Marcus Smart’s play is actually reflective of the team Brad Stevens and the Celtics are attempting to build. He is gritty, he plays hard defense, and he wins mainly on effort, not talent. We know, this Celtics team plays much, much faster than that Pistons team. Nonetheless, the comparison is eerily similar. The 2003-04 NBA Champion Pistons out-hustled, out-worked, out-played, and killed the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. The Lakers that year, with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher were undoubtedly one of the most talented teams of all time.
Were the 2004 Pistons untalented? Absolutely not. Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace are likely future members of the Hall of Fame. In fact, Billups and Big Ben are having their jerseys retired by the Pistons this season. On top of those three, Richard “Rip” Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince were no slouches. But this team was nothing compared to the Lakers’ talent. Yet they played incredibly gritty basketball.
I’m reminded of the first game of the finals that season where the Pistons unveiled multiple interesting defensive strategies. First, they utilized the full court press against the Lakers multiple times. This was enough to disrupt the Lakers’ triangle offense before Fisher could pass the ball to Shaq in the post.
Additionally, the Pistons decided that they were not quick enough to make entire defensive switches on screens. For context, on screens, it is not only the ball defender and the roll man that switch; rather, another defender enters the lane to prevent any easy drives, and then the whole defense switches assignments to prevent simple three point shots. The issue for the Pistons was that the Lakers’ speedy ball movement always resulted in a wide-open shot when the opposing team eventually missed an assignment. So Larry Brown’s Pistons broke a cardinal basketball rule and only switched the ball defender and the roll man. This resulted in the Pistons’ defenders stopping the triangle offense and forcing isolation possessions, which was not conducive to the Lakers’ talent or coaching.
This brings me to the Celtics this season, and even more, their sophomore guard Marcus Smart. Like Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, Smart understands the need to be a versatile defender. The Celtics, specifically Brad Stevens, understands the necessity of putting Smart in advantageous situations. Consequently, Stevens would never let Smart defend 7’2 rookie Kristaps Porzingis.
Wait, what? Ahh, yes. That is exactly what the Celtics did. Boston sportswriter Jay King has written about how the Celtics are utilizing this strategy effectively. Essentially, Smart’s ability to guard power forwards — not solely limited to Porzingis or Suns’ forward Mirza Teletovic — allows the Celtics to run a four guard lineup. This lineup, which also includes Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Amir Johnson has the Celtics’ second highest net rating. This is because its speed allows for offensive dominance, while Smart’s defense ensures they do not get crushed.
So what skills does Marcus Smart have that allow him to be so effective against NBA big men? First it is his ability to defend the post. Per Synergy, Marcus Smart possesses the 44th best post-up defense in the NBA, and eighth best amongst guards. In fact, opponents shoot 5.6% worse against Smart in the post than they do normally. This is primarily caused by Marcus Smart’s ability to create turnovers. Let’s examine his five most commonly defended play types and the percentage of turnovers he forces on those:
Figure 1 via Synergy
Thus, Figure 1 demonstrates that Smart causes turnovers at a high rate defending every play outside of spot up shots. Essentially, this results in the opposing team avoiding risky ball movement, thus taking poor shots, and consequently Smart’s defensive acumen.
So, to keep this Pistons comparison going, who is Marcus Smart comparable to on that team? At least defensively, Smart resembles Chauncey Billups. While Ben Wallace was the defensive heart of that Pistons team, Billups provided versatility. Throughout the course of the playoffs, Billups averaged 1.35 steals per contest and a career best 96 defensive rating, all while defending the likes of Jason Kidd, Michael Redd, Reggie Miller, Derek Fisher, and Kobe Bryant.
The Celtics are having a uniquely great defensive season, only rivaled by this year’s and last year’s Golden State Warriors. Over the past seven years, there have been ten teams with a pace over 100 possessions per game, which includes this year’s Celtics. Of all of those teams, the Celtics have the third best defensive rating. Let’s look below:
Figure 2 Stats via NBA.com’s Stats Page
Thus, the Celtics’ defense plays at a high level, even though its offense creates more possessions they need to defend. Therefore proper usage of guards like Marcus Smart, who have a wide arsenal of defensive skills, is absolutely crucial for success.
Although the 2003-04 Pistons played at a much slower pace than this year’s Celtics, that does not mean the comparison is entirely invalid. Both utilize their stifling defense to combat offensive inefficiencies. Additionally, each team had a versatile guard that was willing to do dirty work on defense in order to win games. And while the Celtics will not win the championship anytime soon, building off of greatness is something to be acknowledged, and Smart’s versatility combined with Stevens’ genius is reminiscent of the Chauncey Billups and Larry Brown combination during the early 21st century.