The Boston Celtics are struggling and Danny Ainge is once again inquiring after most of the NBA's players available to trade for as the Thursday deadline nears. This is not much of a change from previous years; Ainge is constantly close to trading for any number of names both big and small in what has become an annual trade deadline tradition and running joke. This year, given Boston's expectations and subsequent struggles, feels like the year where the Ainge jokes stop (briefly) as he actually ponies up and makes a trade.
This would be good for the Celtics, because they are under .500 and currently eighth in the Eastern Conference despite boasting an extremely talented trio in Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. None of the mid-to-late first-round picks from the last two years have panned out other than Robert Williams, leaving the bench a completely useless entity. Something needs to happen if Boston wants to be anything more than a second-round playoff exit this postseason.
One player who has been a surprising addition in trade rumors the week of the deadline is one Marcus Smart, recently returned from a calf strain. Smart's name has never once been floated in any legitimate trade talks throughout his tenure with the Celtics dating back to 2014. Early in his career, it was because Smart was not a particularly valuable trade asset. Over the last few years, though, Smart's value as an All-NBA defender became clear. He wasn't offered up in any trades even then because he is the heart and soul of the Celtics, the fiery competitor that every team needs to reach the next level.
That hasn't changed. But yet the week has brought a lot of rumblings that Smart might be involved in moves that would bring one (or even two) of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, or Harrison Barnes to Boston. Each of those players brings a skill that the Celtics desperately need and would go a long way in making 2021 a competitive year; in the case of Gordon and Barnes, 2022 would also receive a boost since they're both under contract through next season. Is trading Smart worth those additions?
The short answer is absolutely not and I'm having a hard time believing Ainge is actually offering up Smart for any of those guys, even if the sources reporting it are reliable. In terms of skillset, each of the three players named above can shoot the three at a reasonable clip and defend well. Smart's three-point shot still comes and goes; he's only shooting 33 percent from deep this season, but averaged 35 percent from that area over the previous two years, right around the league-average number. Smart is not as big as the players he may be traded for, but he's a much better on-ball defender and makes up for the lack of length with the versatility to battle big men in the post for good chunks of time.
But regardless of the skillset aspect (which is a wash if not leaning slightly in Smart's favor), Smart matters more to the Celtics in every other way. He's the one who energizes the team when everyone is tired and they're down a few points. He takes that charge that changes the momentum. He's the guy who regularly hurts himself diving for loose balls in a mid-week game halfway through the season. He is their leader. The loss of his voice in the locker room cannot be compensated by Fournier's 38-percent three-point shooting or Gordon's defensive versatility.
Smart is not untouchable in the way that Tatum or Brown are. He'll never lead a team to a championship, even if he'll be an important cog in any potential title run. But adding two of the Barnes/Fournier/Gordon trio does not make for a championship team. It makes for a good team, to be sure. It even makes for a better team than Boston is right now. But enough to make it past the Brooklyn Big 3, or the new-look Sixers and MVP candidate Joel Embiid, or the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo?
There's a lot of pressure to win right now in Boston because the Celtics have made it to three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. But, as we all know, Tatum is very young to do what he is currently doing at 22-years-old. Brown is 24-years-old. Smart is 26-years-old. Not winning this year would be an immense disappointment, especially to the ownership group that will have to start paying the luxury tax in 2022 when Tatum's max extension kicks in. But going all-in on a year where the conference is better than it's been in a decade and the two building block superstars have yet to hit their physical prime seems shortsighted at best and potentially disastrous at worst.
One would hope Ainge learned his lesson about trading a player more valuable in the locker room than on the court when he sent out Kendrick Perkins back in the Celtics Big 3 days, a move widely panned at the time and a move that might have cost that trio a second championship. Any potential Smart trade could have the same ripple effects on team chemistry. He is important.
I am a Celtics fan, if you could not tell. Am I letting my heart speak for my mind? Of course I am. Boston fans adore Marcus Smart. He's the longest-tenured player on the team, the only holdover from the bad teams in Brad Stevens' earliest years and the exciting Isaiah Thomas era. He is the epitome of that player that everyone hates if they aren't on their team, and Boston people love that kind of player. Smart is not perfect. He likes to play hero ball when he is maybe the fifth-best shot-maker on the team, and sometimes he single-handedly destroys any hope of a victory. But for every time his love of shooting deep threes on the break sinks the Celtics, he is the one dragging his squad from the depths of defeat into the arms of victory.
Regardless of my somewhat blatant homerism, trading Smart is a short-sighted move that helps this season and the next at most. Smart has at least five years of winning basketball left if he doesn't manage to end his career diving into the stands anytime soon. He is irreplaceable right now. Trading him for a fourth wheel who can't replace everything he does would be the worst deadline move the Celtics could make.