The Boston Celtics have leveraged a big, ferocious, switchy defense to grind opposing offenses into dust throughout the year. Boston’s 106.2 non-garbage-time defensive rating ranks 3rd in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Celtics have been particularly stingy in the last two weeks, a stretch during which the team’s miniscule 98.9 points allowed per 100 possessions lands them at the very top of the league, slightly more than 6.0 points better than the second-place Miami Heat.
Boston’s defensive dominance is beginning to translate into wins, and if it continues to hold throughout the year, should attract some attention for individual accolades among its component parts. Determining which of the Celtics’ deep stable of talented defenders deserves the most credit for Boston’s success is no small task, but Marcus Smart stands out as a potential candidate for the NBA’s most prestigious defensive award: Defensive Player of the Year.
Smart has essentially no holes on the defensive end of the court. He’s a tenacious on-ball defender with the quickness, length, and strength to disrupt a wide variety of opposing perimeter players.
Smart navigates screens both on and off the ball with aplomb, though the Celtics’ switch-heavy scheme doesn’t necessarily take full advantage of that particular skill. It does, however, make frequent use of his ability to defend bigger players in the post. Smart is a brick wall with lightning quick hands, plenty capable of handling all but the NBA’s very best on the block.
Boston switches a lot of actions in the course of a single possession, which creates opportunities for opponents to get the ball to their best scoring option without Smart engaged as a primary defender, but he’s an absolute menace as a defensive playmaker. His 1.8 steals per game rank 4th in the league.
Smart has an uncanny ability to pop into passing and driving lanes to create turnovers without losing track of his man. He’s an incredible closeout artist and incredibly quick processor, two skills that enable him to muck things up away from the ball more aggressively than most of his peers without compromising his primary assignment.
Smart causes all sorts of good chaos in transition as well. His ability to get in front of opponents on the break and contest without fouling is nearly unparalleled.
Unsurprisingly, Boston has been substantially better defensively when Smart is on the floor. The Celtics 104.0 net rating in non-garbage time minutes ranks in the 93rd percentile league-wide, per Cleaning the Glass, and is 5.6 points per 100 possessions better than when Smart sits.
The question thus becomes, why isn’t Smart currently garnering much attention as a DPOY candidate? The answer is twofold. One reason is that the Celtics’ roster is loaded with defensive talent. Smart is clearly a top-tier defensive player, but his statistical impact isn’t distinguishable from many of his teammates, who also bring sparkling resumes to the table.
That’s not a bad thing. The NBA’s best defenses are built on collective effort and attention to detail. The fact that Boston has multiple high-end defenders shouldn’t count against Smart, but it will always make understanding his individual influence more challenging.
The bigger issue at hand is that prevailing wisdom suggests that guards and wings are simply not capable of making as significant of a defensive impact as bigs. There’s logice in that notion. Bigs spend more time deterring shots by the basket, which has a ton of defensive value. The very best of them – Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo - can lift a defense to competence all on their own.
They are players you can create a defensive ecosystem around, capable of unlocking defensive strategies that would fail without them or enabling their team to play multiple styles based on matchups. Smart isn’t quite the former, but he’s definitely the latter. And while he might not be the cornerstone to the Celtics’ switchy scheme in the way Gobert is for the Jazz’s drop-heavy approach, he clearly takes things from good to great.
Teams intentionally avoid him because he’s such a good one-on-one defender. They take advantage of Boston’s switches to attack elsewhere, but Smart has gotten so good in help that opponents are essentially locking themselves into putting him a roll where he can affect every single play. There are no good choices and very few ways to keep him from putting his stamp on a game defensively. That’s the mark of a special defensive talent. One that deserves serious consideration as DPOY.