As the Boston Celtics continue to work feverishly in the heat of the offseason, making every decision to its roster count, there’s still one major task for GM Danny Ainge and owner Wyc Grousbeck to check off their to-do list. And that’s re-signing current restricted free agent Marcus Smart.
“We want him back for a number of reasons,” Stevens said in a Q&A with the Athletic’s Jay King. “His energy is contagious, and it’s contagious every day.”
Recent roadblocks, however, have made it difficult for Boston to finalize any deal with the 24-year-old. The ongoing stalemate between Smart’s camp and the Celtics brass is a tricky one. As it currently stands, Smart wants a big pay, upwards to $15 million per season. But the potential suitors are drying up. The list of teams with cap space left to make such a deal possible has dwindled, leaving only two-to-three teams with a realistic chance of stringing together an offer rich enough to pry Smart out of Boston’s grasp. The Celtics will have the last say when it’s all said and done though, as they have the opportunity to match any offer sheet that comes their way.
For anyone who’s followed Smart’s NBA career path intently, understand his unique skill-set, as well as his polarizing attributes. During his time in Boston, the 6-foot-4 guard stood out among the league’s best, and sometimes worst, at his respective position. For instance, Smart finished the 2017-18 campaign with the ninth-lowest field-goal percentage among all active players, at 36.7 percent. Further, he also joined the short list of only 26 players in league history to take at least 4.5 three’s per game and connect on under 31 percent of them.
However, Ainge, along with a handful of other NBA front offices, recognize that Smart’s value isn’t on the offensive end. Instead, teams will pay for Smart’s stout defense, grit, as well as doing the little things that might not show up in the box-score.
This past season, Smart proved to be a reliable back-up for the Celtics in the regular season and the playoffs, even without Kyrie Irving. His low penchant for turnovers resulted in a 2.01 assist-to-turnover ratio, comparable to the likes of Stephen Curry (2.03) and James Harden (2.04); although it came on a much lower usage scale. Additionally, his defensive versatility reaches no bounds; he’s not always the tallest or quickest on the court, but he’s by far one of the strongest. Even at 6’4, he can guard four positions seamlessly on any given night.
Put him on the perimeter, and Smart uses sound fundamentals to stay deep into his defensive stance, which allows him to be in great position to show-off his thunder-quick hands.
There wasn’t a better example of this than in Game 1 of this year’s Eastern Conference Final. Despite absorbing several body blows from LeBron James, Smart showed impressive strength to wall up to the King and make a savvy reach-around steal.
Although this one wasn’t against as highly-touted of a foe, Smart once again off his quick hands by picking the pocket of the shifty Donovan Mitchell in the half-court.
According to CleaningTheGlass.com, Smart ranked in at least the 92nd percentile or above in steal percentage every year except this one (81st percentile) and has never been above the 55th percentile in foul percentage. That’s an absurd ratio considering typically the more steals a player registers, the more fouls they’re likely to commit.
Likewise, the same type of tenacity he displayed as an on-the-ball defender translated to a high-level of off-the-ball production, too. Smart’s ability to read a defense, rotate and contest shots from PF’s and sometimes C’s is what stands out the most.
I mean, how many 6’4 guards make this play?
Through it all, Ainge has said repeatedly that re-signing Smart is his top priority in free agency. Celtics coach Brad Stevens expressed the same intentions as well, complimenting Smart’s remarkable work ethic.
“My thoughts on Marcus’ ability to work is always him running down the court flying as everybody’s supposed to be doing high knees and warming up. Marcus has been like that for the last four years in everything that he’s done. So I think it’s his infectiousness. And I think with that comes a real reliability that is consistently shown on both ends of the court and certainly his prep. But on the court, he does a lot of things that lead to winning — some that show up in a box score and many others that don’t.”
Ultimately, if Boston does hold onto Smart, that will give them 14 players for next season, assuming they guarantee the second season of Semi Ojeleye’s contract as expected. The Celtics still have the mid-level exception to target additional help. However, one complicating factor that could convince the Celtics to leave the MLE in their back pocket is the luxury tax, which punishes teams for having too much salary (Boston currently sits $8.6 million below the tax line).
Another factor is simply the lack of opportunity in Boston. By re-signing Smart, they will have a bench with him, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes — five established players — plus prospects like Williams, Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele behind them. Does Stevens all give them equal playing time?
There’s no doubt that Smart has a feel for what he is worth on the market. But if a case like the one mentioned above surfaces, the question becomes, however, does he have a feel for what he is worth to the Celtics?
Pieces are falling into place in Boston that could mean brighter days for many years to come. After all, look how close the Celtics came this year – losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Finals – with the bad luck of injuries, but the good fortune of having players in place that responded to that luck with learning on the fly.
Dollars will be important soon. Ainge and Grousbeck are not sentimental people, so there is no Brinks truck coming for Smart. There is a limit, however, and is Smart astute enough to accept that limit? Or is he willing to move on to perhaps a dead end team for a few dollars more? In the end, that might be the biggest obstacle for both parties to deal with.