson here is that while trading Marcus Smart may seem to be a great idea on the surface in the Celtics could bring back a superior talent, there’s always the risk of the trade not working out for Boston. Sure, Smart’s contract is the most tradeable asset the Celtics have on their books. His improved shooting ability from deep coupled with his intense desire to win at all costs only raises his value more. Undoubtedly, there will inevitably be probes into his availability on Draft Night.
“Marcus is a guy on our team who will shoot the ball from three-quarter court as the buzzer’s sounding, or as the shot clock is going down, he’ll heave it where a lot of players just hold it to protect their percentages. Marcus doesn’t care about that stuff. He’s all about winning the game.” - Danny Ainge speaking to Toucher & Rich in 2019
When Smart was navigating his first-ever free agency, Ainge was sure that the top priority was to re-sign him long term. Every team needs an emotional leader, and Smart is to the Celtics what Draymond Green is to Golden State. With such admiration from the front office, the Celtics seem unlikely to enter into trade discussions for a player who has several DPOY candidate seasons in front of him.
Ainge was never the star like Smart is not the star on the current roster, yet neither the Celtics of old nor the group of today would be able to achieve the same level without them on the roster.
“Marcus Smart, even though he’s not the type of player that a lot of people would consider in a Big 3 because he’s not going to average 20 points a game, he’s every bit as important as those other guys with the things that he does.” - Toucher and Rich in 2019
Smart has another two years on his current contract. He is currently the longest-tenured Celtic and has been ever-present throughout the Brad Stevens era. It is unfathomable to believe Ainge would allow the modern version of himself to leave the city of Boston without a championship ring to his name. If Ainge does begin to get tempted by offers, his own personal history as a trade pawn should tell him to not even pick up the phone.