Given that the Celtics are the No. 1 team in the NBA in points allowed, field goal percentage, and 3-point percentage, it would be a safe assumption they should have multiple candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
They do. But they may not.
Marcus Smart and Robert Williams have been the defensive catalysts this season for the Celtics, leading the team’s resurgence as the two have helped turn Boston into a connected and stifling defensive unit.
But there are cases against each player. Williams is in his first season as a full-time player and is just establishing his reputation as a staunch defender, in comparison to veterans like Rudy Gobert or Bam Adebayo.
For Smart, it’s because he’s too short and plays the wrong position. A guard hasn’t been named Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996. Smart was 2 years old then.
Smart has been named first-team All-Defense before and that’s the best a guard can hope for in this generation. Centers are considered better defenders because their defensive impact is more obvious. They block more shots and prevent or alter others.
Steals used to be a primary indicator of a good defender until some players changed that perception by being risk takers, a la former Celtic Rajon Rondo. Rondo collected steals but also put himself in poor defensive position by chasing others. So the steal became devalued.
There are several, more modern defensive metrics that can determine a good defender, but defensive rating or deflections don’t compare to the good ol’ blocked shot and Smart understands that the chances of landing Defensive Player of the Year are slim.
“I don’t see why it’s so hard for a guard to win it,” Smart said. “We talk about what bigs do and I’m not taking anything away from bigs but we’ve got to first understand for the guy to get to the big, he’s got to get by us guards first. And most of the time we’re making it so tough that by the time he gets to (the bigs); all he’s got to do is send him back the other way.
“We do a majority of the hard work but for us to not even be talked about or in the discussion, let alone win it; I think that’s some BS. We know it. It’s a popularity contest. You got me and Rob and we’re not even in the discussion for the best defensive team in the league. I think that says enough.”
What makes voting for Defensive Player of the Year so challenging is the lack of tangible stats. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the NBA leader in blocked shots and he’ll get serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, especially considering the Memphis Grizzlies’ success. Williams is second in that category and three-time winner Gobert is third.
Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs is the league leader in steals, but the Spurs are headed for the draft lottery. Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle is fifth and could be a candidate but only plays about 25 minutes per game. Smart is sixth and gets a chunk of his steals from ripping opposing dribblers or chasing loose balls.
The Celtics’ starting lineup of Smart, Williams, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford have held opponents to 39.1 percent shooting and 31.1 percent from the 3-point line while on the floor together. In the 54 games Smart and Williams have played together this season, the Celtics are 37-17 and are a plus 6.1 while they are on the floor.
Both deserve consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. But Smart has spent his career believing he doesn’t get deserving credit for his impact on winning and he’s right.
“I’m not too stressed about it,” he said. “Like I said, I don’t play the game for the individual accolades. I play the game to win games and that’s my job. Whatever comes with it, I’m blessed to have, blessed to be in the discussion but it does suck for us guards because you grind, you sacrifice your body diving on a majority of the loose balls, you’re the one taking the charges, the one taking the bumps and the bruises and sending them to the bigs, making sure individually you do everything you can before he gets to that back line of defense.”
Smart believes he’s the best defender in the NBA.
“My game speaks for itself,” he said. “You put me out there in front of anybody and I promise you there’s going to be a battle and I promise you they don’t want to see me in front of them. I hope I wouldn’t have to kiss no babies (to campaign for the award) and I would hope the Celtics would, for at least me or Rob, one of us have to get it, really push that narrative. I tried to push that narrative a long time ago and it still didn’t get me nowhere. As long as we keep winning, I’m OK.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.