Pretty much from the first time he careened across the parquet in pursuit of a loose ball, Marcus Smart’s approach to basketball should have made him the quintessential Love Him On Your Favorite Team, Loathe Him As An Opponent type of player.
For the most part during his seven seasons with the Celtics, he has lived up to that profile. Everything, for better and worse, that he does on the court is fueled by a singular intention: This basketball game must be won, and I’m going to be infuriated if it is not.
He should be extremely easy to root for, even before taking his tragic but inspiring personal story into consideration. Celtics fans — New England sports fans in general — love a player who leaves it all out there every minute he is on the court, even if he is clearly imperfect.
Smart’s game is flawed, but his character as a teammate is not. His intentions are beyond reproach even when his methods are perplexing.
So it’s a bit mystifying, and disappointing too, that in the hours after his perfectly reasonable four-year, $77.1 million contract extension was announced Monday, many Celtics fans chose to dwell on the most exasperating part of Smart’s game at the expense of acknowledging and appreciating all that he does well.
Yes, it is true. Marcus Smart takes bad shots. He doesn’t do it all that often. We talk about him as though he’s out there like George Gervin trying to outgun David Thompson for the scoring title, but Smart averaged 10.6 attempts per game last season, and averages nine attempts per game for his career. He even makes a few; his 3-point percentage over the past three seasons, 34.8, is higher than that of Trae Young and Devin Booker.
But those bad shots — those terrible, exasperating, what-was-he-thinking shots, like a pull-up three with 19 seconds on the shot clock — overshadow all that he does well. And that’s too bad, because he does a lot well.
He is a dogged defender who has made first-team All-Defense twice, probably the Celtics’ best playmaker (and undeniably their best alley-oop passer), and has highlights all over YouTube of huge plays he’s made late in games, most notably when he drove James Harden temporarily insane in the final seconds of a win over the Rockets in 2017.
Smart is the kind of player Red Auerbach would have loved, the kind of player he would have plotted to get into green. Smart is a modern amalgam of defensive-menace Celtics guards of the past, guards Red brought here. There’s a lot of K.C. Jones in his game, a little bit of Don Chaney, a touch of Dennis Johnson.
He is not dynamic or efficient enough on offense to be the third-best player on a championship-caliber team, but is the kind of anything-to-win player who tends to end up on championship rosters.
Contrary to the usual uninformed sports-radio caterwauling, his contract extension does not hamstring the Celtics in their pursuit of another star to join Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It just makes it more likely that the addition comes via trade, especially with the Celtics picking up a $17.1 million trade exception Tuesday when Evan Fournier’s deal to the Knicks was completed.
Signing Smart to this deal is a far better option than letting another high-end player leave during free agency.
This deal makes sense for the team and the player, and Celtics fans should be happy with it even if Smart sometimes exasperates them. I’m an admirer of his work, as one may have gathered, but I do understand the concerns. He wasn’t sharp last year, slipping just a bit on defense, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether injuries and all those collisions with the hardwood have had some effect.
But he is just 27 years old, and last season was an extraordinary challenge. The Celtics couldn’t stay healthy up and down the roster. Smart too often tried to pick up the scoring slack when Kemba Walker was out of the lineup. He constantly tried to fill voids that were too large for him to repair.
His misguided decisions never came from selfishness. They come from caring, and overestimating his ability to pick up the slack for others.
The Celtics roster is better structured this season, with the likable but unreliable Walker now a Knick, and ol’ friend Al Horford, Dennis Schröder, and Josh Richardson among the arrivals.
There will be more defined roles, and it sounds like Smart’s assignment under new coach Ime Udoka will be to run the offense and get back to his pit bull ways on defense. In other words, play to his strengths.
Udoka was an assistant to Gregg Popovich on Team USA for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, where he had a chance to work with Tatum, Brown, and Smart.
“I’ve spent time with all three of those guys,” Udoka said after he was hired as Celtics coach in late June. “They all bring something different to the team, and what Marcus brings is invaluable. The heart and soul of the team at times.”
Then the new coach paid him the ultimate praise of a scrappy player, a compliment that has long been a mantra of Celtics fans who appreciate Smart’s work.
“You hate to play against him,’’ said Udoka, “but you want him on your side.”
With his new contract, Smart should be on the Celtics side, the only side he’s ever known in the NBA, for the foreseeable future. This is absolutely a good thing … even if some of us might require a reminder once in a while on those nights when Smart’s 3-point trigger finger is itchy and the Garden’s rims unforgiving.