WASHINGTON — Marcus Smart becomes trade-eligible tomorrow, Jan. 25, after signing his four-year extension last offseason.
A tumultuous half season followed for him and the rest of the Celtics. Boston’s .500 pace from last year dipped below that for much of the early schedule. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have battled some of the worst struggles of their careers, leading to a call-out from Smart of their approach in late-game situations. Numerous meltdowns followed, players have left the lineup due to injuries and COVID, in Smart’s case both in recent weeks. Now, as a disappointing January concludes, a shakeup could be imminent.
So Smart approached each of his teammates before the Celtics’ game in Washington D.C. on Sunday and told them he loved them. It could go down as an ominous moment for the team’s longest-tenured player depending on how the coming weeks play out.
For now, Smart returned with 11 points, six assists, four rebounds and four steals on 4-for-9 shooting in a 116-87 rout of the Wizards. He helped Tatum get back on track with a blistering 51 points on 9-for-14 three-point shooting — a volume three-point shooting feat only rivaled by Antoine Walker, Brown and Smart.
“I love all you guys,” Smart told his teammates. “I’m here and proud and really looking for everybody’s success. I’m glad to be a part of everybody’s success … I pulled Jayson, Jaylen, told them separately. And I went down along with everybody on the team individually and told them I appreciate them, I’m proud of them. This is what you do, just go out there and do it and keep doing it.”
Smart makes the Celtics better, he’s not the problem even if he’s not the solution, exhibited in his team-high +36 in the win. His defensive feats, holding Spencer Dinwiddie (1-for-12 overall) to 0 points in their possessions against each other and Bradley Beal four as part of the star’s 7-for-17 letdown swarmed by Smart and others. Smart organizes and communicates in his own end at a level above anyone else on the roster.
He also continues to have a knack for reading and predicting passing lanes, now tied with Chris Paul and Dejounte Murray for the league-lead in steals per game (2.0). Smart, after a down year in 2020-21, should be in play for his third all-defensive team appearance in four seasons. Ime Udoka told CLNS Media he believed Smart would be a perfect fit for his switch-heavy scheme, and midway through the year Boston ranks fifth in defense (106.9 points per 100).
“He’s been what he’s been all year,” Udoka said post-game. “He settles us down at times, knows when a guy’s going and who to get some shots for. Just obviously defensive presence, toughness and mentality he brings to the team, that’s invaluable.”
Offensively, Smart remains underrated, especially in comparison to the other guards around him, at times opting for flare over substance, he’s still the most talented passer on the roster. The Celtics score 3.7 points per possession more (73 percentile in NBA) with Smart on versus off the floor. Their effective field goal percentage increases 2.4 points (83rd), turnover percentage decreases by nearly a whole percentage point (71st) and the team’s free throw rate increases.
Smart leads the team with 5.3 APG and generates a team-high 10.2 potential assists despite attempting a few less passes per game than Dennis Schröder. His passes within the flow of the offense, often seeking the extra look, reflect his increased maturity and evolution into a facilitator in shedding some of the shot-chucking habits that frustrated fans earlier in his career.
His shooting remains down and didn’t look much better following a layoff, posting his worst percentages since 2017-18. Movement, cutting and his efforts to get closer to the basket have increased his finishing fortunes over dreadful results inside in past years.
Smart recorded a similar seasons statistically to now in 2017-18, only in a smaller role with fewer minutes and still fewer shots per game despite his efforts over the past two seasons to reel in his attempts. That’s proves the value he could still have to a contender or team seeking a soft reset into an immediate push for the playoffs in seasons to come. His contract, $77-million over four years, is now pricey, but secure.
He believes Boston can still be that place, as Sunday’s win bolstered the Celtics from outside the playoff race to the eight seed. The Celtics are four games behind the bye/play-in tournament line, though that’s been the case all year with disappointments following each opportunity. Smart missed the team’s offensive meltdowns against Philadelphia, Charlotte and Portland, while present and unable to save them through the New York implosion, the debacle late against San Antonio and he struggled in a near-loss to Orlando at home Brown saved them from.
That all came as The Athletic reported the diminishing returns of Smart’s leadership style and a general staleness forming around this mix. Sunday’s game, the first fully healthy for the team since the Dec. 1 win over Philadelphia, moved the team to 8-5 with their starting lineup intact. Grant Williams waved his arms on the sideline as the Tatum shots started falling, a row of teammates greeted him after he reached 48 points late in the third quarter and the team stayed together along the sideline. Tatum didn’t even ride the bike in his bench stints.
The good vibes only seem momentary for this team. They’ve already lost much of their chance to prove themselves contenders before the deadline. This week can begin a late rush, but the Juancho Hernángomez trade already previewed changes, a bounce below the luxury tax and The Athletic and ESPN previewed changes that could include Smart in February.
What could Smart net the team? Any deal that brings in wings or shooting specialists would, in turn, hurt the team’s thin playmaking. It’s hard to imagine another team flipping a point guard more impactful than Smart back in return for the guard. Brad Stevens has affirmed the Celtics won’t trade simply to trade. So it still feels more likely Smart remains, and is addressed again in the offseason as part of more wholesale changes when sign-and-trades and other options like draft trades become available.
The exception is if he can be a the centerpiece of an impactful, younger player like John Collins joining the team at a different position. From there, the C’s could try to retain Schröder despite the limitations, or patch together the point guard position around Brown and Tatum’s increased playmaking roles in seasons to come.
Whatever happens, Smart sounded at peace with his efforts and attempts to right this ship, the bonds he’s formed as Boston’s nearly decade-long heart and soul. He’ll continue them if allowed, and bring them to a new environment if the Celtics decide this core has simply exhausted its potential.
“It’s us versus everybody. Nobody really believes in us but us on this team. And that’s how we feel. We hear the noise. We see it. It is what it is. But it’s us versus everybody. That’s the mindset that we have. It’s the mindset we gotta keep.”
Other notes from Washington —
- I’m still leery of how the Celtics fell in love with the three-point shot again early and leaned into it in the second half. It worked, but largely hasn’t for the group this season, keying meltdown losses last week against Charlotte and Portland, not to mention a 9% three-point performance in the loss to the Clippers.
- Celtics governor Wyc Grousbeck attended the game, his presence not always visible or audible around the team this year. Given their recent struggles, this may be noteworthy.
- Jaylen Brown struggled badly for much of the afternoon, finishing 5-for-18 and unable to put away the Wizards enough that Udoka said he needed to get Tatum back in the fourth quarter. Whether that was simply milestone-chasing or not, Brown couldn’t create separation attacking the Wizards’ defense largely on his own and fouling three times before halftime. The back-to-back transition fouls, the first handing Washington a three-point play, weren’t necessary. He also had defensive lapses, though none as bad as his decisive mistake guarding Robert Covington late in Friday’s contest.
- Tatum said post-game he’s the same person, whether he’s missing 20 straight threes as he did earlier this week or scoring 50. The difference between the tense, nervous moments late against Portland on Friday, where Romeo Langford and Grant struggled to get involved in late moments as Tatum’s misses piled up, and the jovial backdrop on Sunday don’t speak to that, in my mind. While Tatum takes on a consistently quiet, lead-by-example demeanor, he needs to realize the example his frustrations, complaining to officials or even physical separation from the team when he’s out of the game reflect.
- Robert Williams III didn’t touch the ball nearly enough in the win, finishing 4-of-6 with a rare lob miss costing Smart a seventh assist. Williams was otherwise a deterrent inside, played exceptional pick-and-roll defense by cutting off Washington’s driving and passing lanes, while also whipping the ball around when he caught it to record four assists. He also grabbed three offensive rebounds.
- I thought the defense was exceptional. Smart and Tatum dominated on the perimeter, Williams III inside, while Grant quietly rotated to the perimeter numerous times and stopped Washington’s guards and wings.
- Williams III and Al Horford split minutes at the five, removing Enes Freedom from the rotation for now. Josh Richardson held down secondary wing minutes, with Romeo Langford grabbing 7:55 due to Brown’s foul trouble. Aaron Nesmith didn’t play until late, nor did Payton Pritchard. A tight Udoka rotation remains, despite his hope to get the younger players more involved and the limited rest the starters received in a blowout was questionable. The Celtics haven’t had many opportunities to sneak some and Sunday was a clear opportunity with the game in hand through three quarters and change.
- On a positive note, Udoka’s interesting challenge of an out-of-bounds call on Williams III’s block on Montrezl Harrell that got the call reversed to Boston’s ball seemed inconsequential. It did give the Celtics an extra possession and one less to the Wizards with 2:12 to go in the second quarter, Tatum hitting two more threes and Schröder a pair of free throws while Washington finished 0-for-5, doubling Boston’s halftime lead from seven to 15 and putting the game away. One of Udoka’s best moments yet as a first-year coach.
- Speaking of Harrell, he played 7:22 in the loss behind Daniel Gafford and Thomas Bryant. He stayed on the court for over 30 minutes after the game ended working with coaches and shooting. With his $9.7-million expiring after this season, he’d be an intriguing low-cost target for the Celtics, considering their bottom-10 ranking in shots attempted inside and occasional energy lapses. The ball entering the post area helped the Celtics substantially in the win, with Horford and Williams III not always a threat to score when they touch the ball inside. Harrell is, and he mashes second units.