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Marcus Smart’s future is most important question of this Celtics offseason

The unrestricted free agent in 2022 is poised to lead full-time atop the Celtics’ thin point guard rotation. He’s also on a tradable contract and could help Boston consolidate its roster.

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Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Five Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Marcus Smart played his best basketball in a series few will remember as the Celtics exited from the postseason as a seven seed and ended the Brad Stevens coaching and Danny Ainge executive eras. Those do witnessed Smart contribute all he could alongside Jayson Tatum’s 50 points with 23 of his own in the Game 3 win, while averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.0 steal on 37.2% three-point shooting in five games.

Smart, 27, gave the game what it needed in 2020-21, with uncertainty constantly alongside him in the back court. His versatility remains his greatest attribute as he swayed between aggressive shot-seeker on the wing and spot facilitator through constant lineup changes. Let’s not forget that Boston’s defense bottomed-out when he got hurt and missed 24 games.

Smart’s poised to take over full-time duty at point guard for the first time since 2014 with Kemba Walker gone via trade. Before that happens, the Celtics need to decide if they want to invest in their longest-tenured player with a long-term extension or move him in a trade. It could be the most important remaining decision of this C’s era.

“What Marcus bring is invaluable, it’s the heart and soul of the team at times,” Udoka told 98.5 The Sports Hub last month. “Going against the U.S. National team years ago, he was the only guy that wasn’t really scared out there ... Marcus was a very vocal leader, he has that edge and toughness to him. The things that he brings to your team are the things you love every player to bring. You hate playing against him, but you want him on your side. He’s another foundational piece. He’s been here through thick and thin, he’s seen the winning and seen some down times. What he does for Jaylen and Jayson is invaluable in my eyes.”

This moment comes after a season where Smart struggled to instill his identity on the team and was occasionally tuned out according to The Athletic’s Jared Weiss. Both the Jays and Smart face questions about their ability to balance both ends as Boston asks them to make more happen on offense — nearing the bottom of the league in defensive rating late in the season. Smart’s normally dominant defense slipped at times, including allowing Kyrie Irving to shoot 7-for-15 against him in the playoffs as part of a team-wide regression on that end. In other moments his focus and positioning lagged.

“It’s been a lot,” Smart said after Boston’s Game 5 loss to in Brooklyn. “Guys not being able to play together, a lot of personal stuff for individuals. Just life. Things more important than basketball, but you still have to be professional, come to work and put a smile on your face ... I done lost about four or five people literally within four-to-three months of each other.”

Udoka would enjoy having Smart’s normal intensity, personality and defensive poise as a proxy to his own coaching style, which Udoka said involves bringing “the dog” out of players. Team building and locker room considerations loom, however, as GM Stevens charts his own path back to contention. Is it worth having Smart setting a tone for one year, then leaving, or forgoing other future opportunities in order to extend him? How do reports of the team tuning him out come into play?

So far, the Celtics have publicly included Smart in their core with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as they walk a fine line with his future. There’s no other choice for now. That tightrope could become more tenuous into the offseason and potentially toward the trade deadline if Stevens finds no deals worthy of Smart’s value, and prefers to maintain flexibility over extending him and solidifying his role on the team.

Boston shouldn’t sell low on Smart, because he’s still a valuable player for their needs. More importantly, he tries to hold teammates accountable in the room. The C’s rightfully weren’t willing to move him in Aaron Gordon talks with Orlando. Danny Ainge made that call, stressing he would not deal Smart.

Marcus Smart’s passing stats in 2020-21.

Stevens’ tenure should set its own direction assertively (as he did in dealing Walker for Horford) with the clock ticking on Tatum and Brown’s contracts. If Stevens chooses to keep Smart, he’s ready to start at point and Udoka is familiar with his game after coaching him for Team USA in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

“Defensively, they had some slippage last year,” Udoka said. “Defending the three-point line specifically and some other actions. If you take Marcus and insert him in the lineup and depending on who else we sign, you have a team that can disrupt in a lot of ways with like-sized players. Marcus being a little shorter, but obviously he has tenacity defensively ... I think we can be a better defensive team ... (Brooklyn) knew who not to go at and who to try to pick on. Marcus, Jayson and if Jaylen was there, those are obviously guys you’re not trying to go at.”

Smart played in several successful lineups with Brown and Tatum while Walker was off the floor. One with Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis posted a +5.9 in 40 minutes (100 defensive rating). The Grant Williams and Tristan Thompson bench minutes with the Jays and Smart outscored opponents by 30.1 points per 100 possessions (94.2). Robert Williams III and Grant joined for a +53.3 in 21 minutes. Among Smart-at-point-guard lineups with at least 19 minutes last year, only the early-season “double big” debacle and Jeff Teague units posted negative net ratings.

Last year marked Smart’s highest assist per game (5.7), tying his highest assist percentage (23.6%) and 2021 even passed as his second-best true shooting season (53.9%) — thanks to more trips to the free throw line (3.4 FTA’s per game). He played 45% of his minutes at point, due to Walker’s unavailability, and drove a career-high 7.0 times per game, up from 2.3 during his 2014 stint at point guard before the Isaiah Thomas trade.

It’s exciting imagining him with full reign over the position after playing second fiddle and defensive stalwart to Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Walker. When he filled in for them in year’s past, the team’s defensive ceiling rose. However, Smart’s remaining capacity to grow at the position may be capped by his finishing ability (52.3%), age and his 33% three-point shooting, or of course, his potential departure.

The two-time First Team All-Defense player is worth more than the four-year, $52 million ($13 AAV) he signed in 2018 as a restricted free agent in a tight market, and can re-up for four more seasons starting at $16.6 million. It would potentially increase 8% annually until Smart’s age-32 season in 2026 and likely mandate Boston brings back some salary in most potential deals, ruling out a future Bradley Beal free agency pursuit.

It would place Boston’s guaranteed salary at $90,927,475 with Horford’s non-guaranteed $14.5 million 2022 money. It doesn’t seem likely Boston will position that core, which stagnated last year, as its future for the length of Brown and Tatum’s deals. If the Celtics choose not to keep Smart, Stevens should aggressively package him and Tristan Thompson with future picks for a sustainable core player.

The Celtics have to look at Smart’s future as opportunity cost. Does keeping him forgo the value of potentially packaging his $13.8-million contract and Thompson’s $9.7-million into a trade that could bring back a player that makes as much as $29.4-million?

That could acquire almost any player in the league and will disappear fast given Thompson’s uncertain standing in a full front court. That may be the plan if Boston’s ultimate goal is to sign a max player like Beal next summer by unloading the books in mass. The Celtics would lose all their depth in the process. Instead, Boston could try to trade up into a more offensively versatile playmaker like Kyle Lowry or Malcolm Brogdon, while still maintaining role players like Horford.

Lowry is a significantly better shooter and more efficient scorer than Smart, is a floor general, champion and shot 41.6% on catch-and-shoot threes. He drives 10.7 times per game, to Smart’s 7.0, and finishes at 56% compared to 52% inside 10 feet.

Boston already passed on opportunities to trade Smart for this summer’s free agents at the trade deadline like Lowry, Lonzo Ball and John Collins before their price went up. Any move for players not under contract would hard cap the Celtics at roughly $143 million (they’re at $124.8M without Fournier) and restrict their ability to build a team.

Smart and Thompson’s salary could be a starting offer for Lowry’s next salary ($23.5-million), going as high as his former $30-million salary for two seasons while staying over $10-million under the hard cap. Acquiring Brogdon would save Boston a few million dollars and wouldn’t hard cap them. He drives over 14 times per game, is a 44% catch-and-shoot three shooter, but finishes less efficiently than Smart inside. It would require substantial sweeteners and an unlikely desire by Indy to deconstruct its roster. He’d be an in-season target if all goes wrong again for the Pacers.

Allowing Smart to enter free agency is an option, one fraught with the risk of losing a fifth straight significant free agent (or sixth if Fournier walks) for nothing and completely wilting Boston’s organizational depth. His price could also balloon with a prove-it year, or his frustration over his contract could spill into the locker room or onto the court.

The Celtics failed before to secure a rookie scale extension before both retaining Smart in restricted free agency and watching him improve into one of the league’s best defensive players. That’s why there’s no reason to risk further alienating him by not naming him among the team’s pillar players. He’ll likely return for ‘21-22 without an extension as both sides seek to prove their respective numbers.

If Beal or other opportunities emerge next summer, Smart could stay on a small contract to win a ring, or depart for a larger role or more money with both sides content. If not, his free agent demand should not explode beyond a check Wyc Groubeck can’t sign.

Winning teams covet a tone-setter and a helpful tandem option in their back court. Smart provides suitors a willing shooter and spectacular team defender to pair with their offensive guards. The Celtics could need him to balance both, while keeping his future out of mind, as they finally seemed poised to hand him the keys this season.

“You can improve in a number of different ways,” Stevens has said several times since becoming GM. “You can improve through work, hard work and development, and guys taking the next step that are already in your building. Then you can improve by adding people different ways. We have to look at all those options, but we do have to get better.”

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