The debates between two passionate sides of whether or not the Celtics should re-sign Marcus Smart raged one year ago. They feel older.
Boston signed Smart to a four-year, $52 million contract. The sporadic start to his career made him Boston’s most polarizing player. In 2018-19, he may have been the only piece preventing the Celts from an all-out, midseason collapse. The NBA awarded his efforts on Wednesday by naming him to the All-Defensive First Team.
Smart ranked fourth in the voting behind Rudy Gobert, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Eric Bledsoe rounded out the team. The duo beat out former Patrick Beverley and Klay Thompson who made the Second Team. It marked Smart’s first All-Defensive selection.
He entered Boston’s starting lineup after a 10-10 start and steadied the balance between offense and defense on what was a highly skill-oriented group before. Gordon Hayward moved to the bench and found his footing slowly though not completely.
The recognition of his defensive feats stood overdue. His charges taken (32), defensive rating (107) and defensive box plus-minus (+1.3) stand in line with his career averages. His defensive win shares (3.1) marked a career high. The difference: this time he did not constitute a net negative.
He also led the NBA with a 3.1 steal percentage (the proportion of opponent possessions that ended in a steal for him).
None of the defensive numbers or accolades are necessary to commend Smart’s efforts on that end. This year in particular, the context of the team and his total individual performance influenced the voters.
The Celtics desperately needed players like him and Morris. They did not need the excess touches most of the roster did and focused on gritty plays. Smart appeared in eight of Brad Steven’s 12 lineups that posted positive net ratings in over 50 minutes of play.
Stevens’ original starting unit with Hayward and Jaylen Brown got outscored. The new one, with Smart and Morris, posted a +6.0 net rating. Boston boasted a top-seven team defensive rating for the third season in Smart’s five-year career.
His ability to step back and focus on his role proved critical. He combined his usual efforts with a career-high 36% three-point stroke, 113 offensive rating and 69% shooting at the rim. Boston was +4.7 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game, the highest mark of his career.
Smart may be the only consequential member of the Celtics that did not share the blame for the failed season. He can only be blamed for salvaging a season that might have been worth selling on.
This collective never fully proved to be one to believe in, and a Terry Rozier or other forward-thinking move could have helped. It also would have helped to have Smart healthy for the playoffs.
The Celtics did themselves an enormous favor by keeping Smart though, no matter which direction they choose. He will either maintain the coherency of the roster or play an important role as a piece in a potential Anthony Davis trade. If Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown depart, he will fill their minutes. He instantly becomes the statesman in the case of a youth movement.
Boston found itself in a rare position of zero flexibility in 2018-19. They married a roster that screamed it did not have NBA Finals potential all season long. Kyrie Irving prevented them from entering the Davis sweepstakes. Too many questions followed the season to alter the roster.
Smart may not have saved the season, but by improving in an attempt to try he handed the Celtics back wiggle-room. They now know what they’re getting next year from a player whose known value is now backed by hardware.