Re-inventing the sixth wheel
Ask most fans to pick a sixth man to play for their team and they’re probably picking Lou Williams (three-time sixth man of the year).
Ask them to pick one from any era, they’re probably still picking Lou Williams. But is this the correct choice this year? Perhaps.
Williams is an incredible scorer off the bench and seems to have a superhuman ability to come alive in the clutch. On the whole, this is ideal, a boost off the bench to drag your team across the line in desperate times.
This is not what Smart represents. He’s not a dead weight on offense, averaging 8.9 points per game and a three-point percentage of 36.4 in 2018-19, so he’s not an Andre Roberson or Luc Mbah a Moute.
His real value, however, lies in his defensive abilities. In this age of high scoring, and superstars offensively leading a team, Smart is a brutal, badgering, obstinate force, who is going to make the man he is guarding play for every single point. He is currently sitting on a defensive rating of 97.7 this season, with a net rating of 5.0, which is particularly impressive considering that while he often comes off the bench, it is often to match-up against problematic starters, rather than the weaker bench players of the opponents.
Admittedly, Smart is not the only sixth man in the league to provide defensive stability. Perhaps the closest comparison is Patrick Beverley, the LA Clippers’ eternal tormenter of those who cannot deal with getting a little too up close and personal.
Crucially, Beverley appears to be able to guard many positions as Smart does. A superb example of this was the regular grief, which he made Kevin Durant endure in the 2018-19 playoff match-up between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors.
Beverley is a starter this season, and this pits him against many of the same players Smart is facing, but also categorically counts him out of the Sixth Man Of The Year conversation. Cory Joseph (now of the Sacramento Kings) has possessed this defensive stopper ability for a long time, and is regularly put up against elite scorers such as Kyrie Irving or Stephen Curry. However, his defensive ability does not span the number of positions that Smart has shown the ability to guard throughout his career, and thus falls fairly short on the versatility scale.
Earlier this season, Smart assigned himself the description of a “stretch-six” – expressing his an ability to stretch guard across five positions. Perhaps the most pertinent evidence of this is Smart’s ability to guard powerful big men, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, who has eight inches and 10 kilograms on him.
When they matched up on October 30 for a period of roughly 5 minutes, Smart held Giannis to one field goal over 17 (partial) possessions. Further to this, in this game Smart allowed zero field goals in his 37 other defensive possessions.
This was shown again in his match-up with Julius Randle two days later when the big man was kept down to one field goal and forced into 3 turnovers by Smart in a five-minute mini cage-match.
Smart is a player who knows exactly how capable his is, and while it may sound arrogant when he said “I always call the double team off every chance I get”, he does it when it is needed and when he can handle it. And he can handle it.
This was on full display against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the dying minutes, with Boston up 116-113. Smart matched up against Kevin Love (6’8 with 18.3 points per game in 2019-20). Daniel Theis came for the double team and Smart waved it off, as he knows exactly what to do to bully Love into a poor off-balance shot.
If this wasn’t enough, he shows another of his crucial qualities with 12 seconds left: his heart and willingness to scrap, in order to snatch a rebound from one of the NBA’s best in this department, Tristan Thompson.
Smart seemingly can guard any of the positions one-through-five, and while his physical prowess contributes, it is defensive mind which is the commanding factor to this. On court you can see him reading the opponent’s movements almost flawlessly, which allowed him to average 1.8 steals over the 2018-19 season and to continue to be more than a pest for anyone he matches up against.
Celtics loss on defense
The Celtics defense wouldn’t completely collapse without Smart. They still have several players that can produce impressive defensive performances individually and as a team as a whole. However, the elephant in the room that pockets of the Boston’s fanbase seem to brush under the carpet is the loss of Al Horford.
Replacing possibly the only forward/center on the Celtics roster (or perhaps the whole NBA) from last season, who could effectively guard offensive juggernauts like Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid, was always going to be difficult, but it’s unlikely that Enes Kanter was going to be the complete answer. Kanter might be a useful addition, with decent offensive output (averaging 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in 2018-19), but nowhere near the defensive output to fill the hole left by Horford.
Theis and Robert Williams III have stepped up to the plate (somewhat), with the former averaging 2.5 blocks, but only producing 6.4 rebounds per game this season (2019-20). The latter contributed 6 blocks against the San Antonio Spurs, but only averages 4.9 rebounds per game in 2019-20, neither seem the replete remedy for the departure of Horford.
The loss of Hayward (who was just returning to Utah Jazz levels) is depressing for the prospects of the team, as he offers strength on both ends of the floor.
The impact of this for Smart is two-fold. Initially, with the loss of Hayward, the defensive workload will weigh much heavier upon Smart’s shoulders, and if he can cope this, it will bolster his sixth man credentials significantly. Conversely, with Hayward being out for the foreseeable future, it becomes harder to claim you are the sixth man when you’re in the starting five.
However, Smart’s improved offensive performances alongside his defensive adroitness, could push him away from Sixth Man consideration and into the Most Improved Player conversations, but perhaps end up with neither.
Eight games into an 82-game season, definitively picking a Sixth Man Of The Year is going to be impossible, but Smart is presenting a convincing case. While he doesn’t produce stat lines that are astounding on the box score, when you look in-depth stats, and the continuous praise and value his coach and teammates heap upon him, you can begin to understand the crucial role Smart plays within a currently very successful Celtics roster. He may not be the most fashionable choice, but come the end of the season, he may well be the correct one.