Marcus Smart is the first point guard to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in years. There are good reasons why this usually doesn’t happen, but the 28-year-old is still a special case. And what’s even more important for the Boston Celtics is that now he’s also found his offensive role.
Marcus Smart himself didn’t really believe it would work for him with the Defensive Player of the Year award. Or was it just his way of lobbying? If yes, it would have worked anyway what he wrote on twitter on March 9:
“Somewhere in the fine print of this award, Rule 47.1A reads: ‘No NBA guard without the initials GP may win the DPOY.’ That’s exactly what happened – Smart is the first point guard since 1996 to be named the league’s best defensive player. Conveniently, the last winner, “GP” Gary Payton he cited, gave him the award for it.
Smart’s gain has been evident in recent days, after all, many of the journalists with voting rights announce their choices in advance, and it’s still a surprise. As a result, many are already against it, from fourth-placed Bam Adebayo to pundits like Nate Duncan, who described the whole thing as a “PR award”.
Perhaps the Celtics’ rather noisy campaign over the past few weeks really played a role. In a way, however, the choice just reflects how complicated it is to understand the issue of defense, especially when it comes to individual players.
Marcus Smart: Only one person never defends
Defense is not done in a vacuum, even if one on one is important. Big players are usually more important to the team’s defense, or their defensive impact is easier to prove. Players like Rudy Gobert, for example, are “challenged” much more often and it can be argued, for example, that players around them end up much worse than when a big normal is around (or that the jazz defense not absolutely competitive when Gobert doesn’t play along).
These metrics aren’t perfect, but with players on the edge it’s even more complicated because a lot of what they do doesn’t even show up on the scoreboard. To put in the words of Daniel Theis: “[Smart] won’t have 15 rebounds and 6 blocks like Rudy Gobert, but that doesn’t make him a worse defender.”
Smart was DPOY essentially because he’s the best defender in the league’s best defense, but even here it’s debatable whether Robert Williams, Jayson Tatum or Al Horford don’t have a similar impact. As I said, team defense; a good defensive team never depends only on a good quarterback (someone would have to tell the Jazz that…).
DPOY: It’s been a weird year
It also helped that it was a strange year with no clear numbers. Draymond Green was on his way but missed half the season. Adebayo lost 26 games. The teams of Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo were not very good defensively. Mikal Bridges, who finished second, is somewhat similar, but arguably a little more subtly brighter than Smart.
Because this shouldn’t be overlooked: Smart is a brilliant centre-back, both individually and as a team. He’s not your average guard either – he makes the calls like a defensive quarterback like the greats do. He doesn’t allow for mismatches because he can also defend big ones, and that’s what makes the Celtics’ unique defense possible in the first place.
Smart’s teammate Williams can only play his role as a roamer because the other four players on the court are swappable and there are no gaps in the concept. Usually the point guard is that shortcoming – Smart, on the other hand, is more disgusting to play than anyone else and also offers many great plays as a helping defender, sometimes even as a “little” ring guard (check out this example from Game 1 against the Nets!).
DPOY: Does a reform of the award make sense?
Ultimately, several circumstances had to come together for Smart to win this award, and in the future it might make sense to award the team’s most influential defender and best full-back separately – but this season Smart is worthy even under the holder of ‘ rules’ current.
For the Celtics, another Smart development is more important. Their defense has been elite for years, as evidenced by the first two fully defensive teams thus far (20/21 was a slightly weaker year). Even critics must admit that he has been one of the best defensively in his position for years. In fact, the only question was the other side.
Smart was known first for his bad litter, then for his questionable litter selection. Whether he could be an offensive decision maker, a starting point guard, has been questioned throughout this season. The much-cited turnaround of the Celtics season also includes the fact that Smart finally found his offensive role in his eighth year.
Marcus Smart: Finally a “real” point guard
Even under Brad Stevens, Smart was often used as a point guard alongside the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker – Ime Udoka, on the other hand, put him primarily in the former. This decision was also supported by the fact that numbers over the past few years have suggested Smart and the Celtics have been at their best when he is serving as a nominal lineup.
This is more the case this season than ever before, especially as the mid-season rotation was interrupted by the exchange of Dennis Schröder, among others. Since Smart returned from the Corona protocol in late January, Boston’s once-bad offensive team has had the best offense in the league.
NBA: The Celtics with Smart as their point guard
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Jayson Tatum: “Everyone Thought Marcus Would Play”
Smart is not the greatest goalscorer, but perhaps the most talented passer in the squad and also someone who likes to pass the ball quickly. He can also act as a blocker for Jayson Tatum, for example, and continue playing the ball from the short throw or complete it on his own, even if that’s not his main job.
He reads the game much better than his reputation over the years has suggested. Of course, that didn’t show any better play than the game-winner in Game 1 against Brooklyn, when Smart didn’t pull the trigger, but ended up cutting Tatum for a better shot. Even he was surprised, as he later admitted, “We all thought Marcus was going to shoot.”
He didn’t—and that matched the Smart of the past few weeks and months. “Wonderful! He looks like a real point guard again,” Draymond Green said after this action. Smart is famous for his defense, now officially with the highest honors – but now he’s also a key to the Celtics offensively.