How the heck is Marcus Smart this important?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 23: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics calls for the ball during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 23: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics calls for the ball during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 23, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

It can be difficult trying to figure out why Marcus Smart is so valuable to the Boston Celtics

When Marcus Smart went down with a lacerated hand on Jan. 23, some fans took it as a potential positive for the Boston Celtics; Smart was a frustrating player who settled for low-percentage shots and there was a belief that the team could improve with Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown handling more of the load on both ends of the floor.

The results are mixed; the Celtics are 6-5 since Smart went down, and that has included blowout losses to their two biggest rivals in the East; Toronto and Cleveland. Could Smart have made a difference in those games? What kind of value does Smart provide to the Celtics?

The Celtics did not trade Smart at the deadline despite rumors that the guard, whose contract expires at the end of the season, could be on the move. Smart provides the Celtics with some obvious value, but there was a belief that the team could benefit from some Smart-less time. What does he actually bring to the table, and could the Celtics reasonably replace that with their current roster?

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Smart’s statistics are mediocre; he is averaging 10 ppg, 3 rpg, 4 apg and has some truly ugly shooting numbers, 35 percent from the field and 29 percent from downtown. Smart’s shooting has and always will be his Achilles heel, and despite his poor numbers he is still attempting 4.5 threes per game.

For the sake of comparison, Jayson Tatum (who is shooting 43 percent from outside this year) is only attempting 3 threes a game. Smart’s reliance on shooting threes while better shooters watch him is number one on the list of complaints about him.

Interestingly enough, the advanced metrics show that Smart isn’t as big of a disaster on offense as his traditional stats suggest. His offensive rating (meaning the points per 100 possessions the Celtics score when Smart is on the floor) is 107.1, only a smidge below the 107.3 points per 100 possessions the Celtics average when Smart is not on the floor.

Despite his poor shooting, Smart is able to grade out as a passable offensive player thanks to his playmaking ability (his 4.7 assists per game are third on the team behind Kyrie Irving and Al Horford) and his willingness to be versatile on defense, guarding players from 6’ to 6’8”, freeing up the lineups he is in to find the best five-man unit on offense.

Smart’s real value for the Celtics comes at the defensive end. When Smart is on the floor the Celtics hold opponents to 101 points per 100 possessions, compared to opponents scoring 105.7 points per 100 possessions when Smart sits.

At 6’4” and 220lbs and with long arms, Smart has the speed and length to bother the quickest of point guards and the strength to battle with larger wing players. On defense Smart effortlessly slides around picks and his strength and toughness keep him from being posted up by bigger players.

During the Celtics’ last ten games without Smart, the defense has suffered. While Rozier was considered a good enough defender to cover for Smart, it was obvious that the team missed him greatly on that end of the floor. In Boston’s loss to Toronto, the Raptors starting backcourt scored a combined 38 points, in under three quarters, to turn the game into a blowout. Against Cleveland, new pick-ups Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson blitzed Boston for 32 points.

Weak performances such as those have shifted fan opinion on Smart a bit. While fans may have been interested in seeing the Celtics play without Smart, the results have been ugly enough that they can’t wait to get him back.

During a six point loss to Indiana on Feb. 9, the Celtics were crushed by Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who scored 35 points, 18 of which came in the second half. One would think that having their best perimeter defender would have increased the Celtics’ odds of winning and swing that game.

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Smart can be a nuisance, and his poor shot selection and brick-laying from deep can make even the most ardent Celtics supporter roll their eyes. However, Boston also relies a lot on Smart’s defensive ability and his playmaking ability on offense. The team is built on their league-best defense, and Smart is arguably their best defender and certainly is their best option against the high scoring guards of the Eastern Conference. If the Celtics want to compete in May and June, Smart is going to have to play a big role.