Anderson: Why Celtics should be happy they didn't trade Marcus Smart

Ty Anderson
February 09, 2018 - 5:08 am

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

Here’s a not so hot take I’m willing to stand by in early February: The loved or loathed Marcus Smart is going to win the Celtics at least one playoff game this spring. He may even win them a round. This take gets too hot if I say he’ll win them a championship, and I don’t think this keyboard (nor the wiring of my brain) is completely ready for that.

But when it does happens -- because it is, again, without a doubt is going to -- you’re going to be thrilled that Danny Ainge opted not to move him to Denver or Oklahoma City for yet another unknown dice roll of a future first-round pick on Thursday.

Or that nobody bit on such a deal.

Smart has his warts, and everybody knows that. It’s likely why not a single Western Conference team -- even those in a contending situation and knowing they have to get through a Curry, Harden, or Westbrook to get where they want to be by June -- were not willing to part with a Top-30 pick to rent the pending restricted free agent.

One: He’s a poor shooter. This year has been no exception, as Smart is shooting 35.7 percent (29.9 from behind the arc) this year. Maddeningly enough, Smart has attempted more three-pointers this season, too. His last attempt was a potential game-winner that saw him look off a likely better opportunity to Terry Rozier and/or Kyrie Irving. Smart, of course, missed the shot and the Celtics dropped a game they should have won.

Which brings us to his next weakness: He’s wildly unpredictable. Not only did he take that aforementioned shot in L.A., but postgame frustration with that shot made him punch a wall at this hotel. The wall (as always) won, and it’s kept Smart out of action since. For the record, the punching thing is a rarest element of the ‘Smart’s wildly unpredictable’ equation. It’s more about his offensive instincts, which are either incredibly flawed (you can hear the Garden groan when he throws up certain shots) or a stroke of absolute genius when Smart is ‘feeling it’ and when the shots are going down. If there’s a happy medium in this regard, the 23-year-old Smart would love to discover it.

...Even so, the Celtics still absolutely need Smart on their side.

When you talk about the one-year turnover the Celtics have had, it’s easy to point to the record -- the Celtics are the best team in the Eastern Conference and look primed for another third-round appearance at the very least -- and simply say that all’s well. But with the offseason losses of hard-nosed players like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and even Jae Crowder (though forever overrated during his time here), the C’s lost a bit of their snarl. Especially when it came to the pestering defense that became part of their DNA.

And while the Celtics remain a top-notch defensive team (this team seems loaded with wings capable of covering almost anybody on the floor at any given time), I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Smart stands as the last remaining pillar of their old underdog-styled two-way swagger. And his tone-setting defensive game is still among the league’s best.

It’s an impact that goes beyond the mental collapse Smart successfully goaded the Rockets’ James Harden into to seal the deal on a C’s win in their December showdown.

Among players having seen at least 700 three-point attempts from opponents, foes are shooting a league-worst 31.9 percent from behind the arc with Smart on the floor. He’s joined by four other Celtics (Terry Rozier, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown) in the top nine of this stat meeting that 700-shot minimum. In a league that’s become straight-up dominated by three-point makes and misses, that’s a definite must. And Smart’s 2.5 DWS (defensive win shares) currently stands as the 25th-best mark in the NBA, too.

And at a physically-punishing 6-foot-4, Smart is a nightmare and versatile defensive matchup for more than just guards. It’s also a must if you’re talking about an East playoff road featuring Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and maybe LeBron James before a potential Finals meeting with any of the aforementioned guards out West. 

But we also can’t ignore the elephant in the room in all of this.

As unlikely as it seems for the Celtics to pay Smart the money he wants (likely over $15 million per season) when his contract runs out this summer, meaning that this could be their last run with No. 36 on the roster before they lose him for nothing, the championship picture seems as blank a canvas as the league’s had since the rise of the Cavs and Warriors.

The Cavs are an obvious mess, as a deadline that saw them move on from six of their players proved. These were six players expected to play big roles for the Cavs, too, such as the 5-foot-9 Thomas (a failed experiment if there ever was one), Derrick Rose (a painfully obvious failed project from the start), and even LBJ’s BFF Dwyane Wade. So while Cleveland added some nice pieces -- Rodney Hood, George Hill, and even the Lakers’ Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. will help -- it wouldn’t be a shock to see a LeBron-less team representing the East in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

The Warriors, meanwhile, are still the obvious favorites to win the NBA Finals yet again (it’s hard to imagine any team beating them four times), and I’d be stupid to deny that.

But for the first time since adding superstar Kevin Durant to the fold in 2016, the Warriors look… human. Head coach Steve Kerr has admitted such, and we’ve seen the Dubs get straight-up pounded by legitimate threats like the Rockets and Thunder. It’s not far-fetched to wonder if this is three years of brutally grinding 100-game seasons finally catching up to the Warriors’ core, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see somebody give them a legitimate challenge and make it interesting. (The Celtics, for the record, have been that team in almost every head-to-head with these cross-country foes.)

For the Celtics to dethrone either one of these teams -- whether it’s the Cavs for the East’s crown or the Dubs for an unlikely 2018 championship -- this seemingly easy ride of an NBA season is going to get tough. And it’s then that you’d like to see the Green’s toughest player, which is most definitely the gritty Smart, make his impact at both ends.

That only comes with Smart -- flaws and all -- in action for the C’s.

And surely making an infinitely greater impact than another late-20s draft pick -- even if flipped to Memphis for a Tyreke Evans scoring presence -- could for these Celtics.

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