If you trust what has been churned out by the rumor mill in recent weeks, the Celtics have been interested in acquiring basically every star player potentially available heading into the NBA’s trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday.
At various times, the list of possible Boston targets has featured DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, Al Horford, Blake Griffin, Harrison Barnes, Dwight Howard, Danilo Gallinari and others. If you can imagine a trade scenario, then it’s probably been discussed. If not by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, then by fans and the media.
Not nearly as much attention, though, has been spent determining who the Celtics must keep in Boston.
Why? Pretty simple, really. No one’s untouchable.
Wait, are we including Brad Stevens? The coach is definitely untouchable and, as we witnessed only a few summers ago, coaches can be traded. So, yeah, Stevens is untouchable. In fact, with three years remaining on his six-year contract, Ainge should already be approaching Stevens with an extension.
After the coach, the closest thing the C’s possess to an untouchable asset is the rights to the Nets’ 2016 first-round draft pick. There are probably not more than a handful of players in the entire league with the trade value of that unprotected selection.
But, on the active roster? Ainge will be taking and making calls, listening to and presenting offers, and doing his best to upgrade his roster by adding a transcendent player ahead of Friday’s game in Utah, all without sacrificing the team’s enviable chemistry.
It’s no easy task, especially since most if not all of the fantasy options listed above — all flawed in one way or another, which is why some are available — won’t move.
That said, which current Celtics player should we least like to see moved by the deadline?
All-Star Isaiah Thomas? Rising star Marcus Smart? All-heart role player Jae Crowder? The constantly improving Avery Bradley?
I have to imagine that, even with green-rimmed glasses, no list of possible keeper candidates can extend any longer.
With all due respect to the growing segment of Crowder devotees, and I’m among them, the answer here is the smart one:
Marcus Smart is the player the Celtics should least want to move.
It’s not close.
While injuries have dogged the former No. 6 overall pick in his nearly two years in the league, Smart’s impact is felt every time he steps on the floor, most often on the defensive end. The 6’4’’ point guard is capable of defending multiple positions, fears no challenge and stabilizes Boston’s perimeter efforts. He is called upon to box out for rebounds with others at the free-throw line, and he fights for every ball, almost beyond comprehension.
There are countless examples of his tenacity, but everyone’s favorite is obvious:
Simply put, Smart’s bulldog mentality can turn little plays into big, game-defining moments.
Smart has appeared 34 games this season, playing an average of 27.1 minutes per game. With him on the floor, the Celtics allow 98.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. His defensive rating is good for second on the team to Kelly Olynyk (96.5) among players averaging at least 20 minutes.
Indicative of his relatively nascent offensive game, Smart’s overall net rating (4.3) trails Olynyk (6.4), Bradley (5.9), Amir Johnson (5.7), Jared Sullinger (5.5), Crowder (5.3), and Thomas (4.4).
But his offensive production has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks.
Smart is averaging 9.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.7 steals a game in his sophomore season, all comparable or better stats to his rookie campaign. He is shooting 36.3 percent from the field and just 28.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Over his last 11 contests — a stretch that includes nine wins — Smart has put together an impressive offensive run with 12.4 points, keyed by 42.4 percent shooting and an even more impressive 42.9 percent from long distance (best on the club) on 5.1 attempts a game. He’s finding a groove and, at a young age, should only continue to improve. Already, we’re seeing the guard become more aggressive than he was as a freshman. He’s shooting 75.3 percent from the charity stripe on 2.9 attempts a game, up from a 64.6 percent success rate on 1.9 tries last year.
And we know from his first season, he doesn’t buckle under pressure.
Ultimately, Ainge’s task at this trade deadline is to evaluate his team’s short- and long-term goals. At 21, Smart should be a big part of Boston’s future. According to FiveThirtyEight.com’s ranking of the 53 best franchise players in the NBA, based on projected wins above replacement for the next six seasons, Smart sits 13th (Sullinger is 43rd). His talent doesn’t simply pass the eye test. His statistical profile sets expectations high.
Smart is a hard-nosed defensive hustler with an improving offensive skillset. For now, he’s a reserve. Eventually he’ll return to the starting lineup. But, regardless of who’s on the court for the opening tip, he’s already proven to be the Celtics’ most important player for the long term.
But, again, no playeris truly untouchable, which makes Thursday’s trade deadline all the more compelling.
Potential Celtics trade targets