Marcus Smart is a hard player to figure out
Marcus Smart is a valuable NBA player. This cannot be disputed. The Boston Celtics guard is a royal pain in the rear end of opponents and always seems to find himself around the ball at the end of tight games, which is why he’s become known for his “winning plays.” He’s also shown growth as a playmaker by going from about four assists per 36 minutes over his first two regular seasons to 5.5 this regular season and 5.8 in the playoffs.
But Smart has pronounced flaws, and the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers has given us a snapshot of the difficulty in determining out just how valuable the 23-year-old is. It’s basically been a continuation of his entire career; the guy is hard to figure out.
Smart’s first two games of the series were mostly nondescript. He scored 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting (0-for-4 from 3) in 46 minutes while recording 10 assists, eight rebounds, three steals, two blocks and 10 fouls. Poor shooting while stuffing the stat sheet is what many come to expect from Smart. That plus flopping and/or getting chippy with opponents, which is what happened in Game 1 against Tristan Thompson:
Then, as the starter in place of the injured Isaiah Thomas, Smart was one of the heroes of Game 3 with a career-high 27 points to go along with seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block in 41 minutes.
The most shocking part of the whole performance? His 7-for-10 shooting from 3-point range, including 5-for-6 from deep in the second half.
It was so stunning because Smart is one of the worst high-volume 3-point shooters of all time. His 25.3 percent mark from 3 last season is the worst ever among players with at least four attempts per game, per Basketball-Reference.com. This year’s 28.3 percent mark comes in seventh on that list.
Now, Smart did improve his shooting from the corners this season. In fact, he made 31 of 76 corner triples in the regular season, good for over 40 percent, per NBA.com. But he was a putrid 25.5 percent from above the break on 247 attempts, and he was typically awful when taking 3s off the dribble.
You sure wouldn’t have known it from watching Game 3. Smart started Boston’s comeback by drilling a pull-up trey. He then knocked down a 25-footer in transition and this absurd fadeaway from the corner:
He looked more like Kyrie Irving than Marcus Smart on his final two 3s:
Smart has had excellent 3-point shooting games before and was actually shooting a respectable 35.8 percent in the postseason before Game 3, but this kind of performance on those kinds of shots was completely out of nowhere.
While the Cavaliers weren’t happy with blowing that 21-point lead, they’ll live with those shot attempts 100 times out of 100. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to a guy on a hot night and not let it bother you too much moving forward when there’s a much larger sample size telling you that the hot night was a fluke:
Sure enough, Smart shot 1-for-5 from 3 and 1-for-9 overall in Tuesday’s Game 4 loss. He did have six assists and got to the line five times, but the Celtics can’t afford Smart to be putting up those kinds of duds without Thomas.
Unfortunately, Smart is far too prone to them. In addition to his typically broken 3-point jumper, Smart struggles when it comes to scoring inside the arc. He’s never shot above 43 percent on 2-pointers in his career, and he’s at a comically bad 30.5 percent in these playoffs (3-for-15 in the ECF):
He struggles to finish around the rim (about 48 percent the last two regular seasons) and isn’t effective from mid-range. When it comes to scoring the basketball, Smart is simply not good at it outside of the occasional times he goes in the post.
But, again, Smart provides value as a distributor and is a dogged defender. He’s a terrific competitor. He’s the guy you love on your team and hate to go up against. He fits in well on this Celtics roster and is beloved by the organization for the positives he brings to the table.
There are serious questions about the future, though.
Smart is eligible for a contract extension this summer, and there have been suggestions that his next deal could be worth $20 million annually. That seems like a hefty amount given his offensive shortcomings.
The situation becomes even more complicated considering the roster outlook. If the №1 pick is kept and there’s no blockbuster trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, Boston is poised to add Markelle Fultz to an already crowded group of guards/wings that includes Smart, Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. Star wing Gordon Hayward is expected to be a target in free agency.
The Celtics may not want to commit big money to Smart when there’s that logjam to figure out. Smart (RFA), Thomas (UFA) and Bradley (UFA) are all set to become free agents in 2018, so Boston could delay the decision until next summer.
There’s also the chance of a trade to help make room for Hayward if he commits. The Celtics could find themselves in a position where they have to choose between Smart and Bradley. Bradley is the better player right now and may always be better, but he’s three years older and costs twice as much next season. And he may cost more long-term when he gets his new deal in 2018.
The Celtics are in an envious position given their roster and other assets, but that doesn’t make some of these upcoming decisions any less difficult. Figuring out what to do with Marcus Smart is one of those tough decisions that’ll have to be made over the next few years as Boston looks to both contend and build for the future.