On this episode, Ben, Jake, and I lament another loss marred by the Celtics’ lack of urgency and discuss the elephant in the room: the play of Marcus Smart. Smart’s career has been wrought with ebbs and flows, throughout seasons, months, and, oftentimes, games themselves. One minute he’s bricking a wide-open three, the next he’s drawing back-to-back offensive fouls. His impact has always gone beyond the traditional box score, and that’s led to Smart becoming a beacon of divisiveness for the fanbase. The naive love and trusters on one side, the doomtastic haters and losers on the other.
Personally, I have long held that Smart’s positive impact outweighs his obvious faults, and the advanced stats and Celtics’ success have proven that point over and over. Well, at least since Smart’s return from injury, this has not been the case. The delicate balancing act between winning plays and missed shots that’s kept Smart a positive player for his career has launched off the cliff and plummeted into the great beyond. His net rating since his return is -4.2. That’s worst on the team of the guys that play more then 10 minutes per game. The Celtics net rating when Smart sits during this timeframe is +15.3. That’s more than 5 points per 100 possessions higher than the next player, Jayson Tatum. In other words, the Celtics are almost 20 points per 100 possessions better with Marcus Smart on the court in the last 11 games. They’ve lost two overtime games and a game by 2 points during that stretch.
It’s hard to parse out exactly what’s wrong with Smart. He didn’t suddenly become the player his worst critics have been trying to warn us about, but it’s been difficult to watch. He just doesn’t seem particularly engaged in the game, and there’s no excuse for that, not even injuries.
I know Marcus will be fine in the playoffs, but it's pretty tough to watch right now. Bricks a wide open three then gets beat up the floor despite being given a 2 second head start to get back on defense. pic.twitter.com/3bD8vB1wRX— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) March 14, 2023
Not getting back on defense is inexcusable in this situation. If he’s so hurt he can’t turn and run back on defense, he shouldn’t be playing.
He had a particularly horrible run in the Hawks game that almost allowed the Hawks back into the game that ended with him getting ejected.
Marcus Smart and Trae Young after the whistle pic.twitter.com/buzJxwYPJ7— Cameron Tabatabaie (@CTabatabaie) March 12, 2023
I’ve long been a Smart defender and advocate, but I will fully admit I was somewhat relieved Smart was no longer in the game. That’s a novel experience for many of us who believe in Smart and what he brings a basketball team.
All his offensive stats are down massively since his return, most notably his assist percentage and assists per game. At one point, Smart was assisting on 30% of his possessions and was top-10 in assists per game, both career highs. Since his return, his assist percentage has continued to tumble and is at 16.4% for this stretch, and he’s averaging 3.8 assists, a far cry from the 7 or so he’d been averaging this season. That’s not a drop off, that’s the markings of a fundamentally different player.
You can make a fairly compelling argument that the only thing wrong with the Celtics during this recent poor stretch is the play of Marcus Smart. I think the only reasonable explanation is that he’s still hurt. NBA players don’t just morph into the worst versions of themselves midway through a season at 28 years old. Smart simply has to be hurt, and if he’s hurt, he shouldn’t be playing. For the first time in his career, Smart sitting on the bench is probably the best thing for the Celtics, as much as that pains me to say.
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