One Big Question for … Marcus Smart

We began this project with a piece entitled “Marcus Smart holds the key to Celtics contention” that I figured for trash 12 hours later, when Gordon Hayward busted his ankle. It turned out fairly prophetic, because if he had developed the way we would have liked, they might still be playing.

I’m patting myself on the back right now, but this isn’t solely self-congratulatory. It’s more to point out how little we learned about Smart over the last year. You can make a case, pound for pound, he’s still the NBA’s worst shooter and best defender, capable of losing games with back-to-back bricks and winning them with back-to-back charges — a maddening and thrilling player at once.

But that rollercoaster always seems to return to the gate with a positive charge. The Celtics were 4.7 points per 100 possessions better with Smart than they were without him this year, to be exact. There’s no doubt the C’s value him. The question is how much other teams do.

There are nine teams — the Sixers, Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks, Bulls, Kings, Nets, Suns and Pacers — with the cap space to chase Smart this summer, and a handful of others (the Jazz, Spurs, Clippers, Knicks and Magic) that can get there if they really want. The Celtics don’t need cap space to re-sign Smart and can match whatever offer he gets in restricted free agency.

Danny Ainge has 11 players under guaranteed contract in 2018-19 for a total of $107,433,525 — more than $6 million over the NBA’s salary cap and almost $16 million under the luxury tax. Smart is not one of them, and he told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan last month on his way out of the Garden after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, “I’m worth more than 12-14 million.”

We reported here already that Smart sought $19-20 million annually during this past fall’s failed extension negotiations. The Celtics were closer to $12 million than they were $20 million, and there’s no way any team, even the dumbest of them, is matching Smart’s original asking price. This isn’t the summer of 2016, when even Evan Turner caught $70 million over four years.

Smart will be lucky to find a team willing to exceed that $14 million starting salary, because it’s hard to imagine anyone projecting him as a long-term starting backcourt solution. He is best suited in the role he’s currently playing — a havoc-wreaking change of pace off the bench for a playoff team. Teams aren’t paying $14 million for a second-string guard, not in this climate, and not only that, they’ll be wary of the possibility he won’t be so successful without Brad Stevens.

He may be most valuable to the Celtics, but he’s still got to convince another suitor to show him the money, if he doesn’t want to leave a pile on the negotiating table. The C’s almost certainly will match anything less than $12 million, because that keeps them under the luxury tax, along with the cap holds for their No. 27 overall pick and roster filler. That also solidifies their guard core and gives them the mid-tier contract they don’t have for salary-matching tradio scenarios.

The Celtics would be walking the luxury tax tightrope to re-sign Smart if his annual salary climbs higher, and they’d have to pay $1.50 for every dollar spent over the tax line. Wyc Grousbeck has long been on record as saying his ownership group will pay the tax, as long as Ainge fields a contender, and there’s little doubt a) they believe they can vie for a title next year and b) Smart helps in that regard. So, the Celtics might just match whatever offer sheet Smart can find.

Any long-term deal in the range of $16 million per year should give them pause, though, given his offensive limitations, anger management and injury history. The nightmare scenario here is matching a lucrative offer for Smart and seeing his stock plummet to the point it impedes their ability to re-sign the rest of their rotational players who are lining up for raises in the near future.

So, is any team going to meet Smart’s asking price north of $12-14 million?

The Jazz are stocked both defensively and in the backcourt, with Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell starting and Alec Burks making eight figures off the bench. Dante Exum is a restricted free agent, too. They could prioritize Smart over him, but this is a team that needs offense.

The Spurs need a lot of dominoes to fall. Danny Green and Rudy Gay would have to walk from their player options. Same with Davis Bertans, Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes — restricted free agents all. And then there’s Tony Parker, who will take a paycut but isn’t likely to go anywhere. And if they all fall right, it’s probably going to be for a bigger name than Smart.

The Clippers likewise are waiting on DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic to decide on $43 million worth of player options, and all three might be better off picking them up. Even if they don’t, Doc Rivers will try to hold onto them. They also want to retain Avery Bradley and Montrezl Harrell, and Smart isn’t the sort of free agent you jump through so many hoops for.

The Knicks aren’t likely to create cap space this summer, either, shooting for 2019 instead. In the unlikely event they do carve out some cash, spending on Smart when you just signed Tim Hardaway Jr. and drafted Frank Ntilikina would be a mistake. Then again, these are the Knicks.

The Magic can create roughly $20 million in cap space, and most of that will go to Aaron Gordon if they re-sign him in restricted free agency. Fellow lottery pick Mario Hezonja is also a free agent. If they let Gordon walk, are they investing in Smart as the face of the franchise after dumping another poor-shooting point guard for a second-round pick just to avoid paying him?

• The Sixers and Lakers have bigger fish to fry. Smart eats cap space they need to lure LeBron James, Paul George and other high-end free agents. And both teams already start point guards who can’t shoot. Pairing Smart with Ben Simmons or Lonzo Ball at any price makes little sense.

The Hawks and Kings are so deep into rebuilds that signing Smart moves no needles internally or externally, especially with primary ball-handlers already under contract through 2021. By the time they’re chasing playoff spots, Smart will be working on his next contract.

The Bulls traded Jimmy Butler last summer for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the latter of whom could also be commanding a hefty salary in restricted free agency, so it seems unlikely that they would toss big bucks at Smart to back up two still-developing talents during a lengthy rebuild.

The Mavericks are desperate enough for relevancy that it’s practically an annual tradition of Mark Cuban’s to shell out a ton of money for a mid-tier free agent (see: Barnes, Harrison; Matthews, Wesley), but are they desperate enough to pair Smart with Dennis Smith Jr., their second-year point guard of the future who shot only marginally better than Smart last season?

• The Nets have been known to push a pile of money on restricted free agents, just to throw a wrench into the mix, and you know they would love to repay the Celtics for robbing them blind, but those days may be behind them now that they’ve piled up a handful of cumbersome deals.

The Suns are interesting, because they will have a young core of Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and whoever they take with the No. 1 pick (most likely DeAndre Ayton) that could use Smart as a culture-setter to speed up their rebuild. Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough knows the Celtics well and presumably understands Smart’s value better than most around the league. What that value is on a team that also has decisions to make on Elfrid Payton and Alex Len remains to be seen.

• The Pacers have money to spend and little chance of landing a top-tier free agent. They also have a star in Victor Oladipo who can help mask Smart’s inefficiencies on offense, and the two of them together would be a nightmare defensively. I’m not sure the NBA is prepared for a world where Smart and Lance Stephenson are on the same team, but Indiana just might be ready.

We harp on Smart’s shooting, because other teams will. They’ll recognize the winning plays, too, but those are more noticeable when you’re actually winning — and a lot more so when a team is pushing its way to the top rather than trying to hold its head above water. That should limit Smart’s options this summer, but it only takes one team to back the Celtics into a corner.

But what if that one is somewhere like Orlando, Phoenix or Indiana, where Smart will in all likelihood be destined for years of mediocrity rather than the title contention awaiting him in Boston? Sign too sizeable an offer sheet there, and the Celtics might just send you on your way.

The Celtics understand what Smart means to them, and Smart understands what they mean to him. That should give both sides hope they can come to an agreement. Smart may not get his full asking price, but here’s an interesting compromise, courtesy of capologist Ryan Bernardoni:

By signing Smart to something like a two-year, $24 million deal, the C’s bolster their depth for two title runs while maintaining the flexibility to chase another bigger name later on the trade market, and Smart gets fair-market value with a chance to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, when the cap could explode again. That satiates any desire he might have to sign his $6.1 million qualifying offer, play out next season (with a no-trade clause) and hit unrestricted free agency next summer, because it’s unlikely he makes up the salary he would lose this year.

This makes the most sense, but NBA free agency often throws rationale to the wind. This could all be trash two weeks from now, but if turns out prophetic, I’ll be sure to let you know about it.

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