I love Marcus Smart, but I have a friend who loves Marcus Smart. He didn’t really follow the Boston Celtics closely until a few years ago, but really got into it during last years run to the NBA Finals. And there was a persistent refrain from him every time we sat down to watch a game: “give the ball to Marcus.”
It drove me nuts, because I kept trying to explain to him that we had several more effective options on offense, including but not limited to one of the five best players in the league. But it didn’t matter to him. When we beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, he bought a Smart jersey, continuing to demand that he get the ball.
I continued to remind him that it was Tatum, not Marcus, that should be taking the big shots, but my logic fell on deaf ears. Smart has never been a particularly efficient offensive player, but he made up for it with game-breaking hustle and defensive prowess. But Smart struggled defensively this year, which made his trump card just a regular old card.
When the Celtics were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals for what felt like the billionth time in my life, I told my friend to mentally prepare for Marcus to be traded. I didn’t know if it would happen, but I knew it was very likely one of the three guards would be dealt. I can’t even describe how many forms of the word “No” he responded with.
But I was also talking to myself, trying to channel Roman Roy and “pre-grieve” the loss of the most beloved Boston Celtics of my generation. I even mentioned the possibility to my sister yesterday, but then Malcolm Brogdon was traded, and I wrote this:
“If I’m being 110% honest, Smart was not immune from my cerebral trade speculation either. He tended to take the ball out of Tatum’s hands in key moments, and it drove me nuts. But he had flashes of awesomeness that made me hesitate, and all signals point to him being essential for team culture. All that made him quasi-untouchable.”
But at about 10 p.m., it became evident that the Brogdon-Porzingis trade had collapsed, and that the sides were moving on. However, minutes later, ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Wizards and Celtics were still working on how to get Porzingis to Boston. But he would have to opt-in to his player option by midnight, so we were on the clock.
If people think sports aren’t awesome, just know that an entire fan base held its breath for two hours, furiously refreshing Twitter as if our lives depended on it, wondering if the Latvian Unicorn would somehow find his way to the Boston Celtics. What followed was total carnage.
At 11:50 p.m., Woj unleashed a 13-minute barrage of Tweets that will haunt my nightmares for at least the next few seasons. The first tweet was a full-sized photo of Porzingis, declaring that he would indeed be traded to the Celtics. Hooray! We can all go to sleep now, and I had a few friends that did.
Then the second tweet dropped four minutes later, saying that somehow, Tyus Jones had been traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Wizards. I thought it was weird because replacing Jones with Brogdon didn’t really fit the Grizzlies’ timeline. But at 11:59 pm, it made sense. Smart had been traded to Memphis.
To say that I didn’t see that coming is the world’s most complicated understatement. I saw it coming until yesterday afternoon but then filed it away in my mental basement of trades-that-did-not-happen-but-I-thought-might-happen. I dropped every layer of emotional preparation and lowered the relevant defenses.
And then I got punched in the mouth.
I was shocked, dumbfounded, utterly destroyed, positively confused, and completely in denial of the idea that Smart was somehow worth Porzingis straight up. Had Brad Stevens betrayed us? What would my friend think? I’m outraged, I’m appalled, I’m…
(Fourth Tweet appears) Two first-round picks? We got two first-round picks and Porzingis for Smart? Does that make it worth it?
(Sits and thinks for about ten minutes)
Was this a good idea?
(Sleeps on it)
(voice quiets to a whisper, checks around the corner for spies, braces to receive divine punishment)
…I think it was.
Marcus Smart in a uniform other than a Boston Celtics uniform will take getting used to
I couldn’t do the emotion of this moment justice without devoting an inordinate number of words to just how apocalyptic it felt when I found out that Smart would be donning a different jersey next season. He had been the beating heart of the team since he arrived in 2014, and my saying that he was essential to team culture was not just playing the results. It didn’t feel like a basketball transaction, it felt like a spiritual moment.
Smart was the constant that connected almost a decade of distinct Boston Celtics teams. He was drafted in 2014 by a team that just finished losing 57 games, with Jeff Green captaining the ship. He had a front-row seat to Isaiah Thomas’ rise and fall, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker’s respective tenures as resident superstars, as well as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s ascension from the future stars to the core of a perennial contender.
That colossal oversimplification of nine years of Celtics history also happens to be much of my life as a real fan. I was 11 years old when Smart was drafted, and so that history coincides with the first era I really participated in. Last night felt like the end of it, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
It’s devastating, but something can be sad and good at the same time. After sleeping on the emotion of the trade, I forced myself to remember that there were reasons I was prepared for the Boston Celtics to trade Smart. It all has to do with goals, which can be different for different fans.
So I’ll tell you about mine: win a championship. Everything else is secondary, including individual loyalty. Clearly, that’s not necessarily shared by everyone, since I’ve seen the line “If the Celtics can’t win it all with Marcus I’m not sure I want to win at all” circulate in Cs circles since last night’s bonanza.
I truly believe Smart can be a championship player, but when trying to build a roster that can actually win one, we’re eventually going to have to talk about his value as a contributor versus as an asset.
Last year’s Celtics team had boatloads of talent and shooting but lacked two things: size and roster flexibility. Most of their best players were ball-handling forwards and guards, so Al Horford and Robert Williams III were leaned on too heavily. Porzingis should do wonders to solve those issues, while the bevy of ball handlers should be able to pick up what was lost with Smart.
Moreover, everyone on the team was a proven player and was thus paid like one. That works for short-term plans, but with a new CBA and scary luxury tax system looming, it didn’t look sustainable. Enter the two first-round picks from the Grizzlies, and suddenly Brad Stevens has more chips to play with and less long-term money to account for.
Despite sounding like a Latvian rock band from the late nineties, Porzingis and the picks are more than I would ever have thought Smart would fetch on the open market. From a basketball perspective, it’s a slam dunk.
But I’d be cheating if I didn’t address the main counterpoint to all the basketball benefits: trading Smart will devastate team culture.
I disagree. Hear me out.
Trading Smart will undoubtedly change the vibes around here, but I’d ask a follow-up question: have those vibes won a championship? The pessimistic view of that same history since Smart’s drafting is not one of many distinct and exciting Boston Celtics teams, but rather almost a decade of failure to close the deal.
I watch a ton of Celtics games, and this year I saw two things that had me thinking this current team may have outgrown his leadership. The first was his tendency to take a ton of big shots and waive off Tatum and Brown in key moments, which is hardly new to Celtics fans during the Smart era.
He’s an alpha dog, and nothing will ever change that. Last year, I felt like Smart finally accepted that he needed to defer to the two stars, and he had the best season of his career because of it. But this year I saw him take a step backward, always finding the ball when it should probably have been elsewhere.
And I saw — over and over again, might I add — that Tatum would let him do it. Smart was such a dominant force for the team that Tatum probably had a hard time asserting control over the team when he absolutely had to.
It was usually Smart handing Tatum the keys, which tends to unlock the greatness within him. But in a playoff series, Tatum should have them from the get-go. I think Smart’s departure will force him to assert himself as the true alpha, and I wonder if that was the missing piece.
The second issue was how Smart would plop down in the coach’s chair during timeouts and begin telling the team what they needed to do. You could say that’s leadership, but how do you think that made Joe Mazzulla feel? Teams, where players are more powerful than the head coach, fail 99% of the time, so I wonder if Stevens was removing a barrier to Mazzulla’s development, which is essential to playoff success.
It’s ironic that much of the dialogue after elimination surrounds potentially trading Brown. I didn’t hear many conversations about, nor did I even really consider myself, the potentially positive cultural effect of a Smart trade. That sounds crazy, but I believe it’s true.
Smart is an icon. He was a paladin of Bostonian energy for nine straight years, and I will continue to root for him wherever he may be. He embodied every Boston Celtics team I can really remember, and was truly one of my favorite people in the world to cheer on. I hope he finds his way back into a Celtics jersey someday, but even if he doesn’t, I’ll remember him as such.
He was the Boston Celtics and the Boston Celtics were him. Maybe it’s time for that to end, but it doesn’t make it any less special.
Thanks, Marcus. One last Tommy Point for the road.