Knicks Bubble Player to Watch: Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart might be the heart and soul of the Celtics, but there's reason to think he could be had this offseason for the right price. If so, the Knicks would be wise to pounce.
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Quick: How many players in the league today are truly capable of guarding all five positions?

The number is probably around 10, right? 15, 20 max?

Now, how many of those guys are equally as adept running an offense as they are being the fifth option on the court at any given time?

Probably not very many.

One last one: How many players who qualify for each of the above would be comfortable coming off the bench and not being among his team's half dozen leaders in usage rate?

Welcome to Marcus Smart's world.

"Underated" isn't the right word to describe Smart. Any semi-knowledgeable basketball fan knows exactly what Smart is by this point. He's a bully in the best way possible, making life hell for opponents regardless of whether he's swiping the rock away from an unsuspecting center or hounding an opposing ball handler the minute he crosses half court. 

His effect on his team's defense bears itself out in the advanced stats, as the Celtics - who not coincidentally began their defensive resurgence the year Smart was drafted - have been stingier with him on the court than without him every season he's been in the league. His on-court defensive rating would have ranked 3rd this year, 5th last season, first (by a mile) two years ago, fifth the season before that, 2nd in 2015-16 and 3rd when he was a rookie. Individually, Smart's 624 steals ranks 14th in the league since he came into the NBA. Nine of the players ahead of him have made the All-Star game.

Simply put, the dude is a beast.

Smart, meanwhile, can't even get a starting job on his own team. Thanks to the Celtics being one of the league's better organizations at acquiring elite NBA talent, Marcus Smart has usually only started games this season when one of the five regulars has been injured. Among Boston rotation players, his 12.9 field goal attempts per 36 minutes ranks a predictable fifth behind Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward. 

He is behind those four and OAKAAK Enes Kanter in usage rate despite finally crossing the two-made-threes-per-game threshold that had previously eluded him. Smart is shooting 35.6 percent from deep over the last two seasons - league average almost to the decimal point. For a player that brings what Smart does on the other end of the floor, that's more than serviceable, especially considering he also dishes it nearly five times per game even though he's rarely the primary initiator of the offense.

Nonetheless, Smart has once again been relegated to the back of the line. Forget being the bride; he's the bridesmaid who gets cut out of the wide shot.

For all of the above reasons, when we were asked this week to highlight one player we've seen in the bubble who would be my ideal Knicks target, Smart is the first one that came to mind.

Why Smart over any number of superiors players, not to mention ones who New York could simply sign in free agency as opposed to needing assets to acquire via trade? 

The first reason should be obvious. Tom Thibodeau, master tactician? Certainly possible. Tom Thibodeau, magician? Not so much. Thibs is only going as far as his roster takes him, and throughout his career as a coach, we've seen the effect that a strong point-of-attack defender can have on his schemes. Smart, who made the All-Defensive First Team last season, is arguably as good as they come.

Right now, there's no one on the Knicks who comes close to fitting that bill aside from Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina has shown immense promise as both an individual and team defender, but his overall impact on the very feel of a game simply can't be compared to Smart (and then there's the matter of his offense, which also has a ways to go).

Moving forward, the Knicks would be best served shifting RJ Barrett over to the three, where he'll still be able to take advantage of his size against most starting wings but where his still-developing jump shot will be less of a disadvantage. That leaves a hole at the two, where Smart would fit in beautifully alongside Barrett and whatever point guard the Knicks decide on from the eligible cast of thousands.

And if the Knicks were able to swing a trade for the disgruntled Zach LaVine, or a similarly unhappy ball handling wing from some other team? In that case, Smart could slide over to the point, where in 890 possessions this season, the Celtics have a net rating that would come close to leading the league.

In short, fit shouldn't be an issue. The question will come down to the price tag, and why in the hell the Celtics would entertain moving someone who is arguably the heart of their team.

The answer, as usual, is to follow the money. 

Right now, Smart is signed to a fair deal - $12.9 million next season, $13.8 the year after - which is probably slightly under market value for his services. That's not the issue though. Aside from being over the cap right now, Boston is a few months away from opening their checkbook to make Jayson Tatum a midnight max player the moment free agency opens.

Salary Cap chart courtesy of HoopsHype.com

Salary Cap chart courtesy of HoopsHype.com

Tatum's max deal won't kick in until the 2021-22 season, but if we know nothing else about Danny Ainge, it's that he'd rather be a step ahead than a step behind. Even if the Celtics aren't one of the league's many teams currently facing money troubles (with bigger ones potentially on the horizon), they are slated to owe the trio of Walker, Brown and Tatum close to $90 million a little more than a year from now - nearly three quarters of a projected $125 million cap number that is almost certain to go down. 

They also have key rotation piece Semi Ojeleye entering restricted free agency this offseason and starting center Daniel Theis under contract for only one more year. And we haven't even brought up Brad Stevens-favorite Gordon Hayward, who has a $34 million player option for next season and who the Celtics may very well want to keep around.

If the choice comes down to Hayward or Smart, which one would Boston pick? And would they risk Smart jetting in free agency two years from now in the hopes of going somewhere he could start and have a far larger role than he's currently being given in Beantown? If that's a legitimate fear, would there ever be a better time to sell high than right now?

Regarding those last few questions, it's worth noting that Kenny Boren, the founder of Marcus Smart's youth basketball academy who I've been told is also close friend of Smart's, had an interesting string of tweets in response to Boston's first game in the Orlando bubble:

via Twitter.

via Twitter.

The Knicks also have a good relationship with Smart's agent, Happy Walters, dating back to when he represented the only major free agent splash in club history, Amar'e Stoudemire.

If Smart really is looking to expand his role (not to mention his earning potential for his next contract) elsewhere, the Knicks are uniquely positioned to take on his salary without needing to send out matching money - a definite benefit to Boston. 

In terms of a fair trade, the Celtics are uniquely positioned as the only team in the league slated to have three first round selections (assuming Memphis doesn't miss the playoffs and jump into the top four, which there is a minuscule chance of happening). Unfortunately/fortunately for them, their rotation is already full, and with first-round picks requiring guaranteed NBA contracts, this could potentially pose an issue.

Enter the Knicks. Assuming New York doesn't move up in the draft, it's likely they'll pick 7th or 8th - a perfect position to nab USC big man Onyeka Okongwu, who is arguably the safest pick in the entire draft.

The only problem is that Okongwu occupies the one position the Knicks have filled: center. The same goes for a few other high lottery teams as well. That, plus the fact that teams at the top of the draft have more pressing needs to fill and the general devaluation of the center position as a whole, is the reason Okongwu could slip to the bottom half of the top 10.

For the Celtics though, he would represent a dream come true: a cost-efficient, switchable, rim-running, shot-blocking big man with playmaking and shooting upside who could play from day one and would slot in as their starter when Theis' contract expires a year from now.

Even if the Celtics packaged all of their first round selections together (currently slated at 15, 26 and 30), it's hard to see the team that would give up the quality of a top pick for the quantity coming back in such a trade. That would change if Smart were on the table though.

Smart plus the Memphis pick would seemingly be too steep a price to pay for Boston to move up into the Knicks spot though. It's possible the Knicks send back a young player not named RJ or Mitch in the deal, but Danny Ainge's history suggests he'd rather kick the can down the road for a potentially higher return. Dallas' 2021 first round pick would seem to be the perfect middle ground. 

A proposed deal could look like this:

  • Knicks receive: Marcus Smart, the Memphis Grizzlies' 2020 first round pick, and the Milwaukee Bucks' 2020 first round pick
  • Celtics receive: the New York Knicks' 2020 first round pick, the Charlotte Hornets' 2020 second round pick, and the Dallas Mavericks' 2021 first round pick (protected for selections 1-4; if not conveyed in 2021, Boston then receives Dallas' 2023 top-10 protected first round pick)

In this swap, Boston moves down a few spots from 30 (where the Bucks, whose pick Boston owns, are slated to draft) to 38, but they get the benefit of being able to draft and stash a player - something Ainge has always been a fan of.

The key here would be the Knicks being comfortable with a player still available to them at roughly the 13th or 14th pick in the draft. Depending on how the lottery shakes out, a few players from the group of Cole Anthony, Kira Lewis Jr., Tyrese Maxey and RJ Hampton are likely to be available at that slot. It's possible New York will be able to end up with the player they would have drafted anyway had they simply kept their own pick. There's even a possibility they could package the Bucks' and/or Clippers' picks to move up a few spots to get the guy they really want.

It's easy to see both teams saying no to this for various reasons, but on paper, there's fair value going each way in the trade. New York gets the certainty of what Smart brings today plus their potential point guard of the future, while Boston gets maybe the top player on their board along with a mid-tier pick in a loaded 2021 draft that has not-insignificant upside.

We all know Leon Rose intends to upgrade the roster. By acquiring Smart, he'd be handing Tom Thibodeau the perfect homecoming gift to start his journey as Knicks Head Coach.

If he pulls it off, maybe talk of dawgs and the 90's at next season's media day wouldn't be that far off base.