The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment and paradox about how much of something you can replace before it becomes something new. In the original version, the Greek philosopher Plutarch explains a scenario in which (Greek hero) Theseus is fixing his boat, plank by plank, replacing the old rotten wood with new timber. Eventually, all of the lumber in the original ship is replaced. The question then becomes, is this ship still the same or is it an entirely new one?
When you look at the 2017-2018 version of the Boston Celtics, much of it will remain as it was in years past.
- Games will be played at the TD Garden.
- Brad Stevens will patrol the sideline.
- Tommy will love it when bigs run.
- Visitors from out-of-state will get mad when they find out they have to be 26 to buy alcohol.
- Mike Gorman will continue his double crown reign as “most underappreciated play by play man” and “aside comment savage”.
- “Welcome to the Jungle” will continue to be the worst and most dated opening-tip theme in the whole NBA.
However, that familiarity might deceive a lot of Celtics fans (and has seemingly has already deceived Vegas) into thinking that this Boston Celtics team is an augmentation of the 2016-2017 squad rather than something that shares little DNA with that 53 win team.
If Theseus’s ship is docked in the same place, has the same captain, and the same name, but is 73.3% new wood, is it still the same ship?
You’d have to ask the shipbuilder.
Ainge’s Overhaul Nears Completion
The trade of Avery Bradley and a 2nd round pick to acquire Marcus Morris this summer was a significant milestone for Brad Stevens. It signaled the departure of the most tenured Celtic and also closed the book on the 2013-14 squad that Brad Stevens inherited as a rookie coach. The other thing that Brad Stevens inherited with that squad was an absolute absence of expectations, which were sucked out the door with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett when they headed down I-95 to New York. Instead, Brad was left with a collection of lovable misfits and the understanding that there wasn’t much that could be done during a rebuild.
With Stevens’ steady hand on the rudder and a fan base who understood the vision, Danny Ainge set to work building the roster that he wanted, with few other considerations being made except acquiring more value. Trades were made, good bargains were found and players brought in, all with the idea of making a pile of assets first and fielding a winning basketball team second.
Celtics fans will be excused from not noticing this, as it didn’t particularly matter when Brad Stevens was running the show. Brad found a way to give all of his players opportunity and find a way to hide them from what they were worst at. It didn’t matter which automobile parts Ainge came home with, Brad found a way to make them into a car that got you further than the one they had the year before.
I refer to this as the Brad Stevens Juvenation Machine. (Calling it the Brad Stevens Rejuvenation Machine is often inaccurate as it implies that players were juvenated in the first place. Yes, this is a joke about latin roots.) The BSJM was an enormous boon for Danny Ainge, as he could be confident that players like Evan Turner, Jordan Crawford, or Kris Humphries would come to the Celtics and become guys who had value in the league. Nowhere is this more evident than Jae Crowder, one-time salary fodder in the Rondo trade. Though his raw talent level is higher than many of these other players, he’s a good example of how far a player can come when he’s given the opportunity to do what he does best.
Armed with the Stevens Juvenation Machine, Danny Ainge could roll his assets back and didn’t have to worry too much about the win pace slowing down. The Celtics had no real stars to part with, and Stevens could fox his way into replacing 80% of the production a standard player brought, meaning Ainge could go the cupboard and snatch whichever one he needed for an impending trade. He didn’t need to be concerned about yanking out the Jenga block that Brad needed to make the playoffs.
Ainge made few true purchases during these years, only surrendering (minor) assets or flexibility in order to obtain Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, the two critical pieces that Stevens was able to parley into an Eastern Conference Finalist. Every other player acquisition was either a draft pick or carefully selected salary structure that enabled different layers of salary matching, should a trade opportunity present itself.
There is one player, however, who has not received the same positioning for success that the other Celtics players have. He is a single, lone constant in the continued churn of roster spellings that have defined the Stevens years in Boston.
One man, the guy they call ‘Smarf’.
I imagine the worst fate you can wish on someone is for them to not properly appreciate the punk rock coaching dream that is Marcus Smart. There’s something beautiful and deeply haunting to fact that the Celtics’ lone trip to the lottery (with their own pick, at least) in a decade wouldn’t culminate in the transcendent talent the 2014 Celtics wanted. Instead, they got the ultra-versatile player that the 2017 squad desperately needs.
Like any good Boston sports figure, Smart is divisive. He’s so confounding that he makes advanced stat guys cite “winning plays”. He makes self-appointed “eye-test” experts get cranky about historical shooting stats. He’s a PG who projects as an all-star in some models despite literally being one of the worst shooters in the history of NBA in a time when shooting is everything. Trying to define Marcus Smart is impossible, which is both his greatest strength and most damning flaw.
Marcus Smart is a:
— Ryan Bernardoni (@dangercart) April 24, 2017
This may have been slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the larger point at the heart of this stands. Positional versatility is created by a player’s skill sets, not where they fall on the spectrum of NBA height. Marcus Smart, a prime example of this, has few NBA weaknesses, except for rashes of silly turnovers and the thing about not being able to shoot. This gives him a truly bizarre profile, where he can spackle over most team weaknesses and make himself an incredibly valuable player, but can’t truly blossom and realize his potential unless the unit on the floor is catered around his own strange skills.
For example, here are the sorted stats for Contested REB% (rebounds within 3.5 feet of another player) as per NBA.com. I sorted the stats to reflect rotation players (>15 MIN and half the season in games played), and then color coded the results by height.
From this chart we can see a couple of things. Most noticeable is that Tony Allen will always be Tony Allen, but this is closely followed by the similar, staggering placement of Smart. Much ooo-ing and ahhh-ing was made of Avery Bradley’s flashy rebounding stats, but the player tracking bears out what Celtics fans who watched the games already knew. If it’s a 50-50 ball, Marcus Smart gets it.
Actually, if it’s a 10-90 ball Marcus Smart might get it.
The point of this exercise is that if you think of a skill that’s not shooting or not crashing around with reckless abandon, Marcus Smart is probably better at it than you realize.
Secondary ‘hockey’ assists? You’ll find him tucked neatly around All-Stars like Giannis, Westbrook and Lowry.
Post-Assist %s for rotation players (>15MPG, >40GP)? 3rd in the league, not far off league leader Steph Curry.
STL Rate for rotation players? 5th in the league, behind Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul but ahead of Tony Allen and Kawhi Leonard.
So the obvious question here is, “If Marcus Smart is as good as you say he is, why don’t more people notice it”? I’m glad you asked.
Smart Deployment Wins Games, and Hurts Marcus
It’s understood by informed fans that the secret to Brad Stevens’ success is to allow flawed players to do what they are best at. Players will always have holes in their game, so fretting over what a player can’t do can be a waste of time. For example, Brad understood that putting Evan Turner in positions where he could to hold the ball and absorb 12 seconds of the shot clock was going to make him the best player he could be and he found times and places to run those type of sets for him.
Stevens has designed roles and plays to ensure that as many players as possible are asked to do what they do best. Inevitably there would still be some kind of hole in any 5-man unit. After all, you don’t continually churn your roster through trades and picks and have it end with a perfectly balanced group. Instead, Brad had to decide which of the players was going to “take one for team” and be the person who didn’t get to do what they are best at. This would end up being whoever could cover the most problem spots while also not caring about their own vulnerabilities being exposed.
The most persistent problem spot for the Celtics, and the league as a whole, has been on the wing. Starting an ultra small backcourt of Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas would be okay if there were taller, longer rotation players available to play alongside them. Unfortunately, Jae Crowder was the only wing to ever be both reliable and at least 6’6”. Evan Turner could fake it for stretched but he’s a big PG, not a small SF. Gerald Green started playoff games out of necessity.
Jaylen Brown showed flashes, which is all you can really ask of a 20 year old, but was much more successful when Jae Crowder was on the floor. This stands out in the 2017 floor stats, courtesy of the excellent website NBAwowy.
Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Brown played predominantly with inferior bench lineups, but bear in mind that bench lineups generally see weaker competition. It may be that he was simply better playing a smaller position, as he did in the 16 games he started.
Here are the same stats for Avery Bradley with and without Jae Crowder.
And again, here’s the lineup data, only this time notice the tremendous spike in the percentage of the minutes coming with the Celtics’ consensus two best players on the floor in Horford and Thomas.
If Jaylen only played better with the starters because he was playing with superior talent, why didn’t Avery Bradley, considered a better player, outpace Jaylen’s impact?
The common denominator is Marcus Smart in the role of Jae Crowder. When Marcus played with Isaiah and Avery he was the SF and the team was bad. When Marcus played with Isaiah and Jaylen he was viewed a SG and the team was bad. It stands to reason that it’s actually just Marcus Smart that’s bad, right? Well, funny story about that…
Not only do the Marcus units without Jae hold up much better when Marcus is on the floor, but the units in which Marcus is paired with Jae are by far the best. Now, think back to how present Smart was in units where Brown and Bradley struggled sans Crowder.
How can it be that his own floor stats without Jae are the best between the three of them? The only way that can happen is if the Celtics suffered grisly death when both Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder were off the floor, and that’s exactly what happened.
It turns out Marcus Smart’s weakest position is probably SF, but that he was also clearly the team’s second best SF. Marcus plugged the biggest hole in the team, despite it being the worst thing for him personally.
Smart Money On An Improved Year
Players are most visible when they’re shooting the ball. When someone is having an off shooting night, even toddlers can tell that they are watching a bad outing. As a bad shooter, Marcus Smart is very visible and that can lead more casual fans to believe that he’s not a good player. In truth, Marcus Smart currently stands as the 4th most important Celtic on the roster.
Shooting is a thumbtack, holding the defensive “string” taut. A team needs to have shooters at multiple places to “pin” the defense away from the hoop and ball handler. Fail to do that and the defense sags inward, blocking the path to the rim and giving slack to pull against you. In a modern NBA offense at least three of the four players without the ball must be able to shoot. Usually one of the bigs is that non-shooter. It’s almost always important for the wings to be able to shoot.
When Marcus Smart plays an off-ball position, that does not happen. The Celtics were full of players in recent years who either needed the ball or needed to not play as a traditional SF to survive. It was Smart who shouldered that burden, knowing it would hurt him.
As you can see in those tables above, that lack of shooting really hurt the Celtics and the units were worse than they would have been if Jae Crowder were out there. However, you can also see why Marcus was called up to do that job; the team was even worse when anyone else filled the role. Conversely, the team saw the most success when Crowder did for Smart what Smart does for everyone else: free him to be his best self.
Smart is the only remaining member of the 40-win 2014-2015 squad and the longest tenured Celtic. The Ship of Theseus has been stripped and all of its planks have been replaced, save the glorious hunk of hull who is actually about that life. With eleven new players, Brad Stevens has to figure out where he’s going to put the trusty piece he could always count on to plug a hole.
The 2017-2018 squad figures to have more shooting in more places than in the recent past. With a greater need for distribution it’s possible Marcus may get more time as playmaker with Hayward or Irving resting off-ball, or being deployed to pin the defense in space. If that happens, we could see a Smart who’s finally given a chance to flourish and might realize those impressive CARMELO projections. The last plank in the hull could become the figurehead on the front of the ship.
Of course, he’s still an incredible coach’s resource. If the young wings aren’t ready to play big, meaningful minutes, Brad might not have an answer besides plunging Marcus back below the water line. It would be tough for Smart’s already abridged development (and future earnings) but history tells us that it might help the team and save the more youthful players from being exposed.
The infusion of new talent makes the progression of Marcus Smart a leading indicator for the direction of the Boston Celtics. Will the youth begin to sprout, freeing Marcus, and leading into a half-decade of smooth sailing, or will Marcus again plug the holes that keep their ship from foundering?
I’m sure he would prefer the former, but I have no doubt he’ll accept the challenge if it ends up being the latter. No matter what, if you’re Marcus Smart, you help your team win. Come hell or high water.
Latest posts by Sam Sheehan (see all)
- The Ghost of Luxury Tax Future - February 5, 2018
- Does Isaiah Thomas Deserve a Tribute Video? - January 3, 2018
- What Can The Celtics Learn From a Half-Decade of Trade Wins? - December 8, 2017