The case for starting Marcus Smart

It feels strange to nitpick a team fresh off one one of the longest win streaks in franchise history, but despite how impressive the Celtics have looked this year, there’s still room for improvement. It’s not an overreaction to Wednesday’s loss to Miami to suggest that the Celtics need a rotation change; if anything, the Heat loss highlighted some issues that have plagued the team even during their 16 consecutive wins. They’re prone to slow starts, the second unit can cough up leads with a lack of offensive presence, and they’ve been reliant on fourth-quarter heroics from Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum to beat weaker teams like Atlanta and Brooklyn. I have one suggestion that may help with all of these issues, however, and it’s something I never really expected to consider: starting Marcus Smart.

Marcus Smart is an enigma, perhaps the most difficult player in the NBA to quantify; based on the numbers, he might be the worst shooter in NBA history relative to how many shots he takes, and he’s shooting an eye-gouging 27% from the field this season on a borderline-irresponsible 10 attempts per game. Like clockwork, though, the Celtics are once again better with Smart on the court rather than off, thanks to his defensive toughness and basketball smarts (get it?).

Brad Stevens’ starting lineups have been malleable this year. Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum are locks, but that last spot has been matchup-dependent: Stevens likes to go to Aron Baynes against dominant frontcourt players like Joel Embiid or Hassan Whiteside, while Marcus Morris has slotted in against teams where versatility matters more than size, like like the Warriors. Marcus Smart, however, has received only two starts this season: the second game of the season against Milwaukee (with Morris out, the day after the Hayward injury) and November 12 against Toronto.

Smart’s role for Boston has always been that of a tone-setter off the bench; he’s started only 74 of his 224 career games, and almost half of those came his rookie season. He’s an ideal defensive substitution, capable of checking either guard spot along with many wings thanks to his seven-foot wingspan. His physicality and aggression give him a knack for making impact plays that can change the pace of the game. He makes a lot of sense as a guy you bring in to break up opposing runs or help protect leads without losing intensity.

Accounting for volume, the team’s best lineup is Smart, Irving, Horford, Brown, and Tatum. This is the group the Celtics frequently employ to close out games, and while lineup data is hilariously skewed this early in the year, they’ve posted the strongest net (+16.6) and offensive (111.6) ratings of the three Celtics lineups that have played 60 or more minutes together.

It’s not hard to see why this group works. The Irving-Horford two-man game largely dictates the flow of the offense while they’re on the court, and Horford in particular is the puppet-master for the Boston offense; he’s one of the league’s premier frontcourt passers, and assumes a lot of the facilitation responsibility for their offensive sets. Brown and Tatum have been particularly dependent on their All-Star teammates for offensive looks; Irving likes to feed Brown in the low block against smaller guards or as a drive-and-kick option in transition, while 115 of Tatum’s 167 shot attempts* have come from either behind the three-point arc or at the rim.

*Shooting numbers accurate pre-Miami game. Lineup data is current.

It’s foolish to think starting Smart will solve his well-documented shooting woes, as he already plays big minutes with the starters as it stands now. It’s safe to conclude he’s just a terrible shooter. That said, playing with the starters lessens the pressure on Smart to score, which theoretically allows him to play to his strengths just a little more.

And let’s be clear: Smart does have a number of offensive strengths. Defense will always be his calling card, but there’s a lot of value to be found in his ability to handle and pass the ball. He turns the ball over at roughly the same rate as Kyrie (good!), understands offensive positioning, and has a great eye for passing lanes. Brown and Tatum can only benefit from having another passer of his caliber on the floor. He’s a high-IQ basketball player…

…which makes his boneheaded jumpers all the more perplexing. Unfortunately, he’ll be defined by his shooting for as long as it’s so historically bad, which… doesn’t seem likely to change soon. He’s working on a new career-high in shot attempts per game, which is a decisively negative development. The Celtics have survived this thus far, but the duo of Smart and Terry Rozier have developed a habit of hijacking the offense when they share the court; the Celtics’ effective field goal percentage drops to a ghastly 46.1% in these situations. Smart looks like he’s shooting with a ball that is physically too big to fit in the hoop.

Meanwhile, the Irving/Horford/Brown/Tatum group with Marcus Morris in place of Smart or Baynes has been far and away the worst of those three lineups that the Celtics have employed for 60 minutes or more, with opponents outscoring them by 11 points per 100 possessions. The Celtics got off to slow starts against Brooklyn, Golden State, and Atlanta with Morris in the starting lineup, and he was a minus-10 against Brooklyn and a minus-12 against Golden State. While I don’t think the group is inherently bad, it seems like Morris isn’t necessarily the best piece to complement the starters.

Morris just seems to clash with that Irving-Horford game a little bit; while he’s a nice kick-out option behind the arc, he likes to attack out of isolation and take defenders one-on-one, which disrupts the rhythm offense Irving and Horford are orchestrating. Morris is shooting just 31.8% from the field in the first quarter, as opposed to 48.5% in all others. His two-point baskets have been assisted only 48.5% of the time this year (Jayson Tatum is at 56.7%, for contrast). Depending on who you ask, his frequent contested 20-footers are either tolerable or infuriating (I lean towards the former… while they’re going in, at least).

Smart has been particularly effective when sharing the court with Horford and Irving; the trio’s net rating together is a blistering +22.4. The same duo alongside Morris, though, has produced only a +6.5, and is giving up 106 points per 100 possessions. The other two players involved in these lineups matter too, obviously, but it seems clear that Morris hasn’t quite clicked in that context just yet.

Boston’s bench is loaded with quality defensive players, but it comes at the expense of offensive shot-creation. Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis are all defensive specialists, while Shane Larkin and Abdel Nader haven’t given much reason to believe they should be in an NBA rotation at all right now (Larkin’s 16-point outburst against Charlotte sans-Irving notwithstanding). Theis is the only one of the group with an effective field goal percentage above 50%, and he’s played 22 minutes total over the past four games.

The biggest benefit of shifting Morris to the bench, then, is that he would be the first Boston bench player this season with the ability to make an unassisted basket with consistency. He wouldn’t be disrupting anything by going out and getting his own shot when guys like Baynes and Ojeleye are on the court, and he’d provide a reliable offensive weapon when Irving and Horford are both resting, which is typically when the Celtics bleed the most points.

Swapping Smart and Morris in the starting lineup isn’t a particularly huge change – Smart is already playing the fourth-most minutes on the team as the sixth-man, which would be unlikely to change very much – but it makes some sense in the context of their rotations. The Celtics are scuffling to open games right now and Morris is doing his worst work in the first quarter, while “Smart + Starters” is their best overall lineup. Opening with that group might help the Celtics avoid digging themselves into early holes, while a move to the bench would afford Morris a little more breathing room to play his preferred style.

There are other changes that will happen with this roster eventually, particularly the $8 million disabled player exception the Celtics received as a result of the Gordon Hayward injury. It’s Chekhov’s Exception, and Ainge is going to pull the trigger at some point, whether at the deadline or during buyout season. Personally, I would like to see a scoring guard or wing fit into that space, but there is room for creative thinking. At any rate, more help will be on the way eventually.

In the meantime, though, the Celtics need to adjust to life post-win-streak. Late-game comebacks are exciting, but not reliable. This team just can’t count on Kyrie Irving’s fourth-quarter heroics every single game they play, as fun as they are, and the Celtics should not become content with the status quo because of the hot start. Starting Marcus Smart could be a creative solution to several issues this team currently struggles with, and who knows? Perhaps it could help kick off the next great Celtics win streak.

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