Running it back with the same group that played five months of Grade A basketball to reach the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 2010 is tempting for Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens. It’s the easy call, but like a Zach Zarba whistle, it’s probably not the right call.
This offseason is the time for Stevens to think big and bold in pursuit of Banner No. 18, and that means being willing to part with the longest-tenured Celtic, Marcus Smart. This is hoops heresy to Smartophiles who have put the point guard on a pedestal and are ready to put his number in the rafters. Angry emails are reaching my inbox at Mach 2 speed at the mere suggestion of parting with this beloved Boston basketball binky. But Smart is the one movable piece that can bring back what the Celtics lack –—better playmaking.
It’s simple. Smart’s value will never be higher. He’s 28 years old and was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged a career-high 5.9 assists. He’s on a reasonable contract.
Yes, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need to improve their ball security, but they also need a point guard who can take some of the playmaking burden off them in crunch time.
Subtracting the sublime 40-16 fourth-quarter barrage the Celtics hit Golden State with in Game 1 — during which Smart mostly watched from the bench — their offense crashed like the stock market in 1929 in the final period. In Games 2 through 6, the Celtics shot 38.1 percent from the field and generated 28 assists and 18 turnovers in the fourth.
Smart logged a minus-14.8 fourth-quarter net rating in the Finals, the worst of any Celtic. His fourth-quarter offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) was 105.8, the lowest of any rotation player other than Grant Williams (97.7).
“I think we need a little bit more playmaking. Yeah, I think that’s real,” said Stevens Tuesday. “There is no question that in this league the more guys that can make a play offensively, the better.
“I think the challenge again is whatever you do around the margins of our roster — we have a unique identity, and we have a uniqueness in our size and our ability to be versatile all across the board. We have to take all of that into account when we’re adding to our team. If we can maintain that and add some playmaking, without a doubt you want to do that.”
The problem for Stevens is that he’s decrying his team’s lack of playmaking while he’s heavily invested resource-wise at point guard.
He gave Smart a four-year, $77 million contract extension last offseason. The Celtics paid a hefty price for Derrick White, shipping out Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, this year’s first-round pick, and the right for San Antonio to swap first-rounders in 2028. Payton Pritchard is a first-round pick.
White is Smart Lite without the emotional volatility and ever-present amour propre. Disagree? White finished tied for third in the league in charges drawn with 25.
“Playmaking, shot-making, and defense, we don’t have much drop-off when Marcus goes out, and [White] comes in,” said coach Ime Udoka following White’s 21-point performance in Game 1.
The Finals also proved that the Celtics’ most impactful defensive player is sui generis center Robert Williams.
Saying goodbye to Smart could bring back a return that allows the Celtics to reappropriate their roster resources.
Perhaps Smart could be part of a package that fetches Malcolm Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers. Stevens could call up his old boss, Danny Ainge, in Utah and ask about a deal including veteran point guard Mike Conley. Would the Atlanta Hawks, who desperately need grit, be willing to part with one of their playmaking, outside-shooting wings?
The Celtics could gamble that Tatum, 24, and Brown, 25, blossom enough as ball-handlers to provide the requisite playmaking upgrade with Smart aboard.
Smart averaged 3.2 turnovers per game in the Finals. His turnover numbers weren’t far off from a struggling Tatum (3.8) or Brown (3.3), who has his every turnover met with a furor like he’s Kyrie Irving-style stomping on the team’s logo.
In the Finals, Smart’s assist-to-pass percentage was at 8.6 while Brown’s was 9.8. Tatum led the way at 13.1.
In the last five minutes, trailing or leading by 5 points or fewer, Smart shot 2 for 14 overall and 0 for 6 from three with two assists and two turnovers in the playoffs. His shooting percentage (14.3) was the worst of 19 players who played at least 20 clutch minutes.
A championship team requires more stability, emotional equanimity, and personal accountability from its offensive conductor.
Smart had mini-meltdowns over officiating in Games 5 and 6. The Celtics’ fateful Game 4 offensive collapse led Brown to say, “That’s on our veteran players to get us organized in those moments.”
When Stevens was asked what it would take to replicate the identity and ethos that rocketed the Green to within two wins a championship, he said: “I think it takes a selflessness. I think it takes a self-awareness.”
Those aren’t Smart’s hallmarks. Don’t conflate giving up your body on the court with a selfless, self-effacing demeanor. Remember, no one hustled more than the solipsistic Dennis Rodman.
Stevens understands team success contains a very “fragile” formula. He’s mindful of not disturbing it.
“To change significant pieces in the group doesn’t mean that that might not totally take your identity and shift it in a direction that’s not as successful,” he said. “It’s quite a fine line.”
There’s risk in moving a piece like Smart. But there’s also risk in just tinkering around the edges.
If Khris Middleton is healthy for the Milwaukee Bucks, maybe this same group is bounced in the second round. If Jimmy Butler’s three in Game 7 of the conference finals goes, the Green are watching the Finals on TV.
Staying the same might not cut it for the Celtics, despite fielding a team that went 42-17 in its final five months.
The Celtics hit their stride, but then they stumbled and collapsed before the finish line. That can’t be discounted.
Neither can moving Smart if it moves the Celtics closer to an NBA title.