Finalists for the NBA’s six performance awards were unveiled Saturday and there were no Celtics on the list.
That’s not all that surprising, but the one category that will stick in the craw of Celtics fans — and Celtics players, too, evidently — is Marcus Smart not being among the finalists for Defensive Player of the Year.
Hammering home the notion that it’s become a big man-only award, the trio that did make the DPoY cut were the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lakers’ Anthony Davis, and Jazz’s Rudy Gobert. Make no mistake, all three deserve their spots and it’s much easier to quantify their defensive impact with publicly available data. Alas, the eyeball test tends to suggest that few players make the sort of impact that Smart does on the defensive end.
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And the quarter century wait for a guard to win the award will continue, even if Smart keeps making a heck of a case for himself. It’s time the rest of the NBA take note of the way Smart impacts Boston’s defense on a nightly basis.
A global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters voted for the league awards before teams started play inside the bubble but all you need to do is rewind to Friday night for an example of what makes Smart so special on the defensive end.
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It's easy to focus on the end of this sequence — with Smart lunging on the floor for a loose ball and still having the presence of mind to push the ball forward to get teammate Brad Wanamaker a transition layup. But rewind the tape to the start of the possession and watch Smart spin his way through a Serge Ibaka screen to stymie a Fred VanVleet drive. In fact, Smart ends up shuffling another 30 feet to prevent any shot attempts then, once VanVleet has given up the ball, Smart is still in position to pounce when the rock popped free.
In Friday’s game, Smart split most of his night on VanVleet, Norman Powell, and Kyle Lowry. But he also took turns on all of Toronto’s bigs, logging nearly a handful of partial possessions against Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. None of them registered a shot attempt against Smart, telling in a situation where you might think a size mismatch would leave an opponent forcing a shot.
This is not unique for Smart. He spent nearly as much time on Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk as he did on Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn, and Duncan Robinson earlier in the week against Miami. Smart logged his most possession time against Antetokounmpo in Boston’s seeding game opener (and Khris Middleton was second most).
This, in a nutshell, is Smart’s case for why he deserves more consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s dubbed himself a stretch-6 and often notes that he offers more defensive flexibility than the bigs who simply clog up the path to the basket. Smart wonders how those bigs would fare if they routinely picked up quicker point guards, the way he often takes on the challenge of defending 5s that have as much as a foot size advantage on him.
The Celtics have the fourth best defense in the NBA, in part, because of Smart. Even without the sort of backline defensive anchor that dominates the DPOY conversation, Boston has thrived because of the defensive tone that Smart sets.
This didn’t always feel like Smart’s best defensive season overall but it was one that really hammered home his versatility, particularly with how often he defended big men this year. He should be rewarded for that, and maybe he will be if he lands another spot on the All-Defense first team.
Until then, Smart will simply keep using these sort of snubs as motivation to show he’s among the most impactful defenders in the league. All while guarding the big men that keep taking home this trophy.