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The Boston Celtics Have a Marcus Smart Problem

The Celtics face a dilemma with fourth-year guard Marcus Smart, writes Shane Rhodes.

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With the October 16 deadline fast approaching, the Boston Celtics have a major decision looming: sign Marcus Smart to a rookie-scale extension, or allow him to become a restricted free agent following the 2017 season. A walking basketball enigma, Smart has played through both extreme highs and extreme lows during his three-year Celtics tenure, flashing game-changing ability at times while appearing lost or executing poorly during others. But what exactly would be the best course of action for Boston?

The Case to Extend

During his short time in the Association, Smart has shown that he can be an extremely versatile, high-level defender. Strong enough to maintain his footing against larger forwards on the inside while quick enough to keep pace with the quicker guards out on the perimeter, Smart has the ability to make an impact all over the floor and the potential to be a game breaker for Brad Stevens. Last season, Smart was one of 10 players to record at least 120 steals and 30 blocks, and has been one of just 15 players to log 315 steals and 70 blocks since 2014, joining the likes of defensive bulldogs Jimmy Butler, John Wall, Robert Covington and others.

Smart also has a knack for taking hits and just making the hustle, impact plays teams need in order to win. Among all guards last season, Smart was second in charges drawn with 23, while also contesting 517 shots, deflecting 234 and posting a plus/minus of +63 in clutch time, good for 13th best in the league. Smart just seems to have it when defending and has often found a way to make positive plays for the Celtics when they need them most.

Something interesting to keep in mind as the extension deadline approaches will be Smart’s progression as a shooter. While he has ranked among the worst shooters in NBA history through his first three seasons, Smart has looked much more polished offensively during the preseason after reportedly dropping 20 pounds and changing up his shot mechanics during the offseason. Through three preseason games, Smart has shot 58.3 percent from three on four attempts per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the floor, a marked improvement on what he has been able to do so far in his career. If the Celtics believe that his newfound outside stroke is for real, they would be wise to lock him up before a potential skyrocket in his value in a breakout season.

The Case to Wait

Smart has done very little on the offensive side of the ball during his time in the NBA. Across three seasons, Smart has been one of the worst statistical shooters in NBA history, shooting 35.8 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from the three-point line. If the Celtics choose to wait until the offseason to work out an extension, the driving force behind their decision would likely be tied to reservations about his offensive progression and a belief that his preseason showing has been fluky.

Smart hasn’t been the best decision maker when faced with one-on-one situations. While he is a gifted passer, Smart can often be found heaving up ill-advised shots or holding the ball too long into the shot clock, forcing him to attempt plenty of low percentage shots that heavily affect his overall numbers. Other times, Smart is just unable to knock down open jumpers or finish near the rim, something that many would consider a major problem. If he is unable to show a sufficient progression in his offensive game, Danny Ainge and the Celtics’ front office might believe it best to wait before tying up too much future cap space in a potentially one-dimensional, albeit impactful, defender.

Still just 23 years old, Smart has proven he can play in the NBA. He is the gritty, hard-nosed player that every team needs and, offensive struggles aside, would be a major asset for the Celtics or any other team contending for a title. If they choose to wait, Boston runs the risk of Smart breaking out and signing an offer sheet with another team too large for them to stomach — potentially losing their best defender after having already shipped out key defenders Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder earlier in the offseason. If they were smart — no pun intended — the Celtics would sign Smart and his winning instincts to an extension while they still can on the cheap, and hope he can prove an offensive late-bloomer a la Kyle Lowry.

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