Over the past five years, the Celtics have exceeded expectations and also been buried by them. They have built rosters filled with overlooked and overachieving grinders and they have progressed to adding more elite talent.
Amid the reshuffling, even players who seemed destined to be in Boston for a long time — Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Kyrie Irving — ended up elsewhere. And each time a new replacement arrived, he was tasked with learning this franchise’s values and vision.
Through it all, though, the roster has had one strong, relentless, and fiery constant.
“The common denominator is Marcus, right?” Marcus Smart said, referring to himself. “It’s a good sign. It means obviously the team values me if they’ve kept me around this long. It’s an honor.”
Smart is now entering his sixth year with the Celtics. On the court, his role has not changed all that much. He averaged 27 minutes per game as a rookie and 27.5 last year. His scoring average has always been in the range of 7.8 and 10.6 points per game. He has always been a nuisance to opposing ball-handlers.
But along the way, Smart has become this franchise’s heartbeat, and an on-court example of the hard-charging style that the Celtics’ decision-makers fawn over.
“He’s a good representative of the way we want to play,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a physical, smart, tough player who will leave it all out there.”
After a practice this week, Smart spent an extra hour working on individual shooting drills with the help of some assistant coaches. He said he does this for himself, and also because he hopes to set a tone and an example for the team’s less experienced players. He wants to show them what hard work looks like.
Last season, the rest of the league took notice of what the Celtics have been witnessing for years, as Smart was named to the NBA’s All-Defense first team. Smart was pleased with the validation. The Celtics wondered what had taken so long.
“Marcus is a live example of the most fundamental defense you can teach,” said assistant coach Jay Larranaga. “Every year you bring in new players and you’re trying to teach them NBA defense, you have an example of a defender that has been the most fundamentally sound defender I’ve ever been around.
“So you can say, ‘This is how to guard a corner split: Watch Marcus. This is how you get into the ball and direct it with active hands: Watch Marcus.’ You always have a guy right there to tell other players, like, just watch what he’s doing and try to emulate it.”
Smart was as disappointed as anyone last season went sideways, and he was especially frustrated he was unable to do anything to stop it. But he said he wants to expand his role as a leader this year, and said he will be on alert for any signs of rockiness.
He said last year’s setbacks were usually ignited by a lack of effort, and he will not stand for it this time.
“I would like to be that guy to fix it,” Smart said. “I think I can be that guy. It definitely feels good to be one of the guys to handle a situation or scenario like if things start spiraling.”
The hope, obviously, is there will be no spiraling to fix. Smart is hopeful he will be able to help teach the team’s younger players good habits. He is this team’s constant, and he takes the role quite seriously.
Smart said sometimes he thinks about the possibility of playing with the Celtics for his entire career. He said he would love to do that and “be a part of something special.” He knows how fickle this league can be, though, so for now he is just enjoying the present.
“I’m six years in now, and it feels like yesterday I was drafted,” he said. “It is funny to see all the faces I’ve seen come through the organization. But it’s a blessing and I’m blessed to be here still, and that’s rare. Usually guys are gone by now. I’m blessed to still be here.”