It wouldn’t be trade season if Marcus Smart’s name didn’t dance in rumors.
It’s become an annual tradition, if only because Smart has one of the only mid-tier salaries on a payroll that’s routinely been heavy on max deals and rookie contracts, with little in between.
Just rewind to February 2018 when rumors first swirled about Smart while he was sidelined in the aftermath of a picture frame punching incident in Los Angeles. Whispers bubbled again in recent years about whether the Celtics should ponder a Smart-for-Clint Capela swap. Now, there’s chatter about whether the Celtics would be willing to include Smart in a trade for Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier.
We find it difficult to envision the Celtics without Smart. He’s been here for nearly the duration of Brad Stevens’ time at the helm and quickly evolved into a vocal leader, even when the team had more veteran presences like Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, and Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are now one of the younger teams in the league and Smart’s voice carries even more heft.
More importantly, he is the poster child for what Celtics teams are supposed to look like. Smart is the heartbeat of the team, the guy who leads by example with every reckless dive on the floor in hopes of corralling a loose ball.
Yes, the Celtics currently have veteran guys like Kemba Walker and Tristan Thompson, and All-Stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have voices in the room as well. But who is the guy who routinely has been willing to launch a chair when the defense isn’t playing to its capabilities?
We don’t get the sense the Celtics are in a hurry to move Smart. We heard whispers that part of the Sacramento Kings’ sky-high asking price for Harrison Barnes in early discussions with the Celtics included a desire for Smart to be included, which Boston balked at. So consider us particularly skeptical that Boston would be in any rush to put Smart in a deal for a potential free-agent-to-be like Fournier.
All that said, the Celtics have no shortage of tough decisions ahead in terms of roster construction -- both at the trade deadline and beyond -- and Smart’s future is chief among them.
Essentially, the question for Boston’s front office is this: Is the team willing and able to pay Smart his next contract? The going rate for a starting guard with All-Defense capabilities is not going to be cheap and the bloat at the top of Boston’s cap sheet is going to force the team to make tough decisions.
If the Celtics simply do not envision a way to retain Smart long-term and the championship potential of this season is murky at best given the team’s struggles in this weird pandemic season, then the team has to at least assess Smart’s value on the trade market.
We’d say it’s more likely that any decision to move on from Smart would come this summer or at next year’s trade deadline. But certainly it’s something the Celtics have to ponder now if the right deal were to materialize.
With Tatum’s maximum-salary extension set to kick in next season, and potentially further escalated if he earns an All-NBA berth this year, the Celtics are steamrolling toward a high luxury tax bill, and that’s before any potential moves to acquire high-priced talent with the $28.5 million Gordon Hayward trade exception.
If the Celtics were to move on from Walker this summer, that could ease some of the salary squeeze and maybe create a path to retaining Smart at a modest increase over his current salary. But the bottom line is that every move the Celtics make moving forward has a domino effect. And the team essentially has to determine who is definitively part of their core and which types of players they yearn to add around Tatum and Brown.
If the goal is to eventually clear maximum cap space to pursue a big-ticket addition and a new Big Three, then Walker and Smart might not be part of the long-term vision. The Celtics also could pursue talent via the trade market but that would require restocking their draft pick treasure chest and Walker, as he works his way back from his knee woes, is a negative asset right now in any trade dealings.
Smart’s modest contract ($13.4 million this season), his defensive talents, and his culture-setting leadership make him an attractive option to many young teams around the league. Lament his shot selection, but Smart is the sort of intangible player found on most every championship roster.
The question for Boston’s front office, as they shovel more and more responsibility on the plate of Tatum and Brown, is whether they could survive without Smart’s presence moving forward. Since his return this month, Smart alone hasn’t been able to rescue Boston’s defense and the Celtics remain 22nd in defensive rating.
Smart’s crunch-time play this year has been an eyesore as well. He's shooting 6-for-20 and has made only one of his eight 3-point attempts in the clutch, while the Celtics are a minus-22 in Smart’s 57 minutes of crunch-time play this season.
For all those who would just as quickly pack Smart’s bags because of his sometimes maddening offensive approach, we’d caution that Boston’s championship potential takes a severe hit without his presence. In the quest for more top-end talent, he might eventually be a casualty of resources.
It’s just one of the tough decisions the Celtics have to make while trying to position this team to be the sort of surefire contender that they’ve failed to become at this point in the 2020-21 season.