By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Sacramento Kings are reportedly preparing to make an offer to restricted free agent Marcus Smart. And if that eventual offer is anywhere close to the one the Kings made last week to Zach LaVine, then it’s a safe bet that Smart has played his final game in Celtics green.
That is of course looking ahead a step or two, but according to A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston, the Kings are looking at Smart as their potential free-agent addition of the offseason.
The Kings offered LaVine a rather hefty four-year, $78 million deal last week, but the Bulls decided to match the offer for the restricted free agent. With LaVine off the table, and with money to spend, the Kings can now offer Smart the $15 million annual salary he desires.
And if that offer is anywhere near that $15 million mark, the Celtics will have no choice but to say “thank you” and “farewell” to the 24-year-old guard.
(If you’re wondering: LaVine has averaged 4.6 more points per game, while Smart has averaged 0.7 more rebounds, 0.7 more assists, and 0.7 more steals per game in their four years in the NBA. LaVine shoots 43.7 from the field and 34.1 percent from 3-point range; Smart shoots 36 percent from the field and 29.3 percent from 3-point range. Given the scoring ability, LaVine is going to make a few more bucks than Smart, but the other stats show that Smart shouldn’t be too far behind.)
We need not necessarily cross that bridge at this moment, though. A Kings reporter shot down the report of Sacramento’s potential offer, and Smart told The Boston Globe and The Athletic on Monday night that he’s not sure where he stands right now with the Celtics.
“That’s what I want to know. I have no clue,” he said. “I can only control what I can control.”
We also don’t know what the potential offer from the Kings might be. And we don’t know if that offer will actually be made. But if it is made (and, let’s face it, the Kings have money to spend, and they could easily sell a fan base on a sixth overall pick who comes from a winning culture), and if it’s for more than $10 million per year, then the Celtics will have to resist the urge to overspend on a player who at this point on this team would have to be considered a luxury.
Everybody knows what Smart brings to the Celtics. His effort is unmatched. His defensive abilities, instincts, and drive are as good as anyone else’s in the league. The idea that he “just makes winning plays” has become cliche, but it’s also true. The C’s comeback win over Houston — a game cemented with two James Harden charges drawn by Smart — was the perfect example of this. He can also come up with timely offensive rebounds over big men, and though his field-goal and three-point shooting percentages aren’t exactly up to par, he’s been known to get hot for a few minutes and hit some decently big shots.
There’s no denying Smart’s usefulness and place on a championship-caliber team like the Celtics. But everything has a reasonable cost, and paying more than $10 million for a specialist who doesn’t really score is not something the Celtics can afford.
The other major factor to consider would be this: When everybody is healthy, and the Celtics are in the final minutes of an important playoff game, would Smart even be on the floor? Would he even have the opportunity to “make the winning plays”? Think about it — Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown will occupy the guard spots. Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum are your forwards. And Brad Stevens is going to want Al Horford on the floor for all critical moments of the season. And if the Celtics need a big shot or two to make up a deficit, then Terry Rozier would be the option over Smart.
That’s all assuming full health, and assuming nobody’s in foul trouble. But it paints a picture of how the Celtics can’t really go spending too much money on a player whose impact would be felt most during the regular season. As the past few years in the Eastern Conference have shown quite clearly, the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot once the playoffs begin. The East’s top seed has failed to reach the NBA Finals in three of the last four years. Last year, the top three seeds in the East failed to make the Finals. In 2017 and 2015, the top seed in the East went a combined 1-8 in the conference finals.
Obviously, all of that was because LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were far and away the best team in the East. But now LeBron is out West, and the Celtics are the clear favorites in the conference. All that matters to Boston this year is simply getting ready for the playoffs. Whether they finish first, second, fourth or sixth in the conference standings won’t really matter. They’ll just have to win in April and May.
And, on a night-to-night basis, Smart probably won’t play a significant role in that endeavor. He’d help, for sure. He’d likely play 18-25 quality minutes off the bench, harassing an opponent’s most lethal threat, getting under the skin of the other team, and playing good team basketball as the longest-tenured member of the Celtics who’s been a part of Brad Stevens’ system almost from the very start.
There’s no denying the impact Smart can make, but remember, it wasn’t long ago that many in Boston believed Avery Bradley was an instrumental piece for a winning basketball team. His defense was simply too valuable to lose. Yet the Celtics traded Bradley for Marcus Morris, and ended up in a winnable Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against arguably the greatest player of all time. Boston also led the NBA in defensive rating during the regular season. Bradley, despite his obvious defensive abilities as well as his improved shot-making skills, quickly became an afterthought.
That’s not to downplay what Bradley did during his time in Boston, nor is it meant to disparage Smart’s abilities. It is simply a statement of near-fact: The Boston Celtics should be good enough to contend for a championship without Marcus Smart. There’s no need for Boston to get fiscally irresponsible if a bad team like the Kings decides to open up the coffers for the sole sake of just adding some life to an otherwise uneventful offseason.