Marcus Smart: The NBA’s biggest anomaly and the Celtics’ biggest question mark
Nobody is mad at you if you still have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth after the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last night at Staples Center. The now season-high four-game losing streak for the Boston Celtics has a lot of fans worried and much of this is due to the fact that yesterday was the exact type of game that drives basketball die-hards to insanity.
The defense was inconsistent at best in all senses including rebounding on that end of the floor. There were multiple opportunities in which you thought the C's could take over the game. Al Horford took a pretty serious elbow to the head (please God, not another concussion) and Kyle Kuzma did his best Kobe impression wearing purple and gold.
And speaking of purple and gold, a little footnote about that game I think we're forgetting - that was the LAKERS they lost to. No, not the Los Angeles Clippers (who we hope we don't lose our fifth straight to tonight) ... it was the Los Angeles Lakers***. Our sworn enemy who we also happen to own the rights of their first-round pick this upcoming June, which by all accounts only got worse for Boston last night ... heard of them?
Beyond all those points which I'd love to expound upon, one of the biggest subjects of debate about last night's game so far in the Twittersphere and many other platforms has been the one, and only, Marcus Smart.
For any Celtics fan like myself and many of you who have followed this team diligently throughout this "rebuild," if you will, and the start of the Brad Stevens era, we are well accustomed to the nightly roller-coaster ride that is #36. Every time he's on the floor, the longest-tenured Celtic leaves fans lost somewhere between the joy of witnessing a budding all-NBA defender and the pain of watching a promising, young talent like such continue to struggle to develop on the other side of the ball.
So while even an absolutely awful, contested, last-second heave from deep when he had multiple open teammates and only needed two points probably drove some people nuts, this type of stir and discussion amongst media-types about Smart has become white noise to us, right? (Or so we hope.)
"Sure, Marcus has his deficiencies on offense and still hasn't developed a consistent shot, but he makes up for it in spades on defense and helps us win games." That's what we tell ourselves, right?
For a long time, we weren't wrong.
Earlier this season in mid-December, Smart had posted a positive (.30) real plus-minus (RPM) on the year to that point despite having only an abysmal .267 field-goal percentage. In other words, while the Celtics defensive-specialist was on pace to have the worst-year of his career from the field in his then-fourth season (not a good look), he'd still be proving worthy enough at his craft on the other end to stick around. Many of us also probably remember Coach Stevens making note of these types of concerns last year saying in an interview that Smart was a player who was specifically known for "making winning plays" and that those don't pop up on a stat sheet.
While this all may have been true at the time, and even earlier this year as we've seen, this isn't the case anymore for #36.
Despite now posting a field goal percentage of .357 on the year, Marcus' miscues passing the ball which end in turnovers mixed with a little bit of a drop on the defensive end have led to him now posting an RPM of -.13. Yes, that's right Smart apologists ... even with the improvement in efficiency shooting the ball (or tiny bit), his overall offensive RPM sits at a staggering -.91 in 2017-18'.
So sure, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy is playing some of his best defense yet in his career. Doing some simple math (or with the help of your phone calculator), you can see the difference in a -.91 and -.13 RPM is Marcus' .78 defensive-RPM. But even then, we're now wading into the waters of where the roles will reverse. The thought may now need to be, "Sure, Marcus is great on defense and makes some big plays but his inconsistency and lack of development on offense are leading to losses."
In sports though, everything can't be defined directly off statistics. We can't define Marcus Smart directly off statistics because we know better that as Stevens' noted, that's not where the proof is. For a guy like #36, the proof is in the eye-test and this is just another reason why he's such an anomaly, if not the NBA's biggest one.
Almost nothing about how one would describe Smart is conventional. His advantages to the team, how he makes an impact in a league that almost bares no reward for his style of play, anything about about him - none of it is simple to describe in the least.
He's a bare-knuckle brawler willing to get his nose dirty on every play who's hustle would make any fan proud nonetheless the blue-collared Bostonian following he currently has. He's a defensive specialist who's somehow helping one of the NBA's best teams while the league-average of points per game soars above 100 a night now.
But the script is now changing. As we know, the numbers are now arguing a different story. And as all this comes up conveniently right before the approaching 2018 NBA trade deadline, many Celtics fans abound have to start asking ourselves, what is Smart's future here?
Yes, the Celtics do have his Bird Rights (you need to have played somewhere three straight years) as this is his fourth season here and they would be able to go into the luxury tax to keep him around if they resigned him this offseason. But at what risk?
Evan Turner, who played a similar sixth man role for the team while they we're only donning the East's fourth best record in 2015-16', earned himself a $16 million dollar yearly salary (4 years/$64 million). This was previous to the bump in the league's salary cap which naturally has led to a bump in players average salary as well since that time. Overall, it's probably not insane to think Marcus could earn a similar contract this off-season in the open market.
Never-mind that being a pretty steep payday for a player who still hasn't shown the ability to take his game on offense to the next level in terms of scoring or consistency, do the Celtics want to lose players like Daniel Theis, Shane Larkin, and Aron Baynes for the sake of keeping around #36 for a fifth season and beyond in Boston?
Along with weighing the loss of those three players at the expense of bringing Marcus back, fans will also have to consider how much of an impact the longest-tenured Celtic's departure would have as well. At which point does a lack of continuity in the locker room and having new faces almost every year eventually start to hurt your brand as a team supposed to be built on hard-work and trust in one another?
President of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, has already built quite the reputation as a mercenary with the trade last summer of Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, how do you think the feeling around the league would be if he dumped his now longest-tenured player?
This all builds for quite the circumstance now in the Celtics hands.
Although I love Marcus and everything he's brought to the table, I do believe that pending the right return, now may be the time to cash in on him and strike while the iron is hot.
Even as he will be entering free agency during the summer, one would think Smart has to have miles more of value and upside now then he would a year or two down the road when he's tied to a multiyear, $15 million per year contract and hasn't progressed still. I'd be curious to see what his return would be right now or the offers they'd receive for him at the least.
If I'm Trader Danny, I'm at least putting out a couple feelers to see where GM's stand. If someone offered an expiring contract who could provide some consistent bench scoring (Tyreke Evans) and even a future draft capital on top (1st rounder down the line, etc), this might be enticing enough to get the ball rolling on negotiations. Not to say this would be what Ainge would settle for, but a nice starting point at least.
Overall, lots of Celtics fans would probably like to hold out on moving #36 for now. The Celtics have a legitimate shot at an NBA Finals appearance and dare we say it, a championship, down the stretch here so Ainge may just want to keep all the pieces in tact.
Other fans might want to wait to use him in an Anthony Davis-type pipedream deal, but fair warning ... the window is closing. After the deadline this year passes, the only way Marcus could be used in such a deal is if he agreed to a sign-and-trade which happen in the NBA about as often as Halley's Comet or otherwise the trade would have to be sometime into next year. And as mentioned, if Smart is tied to a much more lucrative contract by then and is still hasn't shown much improvement on offense, his value won't be nearly as high.
For the most part, I do expect these next few weeks to be quiet on the Celtics end unless the ideal offer comes on the table but it will still be fun to guess the direction the team may go in. Hopefully they can start by turning things around tonight in their second-straight outing in downtown LA.
Follow Brendan on Twitter for more Celtics/NBA/sports info at @brendan_ronan_
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