It’s as if the last three weeks never happened for Marcus Smart. He professed his love for the city of Boston and the Celtics, expressed his desire to come back and never leave.
This is what happens when the team you play for finally decides to step up and reward you for your efforts. You forget about being left hanging the past few weeks, the awkward interaction with team president Danny Ainge at the Las Vegas Summer League, the grumblings with teammates about treatment by the organization, the searching for offer sheets that never existed.
All of that is over. Folks thought Smart may have bumped his head on the TD Garden parquet when he said he was worth $13 million or $14 million per season. He got $13 million per in his four-year deal, a testament to his fortitude and confidence as a player who has seemingly spent a generation in Boston, but it’s only been four years.
What was unique about Smart’s restricted free agency was his value to the Celtics and potential value to other teams. Would Smart be as valuable playing with a downtrodden team such as Sacramento? Taking a lucrative contract to help a sagging franchise take a step toward playoff contention?
Would Smart flourish as a starter for another team? There were no sure answers to those questions. But we have seen Smart’s impact on the Celtics and how well he has fared in his bench role. We have seen Smart turn himself into an indispensable player for coach Brad Stevens, the fearless bull who makes plays very few in the NBA do.
Of course, he is not an efficient shooter. He is prone to the turnover. And his aggression sometimes costs him, but in today’s NBA market, $13 million is about right for a player of Smart’s talent and intangibles.
“I enjoyed the experience even though it’s a frustrating experience, it was amazing,” Smart said Friday. “I tried to take that and use that as encouragement. It’s a business and things aren’t perfect. We both agreed, Boston loves me, I love Boston. I was drafted here; I’ve been here my whole career. I feel like I’m part of the Boston community.”
That should touch Stevens and Ainge, and it should serve as a selling point for free agents. If you recall, Boston wasn’t exactly considered a welcome place for free agents before the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen Big Three Era. Boston was a city that many players of color were unfamiliar with or they heard stories from the city’s unsavory racial history and crossed it off their list.
It wasn’t until players such as Paul Pierce and Garnett praised the city that it became a free agent destination. They didn’t want to leave Boston. Neither did Isaiah Thomas. Neither did Jae Crowder. Neither did Marcus Smart.
The Celtics didn’t have to overpay Smart or other free agents to play here, and that’s an encouraging sign. That doesn’t mean Ainge didn’t play hard ball in negotiations. He allowed Smart to assess his market value outside of Boston.
Only three restricted free agents have signed with other teams: Kyle Anderson was paid $37.2 million over four years by the Memphis Grizzlies and the retooling San Antonio Spurs refused to match. The Milwaukee Bucks renounced the rights to Jabari Parker to allow him to sign a two-year, $40-million deal with the Chicago Bulls.
And the Lakers renounced Julius Randle so he could sign with the New Orleans Pelicans. In all three cases, however, the team wasn’t strong in its desire to keep the player and almost encouraged him to find another home.
That wasn’t the case with Smart. The Celtics were just not as aggressive as Smart would have liked. And that hurt the 24-year-old.
“At one moment I really didn’t know what to think,” he said. “My mind has been on my mom. I was just enjoying this whole process. This was a fun thing, as frustrating as it is. Not many people can say they’re in talks to play for an NBA team, to make a dream become a reality, and to be able to do things they never imagined they could do. This whole time, even with everything that was going on, was a fun, exciting part for me.”
But there was no doubt he wanted to return. Smart was forced to have conversations with other clubs during this restricted free agent process. His heart wasn’t in it, trying to procure offers from the Nets or the Kings or the Bulls.
It was a means of burning time until the Celtics got serious about bringing him back. A four-year contract is a testament to how much the Celtics wanted Smart and a $13 million-per-season contract, if things don’t work out long term, is tradeable in this escalating financial market in the NBA.
But the Celtics are hoping Smart plays out this contract and contributes to the greater goal of winning a title. They already have agreed on that.
“I’m able to be on a team to have an opportunity to go down and be a part of this historic journey and this historic organization,” he said. “I’m ecstatic. I’m excited to get started. The Celtics is one of those teams where we have a great shot to win it and have a great chance to be there to win. It’s a great organization and great city and it fits my style, and I’m glad to be here.”