The Celtics bid their emotional farewell to Marcus Smart Thursday, with president of basketball operations Brad Stevens choking back tears as he described the difficult decision to deal away the team’s longest-tenured player. Stevens made it clear how much he, along with the entire city of Boston, will miss the 29-year-old guard.
But in reflecting on Smart’s legacy and imprint on the franchise he leaves behind, Stevens also looked to the future for the franchise Smart joins going forward, saying, “We know he’s going to have a really huge impact on that Memphis team.”
Stevens is absolutely right. The Celtics’ loss is most definitely the Grizzlies’ gain.
Though it’s an assertion that may not be fully appreciated by the locals who watched Smart evolve so much across his nine seasons in green, eventually emerging as a lead point guard good enough to take the Celtics to one NBA Finals and fall just short of a second straight this year, Smart’s landing with the Grizzlies is a win-win for both sides. The veteran joins a team that was already good enough to have secured the No. 2 seed in the last two Western Conference playoffs, while the Grizzlies welcome the sort of savvy, smart leader an undeniably young and immature roster needs both on and off the court.
“[Marcus] will always be appreciated and thought of so fondly here, for any number of reasons. Obviously everybody loves the way he plays, how hard he plays, and also his work in the community,” Stevens said in his overnight remarks after the NBA Draft. “We’re all really grateful to have Marcus in our life for as long as we’ve had and are sad to see him go, but know he’s going to have a really huge impact on that Memphis team.”
No doubt Memphis could use it, particularly troubled young star Ja Morant. Smart has the first 25 games of the season to establish an on-court role without Morant, who will be serving a suspension after twice flashing a firearm on Instagram Live, and that time could be very well spent alongside other young Grizzlies stars such as Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane.
Then, if Morant can get the help he needs (and the NBA demands), perhaps the Grizzlies will finally cash some of the verbal checks the players have issued and get further than they have the last two seasons, losing a first-round playoff series to the Lakers this year and falling to eventual champion Golden State in the second round in 2022.
Smart is a natural leader. Stevens saw it when he coached the Celtics, talking Thursday about how much Smart helped build a new winning culture in the post-Paul Pierce era. So did Danny Henderson, who coached Smart in high school. Smart endured more than his share of hardship growing up in Texas — he has shared harrowing stories of gang violence in the area as well as living through the cancer ordeal that claimed the life of an older brother. But when the family moved to the suburb of Flower Mound and he joined Henderson’s team at Marcus High, the player we see now began to emerge.
“He’s unequivocally the best leader I’ve ever coached,” Henderson told me in an interview last year. “When he was a sophomore we had a nice team and we were able to go all the way to the state semifinals. He was a sophomore, but the seniors, to their credit, they just let him take over the team. None of them resisted. One of the reasons they didn’t resist is because he had so much credibility. Talk about a guy that walks the walk.”
It’s just what the Grizzlies need, and it’s what made it so hard for Stevens to let go. But with the undeniable logjam in the Celtics’ backcourt, with the Grizzlies’ long and documented interest in Smart (having met with him when he was a restricted free agent in 2018), and with the glaring need for a player such as Kristaps Porzingis in the Celtics’ frontcourt, Stevens made that hard business decision.
“So very difficult, very difficult conversations, really hard to do,” Stevens said. “He knows we’ll do anything for him. But it was hard.”
It is indeed hard to imagine the Celtics without him.
When I close my eyes, I can still see Smart in Philadelphia, his green-tipped hair rising above the 76ers to grab a crucial rebound or his pink-hued high tops driving toward the hoop for a vital basket. It was Jayson Tatum who ended up with the headlines after his late flurry of threes clinched that Game 6 Eastern Conference semifinal thriller, but it was Smart who’d kept the Celtics in the game early.
When I silence my brain, I still hear Smart in the hours after that game, too, when typically candid reflections on the win-or-go-home game told us so much truth about what the players had to do. He’s never afraid to say the hard thing, recalling how he’d implored teammates before what he described as a “do or die” game that “it was an elimination game and there was no excuses. We had to leave it all on the floor.”
It’s exactly the sort of attitude the Grizzlies need. After leaving lasting images and a lasting impression in Boston, it’s their turn to benefit.