Marcus Smart rose higher in the Celtics rotation last season. By the end of the playoffs, he became the team’s starting point guard. He rounded out one of the best series of his career against the Nets in a role he’ll assume again this year with Kemba Walker now in New York.
But even with more minutes and responsibility, his value dropped in several pre-season rankings. Smart moved from 68 to 60 in Sports Illustrated’s annual list, while sliding from 37 to 49 in ESPN’s. As the two publications’ rankings moved closer towards each other — both touting the words heart and soul in their descriptions — something of a public consensus has formed on one of the more divisive figures even amongst the Celtics fanbase.
Outside of Boston, opinions remain high on Smart, while acknowledging the difficulties he faced in 2020-21. This season we’ll find out if Smart’s closer to the 2020 or 2021 version of himself: All-Defense or streaky in his own end; part of an NBA Finals contender or a cornerstone to a team just trying to sneak into the playoffs. The Celtics, extending Smart on a four-year, $77.1 million deal in August, affirmed he’ll be a pillar player going forward as they ask him to become the team’s every night point rather than a jack-of-all-trades.
“Given that Smart submitted virtually a statistical carbon copy of 2019-20, his drop seems to reflect worse health (he missed 24 games, primarily due to a February calf strain) and the Celtics’ step back as a team,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote. “Smart didn’t have another long playoff run to showcase his defensive impact.”
Smart’s salary this season ($14.3 million) places him 98th in the league, around Malik Beasley, Thad Young, Patrick Beverley, and Joe Ingles. Only Ingles made the ESPN list (62), while Beasley (94), and Ingles (68) appeared in SI.
Smart outperformed this contract, as evidenced in part by his bump in salary to $16.6 million next year, which currently lists 77th in the league next season. Some forthcoming free agents like Deandre Ayton, Kevin Huerter, and Zach LaVine will most likely surpass that number and some who make more like Al Horford fell behind Smart in the NBA hierarchy during their current deals. The declines of players like Kevin Love, Kemba Walker and John Wall probably position Smart roughly where SI did, just below 60th in the league.
SI’s positioning of injury-impacted Klay Thompson, De’Andre Hunter, and Michael Porter Jr. above Smart could be argued. As could offense-only guards like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie falling behind Smart. ESPN’s list excludes the injured Kawhi Leonard and Jamal Murray, bumping Smart up two spots from what would otherwise be 51. Jerami Grant, John Collins, and Clint Capela fall behind Smart on this list, which is hard to defend. Lonzo Ball also slides behind Smart at 57, who Boston arguably would’ve needed to trade Smart to acquire, along with Gordon Hayward (58), who nobody would’ve argued Smart ranked ahead of in Boston.
All those players can score more efficiently than Smart. That’s where these lists become difficult to parse out. How do you weigh Smart’s defense, which probably still ranks in the top quarter of the league at least, against his offense, which wouldn’t even sniff a top-100 list? These lists seem to weigh it heavily, given Smart’s borderline top-50 status in the league, which was top-40 in ESPN’s case last winter.
“Now entering his prime with an outside shot that remains up and down from year to year, Smart’s physical tenacity (and relatively unnoticed playmaking chops) still endears him to teammates and coaches, even when he’s a bit too overzealous with the jumper,” Michael Pina wrote for SI.
Smart’s 33% three-point percentage last year tied for 142nd in basketball last season. His 39.8% field goal percentage fit into the top-125. Among point guards, his 5.7 assists per game finished 23rd, tied with Ball, who had 45 more overall. Smart ranked 43rd in assist percentage and 153rd in true shooting percentage, among the likes of Tyler Herro, Coby White, and Josh Richardson.
Efficiency isn’t mandatory to be among the league’s best. Russell Westbrook and Ja Morant fell below Smart in TS% and reached top-30 range on ESPN. Still, Smart’s defense would need to reach a sturdy threshold to position himself amongst higher volume creators, scorers, and shooters. Last year, whether due to a higher offensive load, that aforementioned calf injury, or disconnectedness across the Celtics, he slipped.
Smart’s +2.8 net rating was his worst since 2015-16. His -0.2 defensive box plus-minus marked his first negative rating in his career, along with a career-low 1.5 defensive win shares. According to Cleaning the Glass, 2021 marked the first season where opponents scored the same amount of points per possession against Boston whether Smart was on or off the floor, roughly league average. He only received one All-Defense First Team vote after earning honors the year prior.
In coming seasons, Smart needs to hold off ascending talents like Anthony Edwards, Cade Cunningham, and Jalen Green who entered ESPN’s preseason radar behind the guard. Darius Garland, Dejounte Murray, LeVert, LaMelo Ball and old friend Terry Rozier continue ascents, adding new layers to their games and leading their offenses.
The Celtics will press Smart to do the same, empowering him more than ever before with ball time and a new contract that projects growth. Ime Udoka has also publicly called him part of the team’s core. Smart deserves the benefit of the doubt for an off year in an odd season for the entire league.
However, stagnating offensively and declining on defense further in 2022 will quickly raise questions about his standing in the league. This begins a pivotal year for the Celtics veteran, one reportedly tuned out in the room amid 2021’s tumult. An extension affirmed his standing to some degree within the franchise and certainly with Brad Stevens. Could the Udoka era begin with the naming of the first captain since Rajon Rondo? We’ll see just how far this love and trust goes.