It took Marcus Smart five seasons to muscle his way onto the NBA’s All-Defense squad so let’s start this movement early: Marcus Smart deserves consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
Let’s be clear here: It’s a longshot for Smart, but he certainly deserves more attention nationally for the defensive wizardry we see on a nightly basis. The question of Smart’s candidacy is a common one in the mailbag but the inquiries have increased lately, in part because of Smart’s efforts in keeping this defense afloat after the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes.
The immediate reaction is to completely dismiss the possibility of Smart truly making a run at the league’s top defensive honor. After all, it’s been 24 years since a guard won it in Seattle’s Gary Payton. You’d have to go back to Michael Jordan in 1988 to find another time a guard emerged with the honor.
The DPoY honor has become a big man’s award, almost exclusively celebrating the NBA’s best rim protectors (think Rudy Gobert or Dwight Howard) or versatile 4s (think Draymond Green or Kevin Garnett). The only real interloper has been 6-foot-7 swingman Kawhi Leonard, whose ability to smother all forms of perimeter players aided his candidacy.
The 6-foot-3 Smart, a self-proclaimed “stretch-6” and arguably the best defensive center on Boston’s roster, deserves consideration this year for the uptick in reps against players as much as a foot taller than him. No other guard is doing what Smart is, and certainly not as often or as efficiently.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has essentially tasked Smart with logging heavy reps against the opposition’s top threat, regardless of size.
Last month, Smart limited reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to 5 points on 1-of-2 shooting while forcing three turnovers in 4 ½ minutes of matchup time, per the NBA’s defensive tracking data. Last week, Smart held future MVP Luka Doncic to 4 points on 1-of-5 shooting over 7:15 of matchup time.
On Wednesday night, a dinged-up Smart will almost certainly try to talk his way into playing against the Clippers despite dealing with a sprained ankle, bruised hip, and two sprained fingers, all because he wants to be out there against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. This despite the fact that Leonard often dominated the matchup against Smart last season.
But that’s Smart in a nutshell: Always yearning for the next challenge. In that Mavericks game, he gleefully spent one possession defending Doncic, then took a turn on 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, who was 0-for-3 shooting with a turnover in a minute of matchup time against Smart.
Through 13 games, Smart’s matchups have connected on 37 of 112 shot attempts, or a mere 33 percent. That’s 11.4 percent lower than his defended players’ season averages, per the NBA’s tracking data. Maybe most notable, players are shooting 16.5 percent lower than their season average on attempts less than 10 feet from the basket against Smart.
It’s only further confirmation that he’s Boston’s best defensive center.
Smart is 20th in the NBA in defensive win share but fourth among all players 6-foot-4 and under. The Celtics’ defensive rating is 99.4 during Smart’s 410 minutes of floor time and spikes to 104.2 when he’s on the bench. The Celtics rank sixth in the NBA in defensive rating at 102.6 overall and staying in the top 10 will be particularly key to Smart’s end-of-the-season résumé.
To be sure, Smart hasn’t been perfect. Some of the NBA’s best scorers have gotten theirs against him, most notably Buddy Hield, who scored an opponent-high 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in five minutes of matchup time during Sunday’s streak-busting loss in Sacramento. Hield hit some monster late-game shots with Smart blanketing him. Washington’s Bradley Beal put up nine points on 3-of-3 shooting against Smart last week.
But Smart has been up to the challenge far more often than not. The Celtics are not 11-2 without his efforts. The disruption and chaos that he causes is unrivaled. If Smart’s body can withstand the pounding he’s taking by embracing all these matchups, he deserves consideration for DPoY. Winning is a longshot but earning a share of the votes would be a real accomplishment for a guard.
Let’s stick with the Smart theme in this week’s ‘bag:
Is it true Marcus Smart has never received the common cold? — @fongos1
Smart’s ability to play through bumps and bruises and his Wolverine-like ability to heal bigger maladies is truly remarkable. Smart needed assistance hobbling off the floor after spraining his right ankle in a non-contact injury Monday night, then boldly suggested he would have returned if the game had been closer. In a league defined lately by “load management,” Smart seems to think that’s a load of you-know-what. Smart told reporters in Phoenix: “It’s in my DNA [to play through pain]. That’s all I know … that’s just how I was raised.”
Is Jaylen Brown a serious candidate for most improved? If Gordon Hayward comes back healthy and Smart goes back to the bench, is he Sixth Man of the Year? — @PrimeTimeJKline
Victor Oladipo won the Most Improved honor two seasons ago after ascending to All-Star status in his first season in Indiana, his scoring average jumping 7 points that season. Pascal Siakam won it a year ago with a scoring leap of 9 points — and what’s crazy is he’s on pace to do the same this year, which might just earn him the honor a second time, especially with an All-Star nod likely coming. Brown will be in the conversation — and deserves it for his obvious progress in ball-handling, playmaking, and finishing — but the competition will be strong.
As for Smart, you can certainly make the case that, between his defense, his improved offensive efficiency, and his leadership, he is one of the most impactful backups in the league. Alas, the Sixth Man award typically skews towards a scorer.
Does this team's bench have championship-level potential? — @henrymeader
It’s hard to say for certain, if only because we have yet to see this team at full health for longer than a few plays. But let’s also remember that, come playoff time, you probably only need to lean on an 8- or 9-man rotation. With Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Hayward, Brown, and Smart, Boston has the necessary perimeter talent. The question, of course, is whether the Celtics have the right bigs for a playoff path that almost certainly will include Antetokounmpo and the Bucks and Joel Embiid and the Sixers. For now, Stevens is seemingly assessing what he’s got with this bench before locking into the guys he can trust most. Trades will be tricky for Boston, so the buyout market might be their best hope for an in-season upgrade.
When do you think we will see Romeo Langford? — @mattgleek
Things change quickly in the NBA, but I think fans just have to condition themselves to the possibility of this being a redshirt-type year for Langford. Or maybe a Red Claws shirt year is more appropriate. The 14th overall pick tweaked his ankle in Maine on Friday night, the latest injury setback for a player who missed time at summer league (thumb surgery rehab), training camp (groin), preseason (knee sprain), and now the regular season. Maine will be important in getting reps and building confidence but we’ll continue to point to Avery Bradley as the poster child of someone who was able to work in the shadows of the G-League before really bursting onto the scene.
Let's say this awesome start is a small sample size and some things will revert to the mean. Where can we expect to see some regression (Smart's 3-point percentage? Defense rating? Turnover rate?) — @RMotti
Turnover rate is already coming back to Earth with 46 turnovers in three games to start this road trip, and we’ve seen how not valuing the basketball can really complicate matters for this team. We jinxed Smart directly into an offensive funk by telling everyone to stop acting so surprised by his 3-point percentage but he’s going to get so many open looks in this offense that I’m not concerned about short-term fluctuations. To me, success comes down to defense with this team. On nights like Monday in Phoenix, when this team is fully engaged and flying around, they’re going to be tough to beat. The question is whether they can bring that effort consistently or if they’ll have nights like in Sacramento where that focus wanes. Staying top 6 is probably pie in the sky but a top-12 defense makes this team a legitimate contender.
Who do you think would start in Smart’s place? Grant Williams, or someone else? @fahi84 via IG
Without Hayward and Smart, Boston’s wing depth would be alarmingly thinned, especially against a team like the Clippers. I think you’d see Stevens trot out all the wing options — Grant Williams, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye. Who starts if Smart can’t go? Ojeleye has the most experience and might get first crack and Stevens could evaluate best matchup options on the fly.
Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Clippers, which tips off Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.