The Celtics have a void at starting point guard with the departure of Kemba Walker. The obvious question: Is Marcus Smart capable of filling -- and thriving in -- that role?
While Smart is better known for his rugged defense and dodgy shot selection, he is a criminally underrated passer. One could argue that the best version of Smart is the one who embraces being a pass-first playmaker and excels at creating for his teammates.
The Celtics, however, have never been in position to consistently put those point guard reins in Smart’s hands. For much of his time in Boston, the Celtics have had an All-Star as primary ball-handler, from Isaiah Thomas to Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker. They’ve often had a ball-dominant backup like Terry Rozier, too.
Smart has never logged more than 27 percent of his total minutes at the point guard spot, according to position data by Cleaning the Glass. That happened last year when he was routinely asked to fill in whenever Walker was managing his balky knee.
The numbers weren’t great for Smart at point guard last season as he posted a net rating of just plus-0.4 in 424 minutes, per CTG data. But it might be hasty to make any firm judgments based on that sample because 1) The Celtics were often a mess due to injuries and illness which muddied everyone’s data and 2) Smart, by his own admission, had a down year on both ends and said some personal issues away from the court complicated matters.
In every other season of Smart’s career, he’s excelled in limited reps at the point guard spot. During the 2019-20 season, he logged 23 percent of his minutes there and had a plus-9.9 net rating, which ranked in the 93rd percentile among all combo guards. The year before that his net rating was up at plus-10.6, albeit while logging a mere 8 percent of his minutes at point guard on the 2018-19 team.
Still, there's essentially a six-year sample of Smart being good to very good at point guard with last season seemingly an outlier.
It made us wonder how Smart has performed when paired with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in recent seasons. The next point guard needs to be able to maximize their talents and consistently create shots for Boston’s All-Star duo. So we examined Boston’s net rating when Smart was on the court with the Jays, versus without. The results:
A bit of a mixed bag but essentially the Jays have been far better without Smart on the court the past three seasons. One caveat here: Boston’s assist percentage is decidedly higher any time Smart was on the court with Brown and Tatum versus without over the past four seasons. Even last year, Boston’s assist percentage was at 61.4 in the 673 minutes with Smart sharing the floor with the Jays then plummeted to a ghastly 53.6 in the 590 minutes when Brown and Tatum played without him.
We can zoom in on all lineups that featured Smart at point guard with Tatum and Brown on the floor using CTG data. Last season, those pairings had a plus-0.4 net rating, ranking in the 55th percentile among all lineups. But rewind a year and that number spikes to plus-9.5, which ranked in the 95th percentile.
OK, the data is not helping us make a firm declaration on the viability of Smart as primary point guard. But we’ll admit that the data, outside of the 2020-21 season at least, makes us curious for a larger sample.
In particular, lineups with Smart at point guard and Jaylen Brown at shooting guard — with another big wing like Gordon Hayward alongside Tatum — with a single big have put up some really eye-catching numbers in recent seasons. We’re left yearning to see a Smart/Brown/Evan Fournier/Tatum/Robert Williams pairing. That group played only 37 total possessions together last season. In that tiny sample, Boston had a stellar plus-10.8 net rating while averaging 129.7 points per 100 possessions.
Hovering over this entire discussion is the fact that Smart is entering the final year of his contract. The Celtics must decide sooner than later if they are willing to pay his next deal — he’ll earn an economical $14.3 million this season — otherwise they need to more aggressively explore potential trade options moving forward.
Barring a can’t-pass-up trade possibility this summer, we think it’s likely the Celtics enter the season with Smart as their starting point guard and gauge the long-term feasibility with him in that role. If the Celtics rekindle some of his point-guard magic from past seasons then maybe paying his next deal becomes more palpable — particularly if he reestablishes himself as a surefire All-NBA defender. If the offense sputters with Smart in that role and if he can’t elevate his defense, then tougher decisions exist about his future.
Smart seemingly checks a lot of the boxes of what Boston needs in its point guard. It’s on him to show he can embrace that role and help extract the most out of the Tatum/Brown core.
Editor's Note: We'll spotlight different Celtics players every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Next up: the young bench players with upside.