clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Marcus Smart was the cost of “something needed to change”

It better be worth it.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/NBAE via Getty Images

Something needs to change.

That’s the thought that kept coming to my mind during Game 7 of the Heat series (and honestly, well before that). Like most, I couldn’t quite put my finger on any one glaring thing. The Boston Celtics team that appeared in the Finals one year and the Eastern Conference Finals the next year was clearly talented. Anything less than a championship would have been disappointing and so when they fell short, we all were appropriately disappointed.

There was something either fundamentally missing or something that was once there but faded over time. I don’t think it was a “lack of heart” or “bad chemistry” or any other such tired cliche. At times you could say that the team seemed unfocused or inconsistent, but I couldn’t tell you what was at the root of that or who in particular was most to blame.

Something was just off.

You can’t say that they were a bad defensive team because the stats point to them being one of the best in the league for most of the year. But they didn’t play their best defense when it mattered the most. You can’t say they were a bad offensive team either, but they did tend to falter down the stretch in big games.

The Celtics were talented, versatile, battle tested, and ready to contend for a championship. But they didn’t have whatever it was that they needed to get past the Heat. In short, it felt like whatever they needed to get over that last hurdle was not currently on the team and running it back would have been a mistake.

So, something needed to change.

A prevailing thought was that head coach Joe Mazzulla let the team down. He was out-maneuvered by Erik Spolestra and his offense-first approach was passive aggressively side-eyed by players in public comments. That led to many questioning if his days in Boston were numbered. However, Brad Stevens and the Celtics brass clearly have a firm belief in Joe. And perhaps they weren’t too keen on bringing in a 4th head coach in 4 years.

But still, something needed to change.

With Jaylen Brown’s extension up in the air, there were additional questions about breaking up the Jays and trading Brown. In theory, the team could have attempted to get younger players and picks that they could either take their time developing or flip for another star when they became available (and someone always becomes available). That sounds fine in theory, but if you are not fundamentally upgrading from Brown then what’s the point?

Right now, we have two star wing players on very similar timelines. They’ve grown up together and they’ve shared successes and failures together. Breaking that up just to bring in another player that may or may not fit as well is a huge risk. That option may be revisited in future years as we see the impacts of the new CBA. However, for at least the next year, the duo of Tatum and Brown will stay together.

But still, something needed to change.

Which brings us to Kristaps Porzingis. The Wizards finally went into fire-sale mode and the Celtics were wise to snatch him up off the market. They clearly preferred to move Malcolm Brogdon in the deal, but when that fell through, they pivoted rather quickly to moving Marcus Smart. That has more than a few wondering if the Celtics would have moved Smart in another move even if the original Brogdon deal went through as planned.

That’s not to imply that the team didn’t love and trust Marcus. He’s beloved by players, coaches, fans, and just about anyone even remotely associated with the team. And rightly so. He gave it all and we appreciated it. He loved this city and we loved him back.

But something needed to change.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “well, actually the defense will be better because Porzingis will defend the rim.” It would be hard to take a former Defensive Player of the Year off the team and get better at defense. The team is going to be less versatile on the perimeter because they are losing a guy that could literally guard positions 1 through 5.

I can’t even say with certainty that the team will be better offensively. Sure, Porzingis is a better shooter, but Smart was our best playmaker and there are questions about how the ball will move when the pressure ramps up.

Still, sometimes you have to try something new.

So, something changed.

What we can say with certainty is that the team will look different next year. With both Smart and Grant Williams gone, the team will likely move to a more traditional drop coverage defense. Perhaps they’ll experiment more with zones as well. In the modern NBA, you can’t have just one style of play. You have to throw multiple looks at opponents and switch up schemes on the fly. I’m just a bit nervous about taking away two of the most versatile defenders.

On offense, the Jays will have a third star to rely on. You can stagger things so that two of the three will be on the court at all times without over-taxing any one player. Even having Porzingis as a threat will create a little more space for the Jays to drive into the paint. There will also be opportunities to run any one of them out of the mid-post to maximize their midrange game.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The leadership dynamic changes a bit now as well. It was clear that Jayson and Jaylen were the faces of the franchise, but Marcus was always a very vocal leader on and off the court. You don’t replace that voice by trying to duplicate it. Tatum and Brown have their own unique leadership style and they will need to fill that void in their own ways.

Ultimately, the changes this offseason may have raised the ceiling for this team. Porzingis has the potential to perform like a star. Perhaps even at an All-Star level. That’s not a level that either Smart or Williams was ever likely to achieve. Talent wins in this league and in theory, Porzingis can be additive to what Tatum and Brown do on the court without taking anything away from their roles.

The downside, however, is that Kristaps has had his share of injuries over the years. Big guys with lower body issues haven’t always aged well. Add him to a roster that also includes Robert Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and the senior citizen Al Horford, and you’ve got quite a few injury risks. We’ll be waiting for the injury reports as if the sword of Damocles is hanging over our heads.

So, another critical year approaches for the Celtics. If all goes well, we could be seeing them raise a banner to the rafters. If not, then perhaps more drastic changes could be on the horizon. But at least there’s a chance that all could go well and the changes that they made could pay off.

Something needed to change and the Celtics leadership recognized that. The price of that change was Marcus Smart. It better be worth it.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog