Celtics

Celtics Exit Interviews: Marcus Smart was everything the 2018-19 Celtics weren't

Celtics Exit Interviews: Marcus Smart was everything the 2018-19 Celtics weren't

Allow Aron Baynes to explain why Marcus Smart is such a pest on the defensive end of the floor.

"He makes people uncomfortable,” said Baynes. "At the end of the day, [defenders are] trying to do what you can to make every shot tough but he wears on people. And it’s not just in that moment that he’s on the ball. It might be at the end of the game, they come down, they don’t have quite as much legs as they had at the beginning of the game. He’s worn on them the entire time. The cumulative effect of Marcus’ pressure over 48 minutes, it’s going to deteriorate anyone's offense.

“It’s great being able to have a guy like that on your team.”

Late this season, Smart had suggested that Baynes was as important to Boston’s defense as any player on the roster. This drew an audible grunt from Baynes — one of those booming All-of-Australia scoffs that left the big man ranting about why Smart is the team’s defensive conscience and why he deserved a spot on the All-Defense team.

Smart earned the long-overdue honor Wednesday when the NBA announced he was the top vote-getting guard, earning a spot on the All-Defense first team. Smart finished behind only Rudy Gobert, Paul George, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in media voting while earning 63 first-team and 19 second-team votes. 

This might not have even been the best defensive season of Smart’s career, but the reputation he’s built as one of the league’s top defensive bulldogs finally reached voters. Smart was on full display after elevating to a starting role in November and he spent the rest of the season playing alongside Kyrie Irving and hounding the opposing team’s best offensive weapon.

By March, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was publicly stumping for Smart.

"I'm sure if you took a poll of players around the league — even though they might be annoyed by him sometimes — they would all say that he is [one of the top defenders],” said Stevens. "Because he's into people, he's physical, he's tough, he's got a motor, he's got great hands. He should be on that team.”

It’s somewhat ironic that, in maybe his biggest season of offensive growth, Smart is finally being lauded for his defensive abilities.

Still, in a season in which little made sense about these Celtics, Smart was one of the few players to consistently bring a passion and desire that Boston fans so dearly yearned to see.

Smart’s shooting splits this season — 42.2 percent overall, 36.4% beyond the 3-point arc — weren’t just career highs but a jarring leap over his career numbers (36 FG%, 29.3 3PT%). On a team brimming with offensive potential, Smart sacrificed his own offensive chances and embraced being a creator, even as his teammates failed to show the same growth he did. 

Smart took great pride in emerging as a two-way threat, dispelling a reputation as a player who could only impact the game on the defensive end. Smart was still a defensive menace and his steal percentage (3.1) was the best in the NBA (he was third overall in total swipes). 

Smart ranked eighth among all point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus and that felt criminally low (though he lingered in the same neighborhood as fellow All-Defense guards Patrick Beverly and Jrue Holiday).

Smart played a career-high 80 games only to suffer an oblique injury in the penultimate game of the regular season and missed seven of Boston’s nine playoff tilts. His return wasn’t enough to get the team on track as the Bucks raced away in the Eastern Conference semis.

Alas, you’d be nitpicking to point out ways Smart could have been better this season. He embodied everything that Celtics fans wanted from the rest of the roster — a player that yearned only to win and made the sacrifices necessary in hopes of bringing out the best in his teammates.

It’s why, after Wednesday’s All-Defense announcement, Smart took to Twitter to express appreciation for the honor but also noted, “I want a banner though,” and added, “Offseason is a myth. Let’s get it.”

Stevens isn’t big on captains — believing that players throughout the roster should feel empowered — but, man, Smart continues to make a compelling case for the honor with the way he carries himself on and off the court. Even in simply going to bat for Irving after the season, Smart continually showed the markings of a true leader.

Mind you, all this came a season after he inked a four-year, $52 million extension. While most players throttle down after getting their first big deal, Smart ramped up. And he was playing in the emotional aftermath of losing his mother to cancer last summer.

Smart might just be moving towards untouchable status because of what he brings to the Celtics. That’s particularly notable as we enter a summer in which Boston might need to use Smart’s contract in order to make money match in the pursuit of Anthony Davis.

That’s a bullet the Celtics almost certainly don’t want to bite and will explore all other avenues to avoid such an occurrence on the chance that a Davis deal could become a reality. It won’t be easy, but Smart is worth the headaches of exploring the three-team, sign-and-trade options or other front-office witchcraft that might be necessary to avoid putting him in a package.

But that sorta underscores the Marcus Smart experience. Here’s a player that’s been routinely criticized throughout his career and Celtics fans might legitimately riot if he was moved for one of the best players on the planet.

Smart’s intangibles are just that valuable. And, if the All-Defense honor is any indication, the rest of the league might just be catching on to just how important Smart is here.

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Celtics hire Joe Mazzulla as an assistant coach

Celtics hire Joe Mazzulla as an assistant coach

With long-time assistant Micah Shrewsberry headed to Purdue University to be their head coach, the Celtics hired Joe Mazzulla as an assistant, according to Adrian Wojnarowski.

Mazzulla played for West Virginia University from 2006-2011 and left an assistant coaching job at Fairmont State to become an assistant coach for the Maine Red Claws in 2016. He reportedly impressed the Celtics coaching staff enough to earn a spot on the staff.

He returned to Fairmont State two years ago to become their Head Coach, but will now enter the NBA coaching ring as a 30-year-old.

The Celtics' coaching staff will most likely have a different task in front of them than last year. With Kyrie Irving and Al Horford likely headed elsewhere this summer, Boston will enter the 2019-20 season as a young underdog team with a fraction of the expectations the team faced last year.

Still, with the amount of youth that will be featured on the court, having a younger coach on the staff could go a long way in rebuilding a healthy locker room. 

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Five reasons that the Celtics should feel good about their future

Five reasons that the Celtics should feel good about their future

BOSTON -- Kyrie Irving is all but a goner with Al Horford reportedly not too far behind. Aron Baynes was traded to the Phoenix Suns on draft night, leaving major holes in the roster.

Most teams are overly optimistic this time of year, and the Celtics are indeed no exception.

But their feel-good vibes fly in the face of an uncertain reality in both the short and long-term.

Being hopeful, that's one thing.

But the optimism by the Celtics now?

What's up with that?

Here are five factors that are contributing to Boston’s sunnier-than-expected outlook heading into this season filled with way more questions than answers.

FREE AGENTS WARMING UP TO BOSTON

For years, the Celtics, among free agents, were about as popular as a vacation to Siberia.

But the narrative that Boston was not the place to go as a free agent, began to shift in the summer of 2016 when the Celtics landed a meeting with then-free agent Kevin Durant and were able to nail down a four-year deal with Al Horford.

And they followed that up the following summer by landing Gordon Hayward who was coming off his first all-star selection, with the Utah Jazz.

Boston will be hard-pressed to land a similar high-impact player like they did in 2016 or 2017, but they are at least at a point where it won’t be a total shock for a high-profile, difference-making player to at least grant the Celtics an audience to make their pitch.

By no means does that guarantee they will land one of the top-tier free agents, but the success in recent years has paved the way so that Boston is no longer seen as a basketball Siberia to free agents.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

With the expected departures and the trading away of Aron Baynes, 29-year-old Gordon Hayward is now the old man of the roster. But the Celtics charging ahead with youth leading the way, is a little different than most youth movements.

When teams typically go young, they do so with players still trying to figure out how to win as a collective unit while still maintaining their own growth curve.

Boston seems to be somewhere in the middle with a number of players having three years or less experience, but part of that experience was advancing to the Eastern Conference finals without arguably their two best players - Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

This team that Boston will trot out this season will likely resemble that 2018 squad with a number of players still growing as individual players with a greater opportunity now to expand upon their past success because there’s no clear-cut, No. 1 player now.

Success now has to be more about the team than any individual, something that seemingly worked well for this team in 2018.

Can they do it again?

SALARY CAP SPACE

There’s the potential for Boston to clear more than $30 million in salary cap space which would allow them to pursue a top-tier player.

Adding a player of that caliber to join a roster full of young veterans, could potentially be the quickest path for Boston to return back to being an elite team in the NBA.

Among the many names you’ll hear in the coming days is Charlotte’s Kemba Walker.

The former UConn star is eligible for a super max contract worth more than $200 million, but it’s doubtful that Hornets owner Michael Jordan will invest that kind of money in Walker. That could open the door for one of the more below-the-radar superstar free agents to be scooped up by another team; a team like the Celtics who have a void at the point with Irving likely to sign elsewhere.

Boston also has a huge hole to fill in the frontcourt, with a number of potential replacements available either through free agency or via trade.

On the free agency front, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic is a player on the Celtics’ radar. Boston also has some interest in Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams who is reportedly available to be traded for.

While the Celtics loved what Baynes stood for prior to trading him, moving him along increased the amount of cap flexibility the Celtics have and because of that, they now have at least one more option at their disposal as they begin the process of rebuilding the team into a title contender.

If Boston wants to swing a trade, don't be surprised to hear names like Oklahoma City's Steven Adams or Los Angeles Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari.

UNDERDOG ROLE

Because of the anticipated roster defections, the Celtics won’t be favored to come out of the East by anyone.

In fact, they will be hard-pressed to be perceived by anything other than a playoff contender which is a significant drop-off from where we were a year ago when Boston seemed poised to be a title contender for many years to come.

But as we’ve seen with head coach Brad Stevens and his teams in Boston, the Celtics have seemingly been at their best when others were deemed better teams, teams closer to winning a championship.

There’s little doubt this team will play with an edge; the kind of edge we did not see often enough from them.

And it is that edge that will propel them to winning more games than most will anticipate.

This past season was Brad Stevens’ first as head coach in which the team took a clear and undeniable step backward.

But with the bar set a little bit lower for the 2019-2020 season, it makes achieving success relative to expectations, much easier to come by as Boston will relish in the role of underdog.

GORDON HAYWARD

Arguably the biggest X-factor to what happens this season with the Celtics, lies in how well or woeful Gordon Hayward plays.

He was a human escalator last season, having stretches where he just kept raising and raising his game to great heights, only to hit a downward spiral that seemingly had no end in sight and came at the worst time (second round of the playoffs versus Milwaukee, for example).

But that was his first year back after a gruesome left ankle injury, an injury that the Celtics did all they could to ensure would not be an issue last season and by and large, it wasn't.

For the most part, Hayward’s ankle held up well to the pounding he put on it this past season, and he has attacked his offseason conditioning with renewed vigor.

“Gordon has been in every day working out and putting a lot of time in,” Ainge said. “And he looks good.”

But will we say the same about the Celtics this season.

Stay tuned ...

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