Forsberg: It's decision time for the Celtics and Marcus Smart


On the day he became trade eligible, Marcus Smart offered a quiet but firm reminder of just how impactful he can be for the Boston Celtics.

Smart didn’t score any of Boston’s 128 points on Tuesday night, but his fingerprints were all over the team’s early domination of a 53-point triumph over the Sacramento Kings. Smart took only three shots Tuesday, put his focus on defense and cranking the pace, and keyed Boston’s first-quarter explosion with some nifty playmaking.

He finished plus-36 in plus/minus for the second straight game since returning from health and safety protocols and is now plus-177 for the season, the second best mark on the Celtics behind only Jayson Tatum (plus-212).

And yet Smart remains the most polarizing player on the Celtics' roster and surely the most intriguing player in advance of February’s trade deadline. After inking a four-year contract extension this summer Smart is now able to be moved, and his name will swirl maybe more than any other Boston player over the next two weeks.

The reality is that, barring the unforeseen, the Celtics are not trading Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Robert Williams next month. While any and all moves must be considered given the team’s failure to meet lofty expectations, Celtics brass has been steadfast at even the lowest points that the most prudent path forward is finding the right pieces that complement the pillars of this team.

The unanswered question: Is Smart part of that core and is he the long-term answer as the team’s starting point guard?

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Working in his favor: The Celtics’ four-man lineup featuring Tatum, Brown, Williams, and Smart has a net rating of plus-15.3 in 363 minutes together over 20 appearances this season. Among the 52 four-man lineups in the NBA with at least that much floor time, Boston’s quartet ranks fifth in the NBA (trailing only groups from Minnesota, Atlanta, Denver, and Utah).

The conversation around Smart might be easier if he was shooting the ball better. For the third straight season, Smart’s 3-point percentage has dipped below league average. It’s plummeted down to 30.3 percent on 4.7 attempts per game this season.

Smart’s shooting woes are not as much of an issue when the team is rolling like the last two outings. But given Boston’s desire to let Tatum and Brown facilitate the offense more, his shooting decline is surely an issue when teams force the ball out of the Jays' hands and Smart can’t make them pay.

The Celtics own an excellent plus-7.4 net rating in the 1,004 non-trash time possessions with Smart sharing the floor with the Jays, per Cleaning the Glass data. In 486 total minutes together, the Smart-Brown-Tatum trio have a meager offensive rating of 107.8, but it’s offset by an elite defensive rating of 101.1.

Among Boston’s top rotation players, only Williams (plus-16.3 in 1,020 non-trash time possessions per Cleaning the Glass) has a better overall net rating alongside the Jays on this year’s squad. For the sake of comparison, Tatum and Brown operating with Dennis Schroder has a plus-6.1 net rating in 672 possessions and while the offensive rating does tick up slightly, the defensive rating spikes nearly three points per 100 possessions, too.

Despite some struggles during the 2020-21 season, history suggests that the Smart-Tatum-Brown trio is capable of thriving. Last season showed that, even with a hindered Kemba Walker, that group was able to put up glitzy offensive numbers with the right personnel.

Al Horford’s shooting struggles, combined with Smart’s 3-point woes, certainly have hindered Boston’s offensive output, even though the preferred starting five continues to put up excellent overall numbers.

If the Celtics are convinced that they need something more than minor tweaks to the supporting cast to shake this team from its inconsistent ways, then the decision to proceed forward with Smart is more complicated.

The team’s inability to commit to developing young talent has left the Celtics thin on desirable trade assets in advance of February’s trade deadline. Their middling status gives limited value to their draft picks. All of which makes Smart the most valuable of their limited tradable assets.

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If a contender seeking a defensive upgrade is willing to send Boston a first-round pick for Smart, the team has to at least consider what might come next. If the Celtics believe their next splurge might hone in on a playmaker, then collecting a draft asset that might aid that quest might take some of the sting out of moving Smart.

While Smart has his obvious flaws, he has shown a willingness this season to taper down his shot output. Nights like Tuesday provide a glimpse of maybe the best version of Smart, though he absolutely must improve his shooting to share the floor with Tatum and Brown as much as he does.

If Boston’s calling card under Ime Udoka is going to be defense, then there’s also an obvious value in Smart being part of this core. Smart shares the NBA lead in steals per game (2.0) with Dejounte Murray and Chris Paul. He’s in the top 10 in the league in deflections.

We don’t envy Brad Stevens and the decisions he might have to make on Smart. The Celtics have done their due diligence exploring his trade value and there will likely be offers closer to the deadline that will force Stevens and his front office staff to ponder Smart’s future.

One thing to consider, especially if the Celtics are able to surge a bit here: It doesn’t feel like there’s any move involving Smart that would improve the immediate trajectory of Boston’s season.

So, unless the Celtics are willing to clear out all their veteran, non-core pieces and embrace a heavy youth infusion -- something that seems unlikely -- then it’s probably better to simply ride out the season and figure out Smart’s future and the direction of the team over the summer when decisions are less limited and rushed.

Nights like Tuesday don’t make it any easier to decide just how the Celtics should proceed with Smart.

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