In the end, the Celtics valued the player more than they valued total financial victory. The Celtics gave in and gave dogged defender Marcus Smart a big contract when they didn’t have to budge a Red Auerbach cent. They wanted Smart more than they wanted to win the deal.
After a summer of discontent, consternation, and dispiriting reality about his NBA desirability, Smart finally got his green from the Green, agreeing to a four-year, $52 million deal on Wednesday. More than the numbers illustrate how much the Celtics value Smart’s heady, gritty play it’s how the Celtics conducted negotiations.
The Celtics could have done to Smart what he does so well to opponents on the court — frustrate, annoy, and deny.
Boston had all the leverage over the restricted free agent guard, who had a market for his services that dried up like the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Celtics could have forced the suitor-less Smart to settle for his one-year, $6.05 million qualifying offer. They could have presented him with a best and final offer that was below the four-year, $50 million deal that he reportedly turned down last fall. They could have embarrassed Smart, who like Richard Gere’s character in the film “An Officer and a Gentleman” had no place else to go.
Instead, they compromised and allowed him to save face and feel good about being in a Celtics uniform next season and beyond. In that way, both sides come out winners.
This was a kinder, gentler version of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, not the merciless high-stakes poker player who has to be able to declare total victory to execute any trade. “Keeping Marcus in a Celtics uniform was a top priority, and we’re excited to have accomplished that,” said Ainge in a team statement.
The Celtics go into next season with a roster that was one win away from reaching the NBA Finals intact. Despite Kawhi Leonard being shipped to the Toronto Raptors, the Celtics are the clear favorites in the LeBron-less Eastern Conference.
Smart always had more value, sentimental and actual, to the Celtics than he did to other teams. He is a competitive talisman for coach Brad Stevens’s team. He aggravates opponents and motivates teammates with his relentless and fearless brand of basketball. During the playoffs, Celtics big man Al Horford referred to Smart as “kind of like the soul of our team.” Smart does all the dirty work, has a preternatural feel for defense, and the versatility to guard four positions, which is particularly beneficial in today’s position-less NBA. He is exactly the type of role player you want on a championship team.
Still, this was an overpay by the Celtics, given that Smart had no other offers and has shown no signs of meaningful improvement as a shooter since he was taken by the Celtics with the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
As a rookie, Smart shot 36.7 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from 3-point range. Limited by injury to 54 regular-season games last year, Smart shot 36.7 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from 3-point range. For his career, the gutty guard is shooting 36 percent from the field and 29.3 percent from three, an indictment of his offensive capabilities given the way Stevens has enhanced the offensive production of nearly every player who has come to Causeway Street.
Smart is essentially the same player he was when he entered the NBA, a fully-formed defensive difference maker/hustle guy with an exiguous offensive repertoire. That’s what the Celtics are paying for. While only 24, Smart’s upside appears to be capped at role-player.
Weirdly, Smart’s offensive limitations suit these Celtics, who have more than enough capable offensive talents with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Horford. They need players who can influence the game without scoring. Smart can do that.
In the 15 playoff games he played, the Celtics allowed 98.7 points per game and 44.1 percent shooting. In the four he missed due to a thumb injury, they allowed 108.3 points per game and 54.2 percent shooting.
Smart can play on my team any day. But his intangibles and impact on winning have become annoyingly overstated here in the Hub of Hoops. Like another Celtic fan darling with a shaky shot, Rajon Rondo, Smart’s impact becomes greater the greater the offensive ability of the players around him.
The Celtics were 20-32 in Smart’s rookie season before Ainge traded for Isaiah Thomas (remember him?). The Celtics went 20-10 the rest of the way to make the playoffs. So, do Smart’s intangibles really correlate to winning games you would otherwise lose without him or are they just more noticeable on a winning team that has an All-Star caliber scorer in place to do the heavy lifting, which Smart has enjoyed since those first 52 games of his career?
Put plainly, if NBA decision-makers recognized Smart’s skill-set as being directly responsible for winning a significant portion of Boston’s games then he would have been in greater demand. His skill-set only moves the needle for teams that have their contending core in place.
One minor concern is that as hard as Smart plays — only the TD Garden Bull Gang is more familiar with the grooves of the parquet — injuries are an issue. Smart tore a ligament in his right thumb in March diving for a ball and was out until the fifth game of the playoffs. Only once has he played more than 68 games (79 in 2016-17).
Also, the combustible and combative guard isn’t always capable of channeling his passion appropriately. In January, he punched a glass picture frame in Los Angels hotel room, according to the official account, knocking him out for 11 games.
Worth is relative. The Celtics surrendered more money than they had to for Smart, but for them, he’s worth it. It’s happened before. In 2014, Ainge inked Avery Bradley to a four-year, $32 million deal when Bradley was an RFA. At the time, the deal looked like an overpay. It turned out to be a steal.
You also can’t put it past Danny the Dealer that part of the thinking with acquiescing to Smart was that his new salary will benefit Boston down the road when it’s trying to match salaries in a trade. Smart’s money is smart money for both sides.
Smart’s foray into free-agency could have ended up like some of his egregious attempts at drawing a charge call — a complete flop. But the Celtics relinquished their leverage and gave him a soft landing in the hopes that it pays off for Smart and the team.