Smart play? Marcus Smart for D'Angelo Russell an intriguing proposition

Imagine, for a moment, that you own a super-loaded truck (and that you are the particular type of person who enjoys such things). Yet one day, you stumble across a sports car for sale -- a newer model from an unproven company, sure, but there's no denying the benefits of such sleek design and luxurious accessories. And the kicker? If you trade in your beioved truck, the one that got you here in the first place, the sports car won't cost you a penny.

What would you do?

This is the proposition that faces the Boston Celtics in the nascent (though not without a semblance of grounding) discussion of whether they should trade their utilitarian young point guard, Marcus Smart, for the newer and sleeker edition currently covered in purple and gold, the Los Angeles Lakers' D'Angelo Russell.

It is a discussion worth having for so many different reasons, not the least of which is that such a trade would probably break twitter and send us spiraling into a techpocalypse from which only Neo could save us. But the most fascinating part of such a proposal comes at a peculiar intersection of skill, ceiling, and fit that has much broader implications on our valuation of the point guard position than we might first realize.

From the prospective of checking off the stereotypical boxes of what constitutes a difference maker at point guard -- a relative term with the widespread talent in the league at the position -- Russell would seem to come out clearly ahead. He has the natural ball handling, passing, and shooting skills that it is hard to envision Smart ever truly refining, and truly elite levels of those skills are more rare than one would think.

And if we're honest, pairing Russell with both Kobe and Byron Scott is just about the worst situation Russel could have landed in as a rookie. Soctt in particular has almost assuredly hindered Russel's development, with everything from his allergy to the three pointer to his refusal to grant his young players even a modicum of respect (even when speaking to the press) representing the engulfing flames of the dumpster fire that Lakers' basketball has been this season.
So at first glance, this seems like a short conversation. Even if the Celtics were willing to part with Smart, a defensive stalwart with a quietly emerging offensive game, the Lakers should probably just say no as quickly as the human mouth is capable of making the sound. They already have the sports car, they just need to work out a few kinks and learn how to drive it.

None of this is to say that Smart isn't inarguably a much bigger difference maker right now with his stellar defense, which is a truly elite skill that Russell simply has no match for at this point in his career. And Russel's youth could seriously muck up the flow of what has been a very clean and composed squad en route to seizing the number three seed. The much more mature (to everyone except Matt Bonner's crotch) Smart is the only true youngster who has gotten significant time in Boston's tightened rotation. But Russel's offensive potential is as the sort of foundational piece an offense can succeed in the gravity of. No NBA team will usually give up on that unless they're getting the real deal in return.

So, no-brainer. Right?

It seems a convincing narrative, but it collapses somewhat when you begin to understand both Russel's limitations and the ways in which he might just not fit the "tough guy" culture every leader in his organization tries to foster.

Russell was no stopper in college and has been worse in the NBA; his 1.2 steals per game are partially a product of consistent gambling that compromises the defense, and he gets stuck on picks far too often, allowing opposing point guards the head start that he doesn't have the lateral quickness to recover to. And even on the other end, his decision making in year 1 has been less than advertised after comparisons to a young Chris Paul around draft time, as his many turnovers (2.4 per game as compared to only 3.3 assists per) can attest.

On the Celtics' end, giving up Smart for Russell, even if he might be better two or three years from now, might not be the best course for the C's to vault into real contention. Risking destroying the defensive balance of what has become a lockdown backcourt could really hurt this year's squad. Though having improved on the other end recently, the Celtics' defense has been its bellweather this season, and taking Smart out of the mix could submarine it. His impact on that end is that big.

That is huge, perhaps huger than even the loftiest projections of what Russell can become. The C's have the opportunity to draft a top-5 talent this offseason courtesy of the Nets, and endangering the continuity of a pseudo-contender to grab another top-five talent struggling through a steep learning curve seems superfluous, especially when you consider the repercussions in terms of free agency. The Celtics need to be able to sell contention as well as a big market to make up for some of their built-in disadvantages, and Smart is a key cog in their defensive identity.

The likelihood of such a deal materializing is infinitesimally small for all the reasons mentioned above. But even engaging in the possible logic behind it is a revealing experience about the tension that exists in the league today. As offenses expand outward and rely more and more on playmaking at every position, a guy like Russel almost becomes necessary to any team serious about contending. But as guys like Russell continue to pop up across the NBA, Smart's ability to shut down such opponents becomes quite the gem of its own.

Photo courtesy of the Boston Herald
Video courtesy of the youtube account Evin Gualberto
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