Though it feels like Marcus Smart has been around forever, it’s easy to forget that the Boston Celtics off-ball guard only just turned 24 years old and is just now coming off his rookie contract.
Playing through first a hand injury and then a wrist ailment, the Oklahoma State product was only able to suit up in 54 games this past regular season, starting merely 11 contests in the process. Over those 54 outings, Smart was his usual self: an unbelievably tenacious defender with a crazy knack for coming up with every loose ball and making winning plays, as well as… a brutally inefficient scorer.
Though the 6-foot-4 2-guard did tie his career-high in shooting percentage, it really wasn’t much of an accomplishment considering the mark he tied was 36.7 percent.
Smart did also connect on the second-highest three-point total of his career, but, again, not saying much since he knocked down a porous 30.1 percent of his attempts from deep.
And yet, for the fourth year running, the Celtics were a better team with Smart on the floor as opposed to off it, outscoring opponents by five points per 100 possessions during Smart’s 1,616 minutes of game action.
His head coach, Brad Stevens, usually speaks about him in a glowing manner. Ditto for Smart’s general manager, Danny Ainge, a two-time NBA champion in his own right, who raved about the player’s “insane” hustle after his first action on the court following his latest six-week absence due to a wrist injury was to dive on the floor for a loose ball.
So, sure, there may be some bad you have to take with Smart, his shooting and finishing near the rim mostly, but overall, he does far more good than bad, and is definitely a player you want out there with the game on the line.
But because there is some bad involved with Smart, his upcoming restricted free agency will be a fascinating one to monitor, especially after factoring in the lack of cap space there will be league-wide.
Will the few teams with money to spend – mostly organizations in the midst of rebuilds – open up their checkbooks for the 24-year-old Smart? Or will it be the franchises with contention on their minds who go after Smart harder?
We break down Smart’s likeliest free-agent landing spots.
If there’s one team who’s shown a propensity for making big-time offers to good-but-not-great restricted free agents over recent years, it’s the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn signed the Portland Trail Blazers’ Allen Crabbe to a four-year, $75 million offer sheet, the Miami Heat’s Tyler Johnson to a four-year, $50 million offer sheet (both in the summer of 2016) and the Washington Wizards’ Otto Porter Jr to a four-year, $106 million offer sheet (during the 2017 offseason).
So if there’s any organization who could be considered a likely potential suitor for a restricted free agent like Smart, it’s the Nets.
Plus, the fact they’d be hurting a direct Eastern Conference rival and the team who swindled them in one of the most one-sided trades in recent league history probably gives them added motivation to make such a move, too.
The Nets going after Smart could negatively affect Boston in one of two ways: Either they give Smart a huge offer sheet and Boston passes on matching, thus forcing the Celtics to lose one of their most important players, or Boston matches a Smart offer sheet, and they wind up hampering their future cap flexibility in the process.
Landing Smart would give the Nets a fun, deep backcourt including D’Angelo Russell, Jeremy Lin, the underrated Spencer Dinwiddie and Smart, four ball-handlers with different but synergetic strengths.
It wouldn’t make them contenders or anything close, but it would make them a whole lot more competitive and entertaining to watch.
As far as the financials go, just estimating based on previous offer sheets the Nets have handed out, we could see them going as long as four years on a potential Smart deal, and as rich as $60 million, more than Johnson got and less than Crabbe – an elite outside shooter – received. They’ve got the cap space to fit Smart into their books this summer on a contract with an annual average value of $15 million.
An offer sheet of that size would make the Celtics think twice about matching, as they’ve got a lot of money already going to one guard (Kyrie Irving), and may have to shell out a lot more to make sure another (Terry Rozier) sticks around for the long haul.
San Antonio Spurs
Sometimes, a player’s fit with a team just makes too much sense. That’s the case with Smart and the San Antonio Spurs.
A lock-down defender who can aptly guard three positions, and one considered a clutch performer late in games, Smart would assimilate wonderfully in the culture bred by Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.
To have enough cap space to offer Smart a worthwhile contract, San Antonio would merely have to renounce the free-agent rights to Tony Parker, the club legend whose play really began to taper off last season.
That would take San Antonio from $98.5 million in active roster salaries to $75.3 million, and with the mid-level exception to offer Parker in case they want to try and re-sign him.
With the space opened up by renouncing the French floor general, the Spurs can sign Smart to something along the lines of a three-year, $40 million offer sheet, perhaps with a player option on Year-3.
That contract figure would likely make the Celtics at least think twice about letting Smart walk, since, as we’ve covered, they may have a surplus in their backcourt as it is next season.
If Boston passes on matching the Spurs’ theoretical offer to Smart, that would leave San Antonio with a 1 through 3 of Dejounte Murray, Smart and Kawhi Leonard (provided their rift with the superstar wing gets resolved this summer), one of the most tenacious backcourt-and-wing triumvirates in the league. It would also make San Antonio’s already-elite point-stopping prowess all the more mighty.
(In this scenario, the Spurs would be losing their incumbent shooting guard Danny Green, who has a player option on the final year of his deal and who has seen his role diminish with the team as his play has started to dip.)
Another interesting variable could be getting Smart under the tutelage of Spurs assistant Chip Engelland, the shot doctor credited with helping turn Leonard into an elite outside shooter. If Engelland could work similar magic with Smart, the 2-guard could become one of the most devastatingly effective two-way players in the Association.
Los Angeles Clippers
A team going through a rebuild while maintaining competitiveness, the Los Angeles Clippers would also make some sense as a Smart suitor.
For one, if DeAndre Jordan opts out of the final year of his contract, which many expect him to, and if Los Angeles renounces the free-agent rights to Avery Bradley, who they reportedly almost dealt at the 2018 trade deadline, the Clippers would be at $75.3 million in salaries this summer, a number that would give them the flexibility to make a competitive offer on a restricted free agent like Smart.
What’s more, considering Jerry West is in his 80s and Doc Rivers recently received a contract extension, it’s clear Los Angeles doesn’t plan on completely blowing things up anytime soon.
So why not go after a player like Smart, who seems to be the archetypical Rivers-West guy? He’s tough as nails, with an old-school, win-at-all-costs mentality that the two Clippers’ shot-callers would greatly appreciate.
Additionally, pairing Smart next to the ferocious Patrick Beverley would legitimately give Los Angeles the nastiest defensive backcourt in the league, a necessity if they want to be competitive in a Western Conference so stacked at the guard position.
Because the Clippers are somewhat between contention and rebuilding, they could decide to overpay Smart for two seasons; a two-year, $34 million deal could be enough to sway the Celtics into not matching and help L.A. acquire an underrated 2-guard.
The nature of the two-year deal would be beneficial to both parties: Smart gets well-compensated for two seasons and is able to test the market again in 2020, when the cap is projected to make another jump (from $101 million next year to $113.4 million in 2020-21), and when more teams will have money to spend, while the Clippers get to find out first-hand if they like the long-term fit with the current Celtic, and maintain the ability to get him off their books in two summers if things don’t work out.
The likeliest outcome for players coming off their rookie-scale deals and hitting restricted free agency is a return to the team that drafted them.
However, there’s reason to believe the situation between Smart and the Celtics may be different.
ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan spoke to Smart after Boston was ousted from the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he told the legendary sportswriter that Boston’s higher-ups mentioned to him they may not be able to match a big offer sheet, if he were to sign one (via ESPN):
“Marcus Smart walked out of the TD Garden, perhaps for the final time, lamenting squandered opportunities and wondering aloud whether he has played his last game as a Boston Celtic.
“Smart, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, was told that Boston might not be able — or willing — to afford the $12 million-$14 million a year price tag that he reportedly has been seeking.
“‘To be honest, I’m worth more than 12-14 million,’ Smart told ESPN. ‘Just for the things I do on the court that don’t show up on the stat sheet. You don’t find guys like that. I always leave everything on the court, every game. Tell me how many other players can say that.'”
In the report, MacMullan went on to mention the possibility of Smart accepting the qualifying offer for 2018-19, which would pay him just over $6 million next season and make him an unrestricted free agent in 2019. Of course, if he does that, it would greatly increase the possibility of the Celtics losing him for nothing next offseason, too.
Will the two sides be able to figure things out over the coming weeks? Would Boston really be willing to let the tough shooting guard walk, confident they can make up for his absence with Irving, Rozier and someone like Shane Larkin splitting the load? With how cap-space poor most of the league will be this summer, is a big-time offer sheet even coming for Smart, the player who shot so poorly in the playoffs (sub-36 percent), yet still made so many important plays that helped lead Boston all the way to within a game of the Finals?
Impossible to predict at the moment. And what’s worse, we may not have an answer to any of those questions for months, as restricted free agencies as tricky as Smart’s tend to drag on deep into the summer.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.