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Marcus Smart pushes back against critics, rightly cites integral role in leading Celtics to NBA Finals

Marcus Smart just won NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the first guard to do so since Gary Payton in 1996, and was an integral part of the Boston Celtics finishing two wins shy of an NBA championship, and still he hears the chatter, unending as it is, that the Celtics need to upgrade their point guard situation, outfit Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with a true third star, as though Smart’s value to the Celtics is higher as a trade chip than on the court. 

Of course, nobody is saying this officially. It’s mostly just people talking, though to be fair Smart’s name is pretty consistently at the center of trade rumors. Either way, Smart hears the criticism, and he’s right to push back after what he showed this season when he took the reins as Boston’s floor general and played at an All-Star level after the turn of the calendar, which, not coincidentally, is right about when Boston’s season completely flipped. 

From the Boston Globe:

“I think I proved a little bit of everything,” Smart said. “I hear the talks about ‘He’s not a true point guard’ and this and that. ‘They need a star point guard.’

“We’ve had star point guards, and yet this so-called non-point guard is the only one that’s led them to the Finals. I think that right there says enough. I don’t really need to say too much more. I think everybody sees and understands, finally, the person I really am, and what I can do given the opportunity.”

How are you going to argue with this? The Celtics had Isaiah Thomas, an All-Star. They traded for Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker, both All-Stars. Smart did what they couldn’t. It’s not to suggest Smart was the biggest reason Boston finally made the Finals with this core, but he certainly wasn’t the reason they fell short of the whole thing. 

Rather, Stephen Curry went in God mode. Jayson Tatum couldn’t make a thing inside the arc. Smart, meanwhile, posted 15-5-4 with 1.5 steals per game on 41-percent 3-point shooting. 

The Smart gripes are almost always the same. He turns the ball over too much. He’s a sketchy shooter with even sketchier impulses to launch ill-advised 3s at the worst times. He makes his fair share. He finished the postseason at 35 percent, and I don’t care what the numbers say, he makes a lot of big shots. 

Still, these are fair criticisms. He could rein in some of those quickdraw 3s. The Celtics have better options if they move the ball. The frustration with Smart, in some sense, is that you sometimes wonder if he understands he’s not as good as Tatum and Brown. But it feels a lot like Draymond Green in that the way he plays with the utmost confidence and freedom is what makes him the player he is, and you have to take the good with the bad — because the former almost always outweighs the latter. 

The most ardent of Smart critics will even assert that his defense is overrated. On paper, you could make that case. The Celtics were just two points better per 100 possessions defensively with Smart on the floor during the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass, and they were six points worse in the playoffs (Boston gave up 109.7 points per 100 with Smart on the floor and 103.2 with him off). 

There’s a lot of deception in those postseason numbers. It’s a relatively small sample with Smart off the court, and lineups dictate a lot of the plus-minus noise. Still, if you want to argue that Smart isn’t quite as dominant defensively as his DPOY trophy would seem to suggest, that’s fine. There’s a conversation to be had. There are a lot of great defenders. What Boston does on that side of the ball is more about the whole than any single component. 

But don’t let that fool you into thinking Smart isn’t an elite defender. He is. And he’s a pretty damn good offensive player, too. He’s a terrific passer. When he’s getting in the paint, Boston is a different offense. He gets the ball to the right players in the right spots a lot more often that he jacks up bad shots. Again, Boston’s January turnaround lines up with Smart taking on point guard duties. That is not a coincidence. 

This is a “just watch the games” situation. If you watch the Celtics play with any sort of regularity and still don’t understand just how much Smart means to the team, then you don’t know as much about basketball as you think you do. Short of including him in a deal for some megastar player, there’s almost no way the Celtics could trade Smart and end up a better team. 

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