Marcus Smart holds key to Celtics contention

The additions of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a roster that already features Al Horford guarantees the Celtics of a certain degree of success. It’s hard to imagine a team boasting three top-30 players will fail to win 50 games. But no other player will have more of an impact on whether the C’s are Eastern Conference pretenders or contenders than Marcus Smart.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — a pair of recent No. 3 picks who will start over Smart and can’t yet legally drink a Sam Adams lager — may pay greater dividends a few years down the green line, but neither will make or break the 2017-18 campaign. This is the year of Marcus Smart.

Stars will be stars. Rookies and second-year players will flash brilliance during frustrating bouts of inconsistency. Role players Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes will give them something similar to what they’ve given other teams for a handful of years now, with a slight Brad Stevens boost.

But Smart? Sixth Man of the Year. First Team All-Defense. A jump shot to match his game-changing ability everywhere else on the floor. It’s all on the table, and if he feasts on those possibilities, the Celtics won’t be satisfied with merely meeting the Cavaliers in the conference finals again. They will have a weapon to unleash on Golden State’s vaunted backcourt.

Smart’s motivated. He showed up 20 pounds lighter, and while everyone comes to training camp claiming to be in the best shape of his career, this time it’s true. Smart will be a restricted free agent next summer after failing to come to terms on an extension of his rookie contract, and the two sides were never “that close” on a salary figure, Smart’s agent Happy Walters told Parquet Post, so financial gain lies beneath that weight loss.

When I reached out for comment on a story about Smart’s breakout potential and the possibility he holds a key to their success, Walters said, “I wish the Celtics felt the same way you do.” The C’s, as is their custom, did not respond to a request for comment on the failed negotiations.

The Celtics hadn’t even engaged Smart’s agent in contract discussions as recently as a week ago, and once they did, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the team’s flagship TV station just a few days before the deadline, “I think it’s important for you to get a good deal.”

That deal never came for the Celtics. And Smart had reason not to sign it.

As is usually the case, both sides seemed to leave the negotiating table with some underlying acrimony. What is unusual is that both Smart’s camp and the Celtics made their thoughts on the matter so public.

“We really love him and intend for him to be here,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck told The Sports Hub’s Felger & Massarotti Monday. “Whether you can do a deal early with an agent or not is a separate question to whether or not you love a player. There are two questions there.”

“Everyone is making a good effort, but Wyc doesn’t want to pay the tax,” Walters countered, via the Boston Herald’s Mark Murphy. “They’re into the tax already with three guys who make $30 million a year. If they want someone to take a discount, maybe it should be someone who has already made $150 million in their career, not someone who is just up and coming.”

Smart’s agent then added, “It will cost them a lot more then, I can tell you that.”

And there’s the rub. This summer, Smart saw two players drafted ahead of him in 2014 — Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins and 76ers center Joel Embiid — earn max extensions worth $148 million through 2023. Smart isn’t seeking max money, but he’s also seen a pair of players drafted behind him — Suns wing T.J. Warren and Nuggets guard Gary Harris — sign deals ranging from $11.75 million to $18.5 million annually. That’s the likely void in negotiating room between the Celtics and Smart.

The Celtics have $107.3 million committed to 11 players in 2018-19. The difference between the Warren and Harris extensions is the difference between Smart’s contract keeping the C’s under the $123 million luxury tax line or exceeding it by millions of dollars, before the roster’s even full.

Projections push the luxury tax line to $131 million two summers from now, when Irving and Horford can both become free agents and the Celtics already have almost half their salary cap committed to Hayward, Tatum and Brown. A contract worth $18.5 million annually for Smart — or more, depending on how he performs this season — almost certainly means the Celtics will pay an increasingly steep luxury tax bill in order to keep him.

If, as Grousbeck said, the Celtics don’t let players they love walk, he must put his money where his mouth is, especially after also suggesting NBA revenues will double in the near future. They can match any offer Smart receives in restricted free agency, and while we’ve heard tell of salary caps drying up in the “nuclear” summer of 2018, there will still be a handful of teams — including the Knicks, Bulls and Mavericks — capable of making massive offers when a 24-year-old Smart may very well be be the best free-agent guard available not named Avery Bradley or Isaiah Thomas.

This is all normal NBA negotiating. Smart wants to stay. “I would love to,” he told reporters following the Celtics’ most recent preseason win at TD Garden. “I love Boston. I was drafted here. I’m the longest-tenured Celtic. The city is great, this organization is great. I would love to be here.”

And the feeling is mutual. “We love Marcus,” Ainge told NBC Sports Boston on the station’s season preview show this past Thursday, “and we anticipate him having the best year of his career this year.”

As Ainge said in the days before the deadline, “Whatever we do over the next few days has no bearing on our long-term plans for Marcus. It just might be more expensive or less expensive come next summer. We’re both sort of rolling the dice.” And restricted free agency is the ultimate gamble. Players risk suitors staying away for fear of tying up cap space, knowing incumbent teams can match reasonable offers, and GMs risk opponents offering deals that are unreasonable to match (a la the Knicks’ four-year, $71 million deal for Tim Hardaway Jr. that the Hawks refused to match).

That’s where Ainge’s “no bearing on our long-terms plans” juxtaposes with Walters’ “Wyc doesn’t want to pay the tax,” because a monster season from Smart could force the Celtics to decide between retaining Smart into next decade and paying the tax or letting him walk for nothing in return to avoid it. And we’re pretty sure the C’s are concerned about luxury taxes, because Ainge conceded future salary played a factor in the team’s decision to trade Bradley rather than Smart to make room for Hayward.

Determining Smart’s value isn’t easy. He might actually be the most difficult player to evaluate in the entire NBA. Based solely on his raw statistics — 9.3 points per game on abysmal 35.8 percent shooting through three seasons — Smart would be lucky to earn eight figures annually, even considering averages of 3.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals.

But anybody who’s seen him play knows how quickly he can change the outcome in the waning moments of close games. We’ve seen him switch onto All-Star power forward Paul Millsapand stop the bleeding defensively in a series-tying playoff win. Offensively, we’ve seen him make clutch play after clutch shot in a conference finals win over the defending NBA champions. Heck, we just saw him put on a one-man full-court press and rip the ball away from two 76ers in the first game of the preseason. The dude is built like a linebacker and has the instincts of a pitbull.

We’ve also seen Smart off target, out of control and oft-injured. Word inside the Celtics two summers ago was that the organization was growing frustrated with Smart’s lack of commitment to conditioning in the offseason, and Ainge all but confirmed the same was true last year.

“I didn’t think he finished the season in as good a shape as he could be, and he knows that. And he wants to be in better shape,” the Celtics GM told NBC Sports Boston during Thursday’s taped season preview show. “The guy is one of the most competitive players that I’ve ever been around, but he’s an emotional kid and he’s not as disciplined as he needs to be.”

Advanced statistics aren’t so favorable for Smart, either. The Celtics were slightly better per 100 possessions with him on the bench last season, mostly because the difference he made in altering his defensive assignment’s offense (players shot 2 percent worse than their averages with Smart defending) was nullified by him shooting 10 percent worse than league average.

Consider this, though: The Celtics were 3.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Smart on the floor and Bradley off it than they were when the reverse was true last season. Bradley earned First Team All-Defense honors in 2016, and there were those inside the Celtics that believed Smart was already a better defender at that point of his career.

He’s better now and could be better still if his slimmed-down frame makes it easier for him to defend quicker guards, as Smart himself suggested.

If the offense improves with Irving and Hayward operating alongside Horford, as we expect, and if the shooting stroke Smart showed this preseason (20-of-34 field goals, 9-of-14 from 3-point range) isn’t merely a mirage, the C’s have the potential to be an elite offensive unit while working four plus defenders (Smart, Horford, Hayward and Morris) around Irving to close out games. Smart will certainly see plenty of open shots as opposing defenses try to slow their three complementary stars.

Smart may not start, but the Celtics value their sixth men more than most. They are the franchise that invented the role with Frank Ramsey under Red Auerbach’s watch. John Havlicek, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton have all played the part to tremendous success. Can Smart carry that mantle? He will have every opportunity to be their next Sixth Man of the Year.

“He had an amazing summer,” added Ainge, who knows full well what sort of boost a solid sixth man can provide, “and he did what it took to come into training camp and put himself in as good a shape as I’ve ever seen him in. So, I’m expecting a fantastic year out of Marcus this year.”

Without LeBron James at the top of your roster, the only way to compete with the Warriors is to find a fourth star. The Celtics might have a few waiting in the wings, but Smart is the closest to taking off. And while it still may not be enough to challenge Golden State this season, the C’s would be a whole lot closer than they were a year ago if Smart thrives. The only problem is making sure he’s still on the roster whenever the Warriors fall back to Earth, but that’s a problem Ainge wouldn’t mind facing.

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