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The quiet part out loud: what Brad Stevens trading Marcus Smart says about Derrick White

Brad Stevens traded for Derrick White and did the unthinkable: made Marcus Smart expendable.

NBA Playoffs 2023 - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s a lot of memorable moments from this past Celtics season. It’s just a shame the NBA cancelled the season right before Game 7 against the Heat and we never got to see how that one played out. My money was on the Nuggets though.

One of the more fun stretches of the season, though, was Derrick White: starting point guard.

On January 23rd, Marcus Smart missed his first of about three weeks of games due to injury. Derrick White seized his opportunity as the lead guard of the Celtics so thoroughly, it would make Robin Williams proud (from Dead Poets Society — not to be confused with the movie Seize the Day — which he also starred in). 20.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.8 assists while shooting 49.1/43.6/88.6. That’s not just good; that’s borderline All-Star production.

That’s when you could start hearing the whispers, the muted discussions on Twitter, Reddit, and podcasts, the hushed tones of a question many long-time fans didn’t want to face, or assumed they’d never have to.

Is Derrick White better than Marcus Smart?

Derrick White is very good at basketball. Is he particularly tall? Not really. Is he particularly fast? Not really. Is he particularly quick? Not really. Are those last two redundant? Mostly. He doesn’t have the physical gifts of an Anthony Edwards that carry him through mistakes or compensate for weak parts of his game. He’s the Anti-Ant.

What White doesn’t have in physical advantage he makes up for it by limiting mistakes, a high skill level, extremely hard work, and an advanced understanding of the game. White has transformed himself from un-recruited high schooler to the starting guard for the favorites to win the NBA title next season. Even if his traditional stats don’t immediately impress, White is one of the very few players in the league that does the little things so well, it jumps off the screen — obvious to even the most casual fan. He does the quiet things so loud that Spinal Tap is asking him for amp advice.

This is one of the reasons advanced stats don’t just like Derrick White, they adore him to stalkerish levels. If I was Derrick White, I’d be checking my backyard for EPM, LEBRON, and RAPTOR lurking back there. Here are his ranks in the various advanced stats (Celtics first, league-wide second):

  • 538’s RAPTOR: 1st and 27th
    BBall Index LEBRON: 2nd and 37th
    ESPN RPM: 2nd and 27th
    Dunks and Threes EPM: 2nd and 31st

You can probably guess, but the only Celtic he trails in any of these stats is Jayson Tatum (One note, JT is 2nd in the NBA in ESPN’s RPM, which means it’s unequivocally the best stat going.). In addition to his hustle, his winning plays, and his above average traditional skills like shooting, passing, and perimeter defense, White is excellent at unique things. For instance, he’s probably the best rim protecting guard in the league.

That’s not something you see brought up in evaluation discussions about guards, but it matters. When you add all of that up and garnish with a pinch of “never making mistakes,” White’s impact isn’t just good. It’s bordering on elite.

Which brings us back to that stretch when Marcus Smart was out. Derrick White proved he could function as the point guard of the Celtics. And those whispers became louder. Is Derrick White better than Marcus Smart? That question is, frankly, almost impossible to answer, and really depends on the types of things you personally value in a basketball player. Unquestionably, Brad Stevens didn’t answer that question when traded Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis, but he did answer a question.

Do we still need Marcus Smart if we have Derrick White?

Brad stood up, grabbed his novelty megaphone and announced to the world, “no, no we do not.” The Derrick White trade may just end up as Brad Stevens’ most important transaction, and it is only partially due to Derrick White. Yes, White is very good, but not only that, for the first time in his career, Marcus Smart became expendable.

When the Celtics brass, including Brad Stevens, decided it was time to make a change, they focused on their guards. First it was Malcolm Brogdon, and when that fell through, trade talks didn’t halt, they shifted to Marcus Smart. White’s presence emboldened Stevens. No longer would the Celtics be left without out a ball-moving, defensive minded point guard. No longer would the Celtics be left without a steady hand always coming up with winning plays. They had one to spare, and this one shoots it better.

Stevens snagging White for what looks like a bargain now (remember when people were mad about a 2028 pick swap???) enabled Stevens to take a culture-shifting, era-defining swing. Whether or not Brad’s big swing is successful will only be solved with time, but one thing is for sure: Brad Stevens thinks extremely highly of Derrick White, as he should.

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