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What if Marcus Smart goes back to being a super sixth man?

Though Smart has evolved from being a perpetual spark off the bench to a reliable starter, could shuffling the rotation pay dividends for the Celtics?

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Boston Celtics vs Brooklyn Nets Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

When Carmelo Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder weeks before the start of the 2017-18 season, he was adamant about one thing: he had no plans to come off the bench.

“Who? Me?,” he responded when a reporter at his introductory press conference asked whether he’d be willing to play the role of super 6th man. He didn’t balk when the question began with how he might fare playing as a four-man. But the second the idea of Anthony not starting was introduced, he became incredulous. He seemed to spot Paul George and shouted across the room, “Hey, P, they said I gotta come off the bench!” It was as if Melo was a bird and was suddenly informed that, though he had wings, he was no longer permitted to fly.

In the moment, it warranted a laugh — at least Melo’s response did. But more than that, it served as a window into Anthony’s evolving psyche, perhaps even deep-seated insecurity. Anthony had been comfortable in a starting role since 2003 when he entered the league as a prolific shotmaker and an instantly-elite scorer.

That comfort was starting to come into question.

Like many of us would if our biggest fears were becoming realized, Anthony deflected the questions with humor, or at least passionate dismissal. (Months later, with things in Oklahoma City looking like they might actually be better were Anthony to come off the bench, he still balked: “I’m not sacrificing no bench role ... That’s out of the question.”)

A similar idea is present in the NBA in 2022. Russell Westbrook just had a historically inefficient season in his first with the Los Angeles Lakers, and the idea of him changing roles is sound, no matter which way you slice it. Yet Westbrook is uninterested in a role change; better yet, he finds it amusing. As Bill Oram, then of The Athletic, wrote back in June:

... when Ham was asked whether he had discussed a potential role change with Westbrook, including the possibility of him coming off the bench, Westbrook, who had been expressionless through most of the proceedings, couldn’t keep himself from frowning, then laughing. He turned and started jabbering with Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel, seated nearby, eliciting chuckles from the two younger players. It sure didn’t seem Westbrook believed such a move would be necessarily, and why would he when the man brought in to lead him is questioning why people would challenge his ability?

But just because this trend persists among stars that have become used to starter’s minutes and touches doesn’t exactly mean that it’s a trend that has been embraced by the entire league. Plenty of teams have added players used to starting. Look no further than the Boston Celtics: just last season, they acquired Derrick White in a trade deadline move that partly resulted in the revival of their season. White had started 48 of 49 games with the San Antonio Spurs before being traded to Boston; he started just four of his 26 regular-season appearances with the Celtics after being moved.

The team will face a similar shift when faced with a new lineup challenge this season. New addition Malcolm Brogdon hasn’t come off the bench in a regular season game since the 2017-18 season. He started in just 48 of 123 games in his first two seasons but has started in all 210 of his appearances since. Brogdon has already expressed his willingness to come off the bench in Boston, saying, “I just want to win. Whatever it takes. This team already has something special. I want to add to that recipe, not subtract from it; whatever Ime (Udoka) needs from me, I’m ready to do.” He’s also noted Marcus Smart’s value in mind, noting that, “Marcus is one of the biggest winners that we have in this league. And I think that’s why Boston loves him; I think it’s why this organization loves him.”

But what happens if the team begins to find more success with Smart “sacrificing,” and a healthy Brogdon in the starting spot he’s so used to? What if Smart were to return to the role he once knew, that of being a super sixth man? Then head coach and now President of Basketball Operations was called Smart his “sixth starter.”

There’s no concrete reason to believe that this will actually happen — the phrase is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” after all. But the final moments of the Celtics’ magical run last season did show signs of requiring a slight fix. Down the stretch of the NBA Finals, much of Boston’s playmaking duties fell to Jayson Tatum, and he was unable to consistently answer the call. During the regular season, those responsibilities — particularly those related to ball distribution and creation for others — fell on Smart, and he surpassed any and all expectations. He averaged a career-high 5.9 assists per game and showed signs of being the true point guard Boston had been itching to find all along. But in the Finals, Smart could only do so much. He dished out five dimes per contest, but only Chris Paul-like numbers could have saved the Celtics from Steph Curry’s offensive wrath.

Could a player of Brogdon’s ilk have been the answer? It’s difficult to say, considering that you’d have to not only lump together Brogdon’s scoring and playmaking abilities, but also his inability to stay on the court due to injury. There’s also no use in performing an act of revisionist history on a series that so easily could have gone in a different direction, no matter who was serving as the primary point guard.

But there are benefits to a player like Brogdon, at full strength, serving as Boston’s starter. For one, while Smart has evolved into an efficient playmaker, that ability has served as the hallmark of Brogdon’s career from the jump. Smart has been steadily improving as his role has ballooned — perhaps a case for him to keep it. But Brogdon has been a steady contributor as a starter since he first took on a starter’s responsibilities in Milwaukee, and when healthy, he’s remained one of the league’s most underrated and useful guard presences.

Unfortunately, that’s the caveat that we keep coming back to: “when healthy.” Because that’s the reality of where Brogdon is in his career. As reliable as he’s been while on the court, it’s far too common that he can’t stay on it. There’s a reason he’s started every game “he’s appeared in” since the start 2018-19 season; he’s also managed to miss 99 of the 310 possible games since then due to a collection of injuries longer than the typical Saturday grocery list.

Meanwhile, Smart last regularly came off the bench in 2017-18, when he appeared in 54 games but started in just eleven. He averaged just 10.2 points, 4.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 29.9 minutes per game that year, but he was a relatively inefficient scorer, making just 37 percent of his attempts (and shooting just 30 percent from three).

Yet as I mentioned before, he’s grown as an all-around player almost in lockstep with how his role has evolved. Smart is not as much of a chucker as he once was, nor is he as clumsy with the basketball nor as hell-bent on ill-advisedly forcing something to happen out of absolutely nothing. He’s increasingly reliable while being just as exciting as ever. Oh, and he’s coming off the best season of his career and enters the 2022-23 season as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Those sorts of players are rarely relegated, if ever.

Smart should — and will — keep his starting job. But his sparkplug abilities haven’t faded, and while he’s almost certainly one of Boston’s best five players, those in that tier don’t necessarily have to start in order to make an impact. If Ime Udoka were to decide midway through the season that it makes more sense for Smart’s minutes to remain where they are, but to not necessarily start ticking from the moment the ball is tipped, it might not be the worst thing in the world. If nothing else, it’s doubtful that Smart would decline the “sacrifice.” In fact, there may not a player in the league better suited for that sort of shift.