Celtics’ struggles less about style of play, more about players

Celtics’ struggles less about style of play, more about players

Marcus Smart
Photo: Getty Images

I don’t blame overconfident NBA players for attempting to take over a game when the only people excited for the Austin Rivers experience are opposing fans. I think it’s less, “I got this,” and more “I want to do the fun thing, too.” Who wants to watch someone play video games when you could have the sticks?

Marcus Smart wants to do the fun thing, and he said as much after the Celtics’ latest loss in a thus-far underwhelming season.

“There’s only so much I can do without the ball in my hands, I just stand in the corner,” the eighth-year guard said of his role in first-year coach Ime Udoka’s offense.

At 2-5, things have started a lot like how last year ended — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown try to do everything; their front court is washed, hurt or inconsistent; and the surrounding pieces are suspect. The obvious quote to aggregate out of Smart’s postgame talk-through-it was his call for Tatum and Brown to pass the ball.

Besides refusing to go along with the obvious, I also think Smart is wrong. Brown and Tatum have above average basketball IQs and know how to play “the right way.” They’ve played alongside Smart their entire careers and know how much he wants — nay, needs — to jack up poorly timed threes. Dennis Schröder is a glorified Smush Parker, Al Horford’s best trait is now his only trait, and Time Lord is going to replace Smart as Celtics fans’ love/hate player after Smart gets traded.

The fascination the Celtics’ organization has with players who play “the right way” and do everything besides score is beyond me. Brad Stevens, doing his best Danny Ainge impression, not only didn’t trade Smart but rather gave him an extension. We’re all enamored with the essence of the game, but this is 2021, you’re not going to “Hoosiers” your way to an NBA title.

Jayson and Jaylen don’t think they’re better than you, Marcus. They know they are, and sticking you in a corner so you don’t fuck things up is probably what they’ve been begging for over the past three seasons. Well, maybe that and a point guard.

I mentioned Smush because this roster has looked a lot like those hapless Lakers editions that led to Kobe scoring 81 and almost forcing his way out of, or at least across, LA. There is nothing wrong with a core of Brown and Tatum; it’s not a Simmons-Embiid philosophical “Can X play with Y?” question. We have evidence that two wing players who aren’t necessarily pass-first can win titles with the right supporting cast.

Trading Brown for Bradley Beal isn’t going to make the Celtics a contender either. Every team in the NBA would love to be in the Celtics’ position, with two tall, versatile wings under contract who can score and play defense. Get a point guard who can hit a spot-up 3 and play defense, a rim-running/protecting big, and a couple 3-and-D role players and you’re in the Eastern Conference Finals. Add a borderline All-Star frontcourt player to that, and you’re competing for titles.

If you want to keep Smart to come in off the bench and hustle in between bad shots because it’s good for morale, fine, but don’t do it to finish games. All the basketball karma in the world isn’t going to persuade Brown and Tatum to pass Smart the ball just because he wants to do the fun thing, too. The only thing that’s going to get them to do that is better teammates. 

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.