Last week, long after the free agency chaos had subsided, the Boston Celtics announced they had re-signed Marcus Smart to a four-year, $52 million contract. It seemed like a fair deal for a 24-year-old former top-10 pick coming off two very solid seasons, but there was a surprising amount of pushback to paying Smart that much money.
If you only looked at his box scores, that hesitation might make sense. Smart averaged just 10.2 points per game to go along with 4.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds last season. He shot just 36.7 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from 3-point range. If his offensive production is the totality of what you use to judge Smart as a player, then balking at his contract is understandable, but what he provides the Celtics can hardly be quantified by counting stats alone.
At just 6-foot-4, Smart is often dwarfed by larger shooting guards, but his length and sturdy frame help make up for his vertical shortcoming. He is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and playing him alongside Kyrie Irving or Terry Rozier allow them to focus on their offensive strengths while he takes care of the primary defensive assignment. Smart's effort and intangible benefits have become so well established that Boston's official press release about his contract cited his deflections and charges-taken per game.
It's the moment you've been waiting for all summer... we have officially re-signed @smart_MS3 ☘️- Boston Celtics (@celtics) July 19, 2018
🗒️: https://t.co/ELtrzal8yH pic.twitter.com/p6MZMBOutG
Across the league, every great team has a player or two like Smart. The Golden State Warriors have Andre Iguodala. The Houston Rockets have PJ Tucker. Even the dominant Cleveland Cavaliers of years past have had a big man version in Tristan Thompson.
Great teams stay that way because of players that are great at doing things that often go unseen. Smart fits that role perfectly.
Smart has also become a leader beyond his years, unifying a team built upon two pretty distinct factions. There is the younger, flashier group comprised of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Rozier and Irving (to an extent) and the older, buttoned-up side with Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and other veterans.
This isn't to say the two sides are at odds by any stretch, but that they have distinct styles of going about their business, and Smart has become a middle-ground between the two. By becoming an indispensable piece that can fit into both groups, he has - probably even subconsciously - helped grease the wheels and keep the team running smoothly.
For now, that's his role. Be that jack-of-all-trades and help Boston try to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. There was a reason, though, that he was signed for four seasons. Smart will have more important parts to play over the coming years.
Since the now infamous trade surrounding Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013, team president Danny Ainge has done a fantastic job of identifying and acquiring young talent. Boston's acquisition of several veteran All-Stars has accelerated the rebuilding process, but this team was designed to grow around its young talent. While having prospects on small rookie-scale contracts right now is ideal, their time to cash in is imminent.
|2019 Free Agents||2020 Free Agents||2021 Free Agents|
|Terry Rozier (Restricted FA)||Kyrie Irving (Unrestricted FA)||Gordon Hayward (UFA)|
|Marcus Morris (UFA)||Al Horford (UFA)||Jayson Tatum (RFA)|
|Daniel Theis (RFA)||Jaylen Brown (RFA)||Guerschon Yabusele (RFA)|
|Brad Wannamaker (RFA)||Aron Baynes (UFA)||Semi Ojeleye (UFA)|
The unfortunate side-effect of being so good at building a roster is that, eventually, you won't be able to hold onto all of that talent. Whether it's moving on from Brown, Rozier or from a current All-Star to make room for them, there will eventually be casualties of success. While the franchise goes through those transitional periods in the future, Smart will be there as a steadying force.
The good news for the Celtics is that they have time to figure out the answers to those questions. The daunting summer of 2020 is still a couple years away. Between now and then, however, the Celtics may be tempted to venture down a different path. If Boston looks to make a big trade for a young superstar, Smart's value transforms into that of a very intriguing trade chip.
Before his new deal, Boston's roster was filled with players on rookie or max deals - perfect for building a team, but difficult to complete a big trade. Having a player in that mid-range - especially if they're worth the money - makes trading for superstars much easier. Just last week, Danny Green and his $10 million contract helped match salaries and get Kawhi Leonard to Toronto.
While deals in this range are extremely useful in trade negotiations, they have become increasingly rare over the past couple seasons. With the 2016 CBA introducing Designated Player Exceptions and increasing the value of max contracts, the league's middle class began to get squeezed. As top-end stars get more money, role players are left with less and less of the pie.
In 2016, there were 18 multi-year deals signed worth $10-15 million annually. As cap space has slowly dried up over the past couple years, fewer and fewer deals have been offered in that range. Last summer only a dozen such contracts were signed; so far this year that number has fallen to just five: Smart, Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic, Avery Bradley and Dante Exum.
Each of those players fit a specific mould: extremely talented players just a step or two away from becoming great that choose to re-sign with their playoff team. Bradley is the most established of the five, Exum the least and Smart is right in the middle, but all five have the talent to justify spending around 15 percent of your cap on them each season. Over time, as contracts this size become even rarer, the value of having a tradeable player in this range will only increase.
While trade questions may arise down the road, the Celtics must focus on the present. Building off last year's success and adding a healthy Irving and Hayward to the fold, Boston has a great chance at reaching the NBA Finals this season.
Whether or not the Celtics will capitalize on their potential and come out of the Eastern Conference remains to be seen, but Smart gets the team one step closer.