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June 22, 2023

How Celtics' Marcus Smart trade impacts the Sixers

The Celtics traded former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to the Grizzles. How does it affect the Sixers?

After a three-way trade between the Celtics, Wizards, and Clippers fell apart in the late stages on Wednesday evening, Boston found a way to get a Kristaps Porzingis deal over the line. It came at a significant cost — Boston guard Marcus Smart is now a member of the Grizzlies, and the team's core has been fundamentally altered.

Though it feels like more is to come for this Boston group, here are some scattered thoughts on what this means for the Sixers, who can never escape the glare of their rivals to the north.

A thorn out of Philly's side

I have long been amused by the dichotomy of Marcus Smart, lauded as one of the league's toughest and grittiest players who has at least 2-3 moments per game where it looks like a sniper has taken him out from the rafters of TD Garden. But that willingness to sell out and do whatever it might take to help his team win is precisely why he was able to contribute to a lot of winning.

Smart is the type of tone-setting player that it has often felt like the Sixers have needed, because he's the type of player every good team wants on the roster. He's a below-average shooter but doesn't show any fear of the big moment or another miss on the stat line if the ball swings his way. His defensive versatility is excellent due in part to the mental side of the game, where he can be heard screaming and diagnosing as he tells his team what the opponent is going to run before they run it. There are theatrics, sure, but they are only impactful because of everything else Smart does, filling in the blanks around higher-usage players to help support them. And playing fewer games against Smart has to bring some relief to the Sixers, who have been punished by his do-what-it-takes approach perhaps more than any team in the league.

The Celtics didn't simply give Smart away, and most analysis of this trade has declared them the decisive winner because they came away with multiple picks, though it will be interesting to see just how big of a loss Smart is on and off the floor. Boston has been, for lack of better words here, a dubious vibes team at times in recent seasons. From all accounts, Smart was one of the players who provided stability to help them battle out of tough situations, whether that was with off-court leadership or resilience on the floor. There could be more to this than meets the eye, and maybe changing out a few voices will end up being good for the Celtics' core. 

But it's a trade with some risk, certainly — the Celtics do not have a single plus passer on the roster as of this writing, and could very easily end up in isolation hell if they don't fix that problem. As of now, this trade puts a lot on the plate of a guy like Derrick White, who will need to pick up the slack as a table-setter despite being limited in that area. It's either that, or the Celtics will become even more star-reliant than ever before, and that means a lot of pressure on Jaylen Brown to create for others in the halfcourt. That sort of sounds like a win for teams playing the Celtics, at least for now.

(By the way — if you thought Memphis was a team that was annoying for Joel Embiid to play against before, man, they go up another level or two now. Marcus Smart AND Steven Adams AND Jaren Jackson Jr. are basically the fun police.)

A different spin on double-big lineups

The Celtics waited until Game 6 of the second round to go back to their double-big lineup against Philadelphia and managed to completely swing that series with the lineup change. On first glance, this feels like a double-down on that style of lineup, giving Boston more options to turn to even if they were to further alter the roster this summer.

While Al Horford used his usual magic against Joel Embiid eventually, one thing that seemed clear throughout last season was the physical decline for Boston's starting big man. The same guile and craft were there, but teams that could spread Boston out and force Horford to play in space more often could find soft spots in the Celtics' defense. Enter Kristaps Porzingis, who is coming off a quietly excellent season in D.C. "If you have a good year but it happens for the Wizards, does it make a sound?" might as well be the NBA analogy for a tree falling in the forest.

In recent years, Porzingis has moved away from the multi-positional role that he had for most of his career, with the Latvian big spending basically every minute of last season at center for the Wizards. With the league's shift over his seven seasons in the NBA, it has become more palatable to play a skinnier big at the pivot if they can offset their limitations as a body-to-body defender, and Porzingis certainly can. He's an elite floor spacer for a center, coming off a year where he made 38.5 percent of his threes on 5.5 attempts per game, and he ranked in the top 10 in blocks per game last season, sitting right behind Joel Embiid in the eighth spot.

Skepticism of the Horford/Robert Williams III frontcourt ended up being unfounded last year, though Porzingis' arrival allows the Celtics to consider trying a rangier, spacing friendly version of the two-big looks. If we assume they go into next year with all three guys, the Celtics can all three iterations of that combo (Horford/Porzingis, Horford/Williams, and Williams/Porzingis) to test the different benefits of each. All three players would seem to benefit from cutting down on some wear-and-tear in the regular season, which this trade helps Boston accomplish by spreading the minutes out between three players rather than two.

If you're a divisional rival like the Sixers, that all sounds like a pain in the ass to deal with. Boston being able to play bigger for longer without compromising their ability to stretch you out on offense is bad news. The Sixers were able to find success using Embiid to roam off Williams at times last season, which the Celtics can now counter by sticking Porzingis in his spot, daring teams to help off a very good shooter while still holding onto secondary rim protection and elite frontcourt size.

Porzingis' switch to full-time center suggests those configurations will be exploitable, certainly, so time will tell if this is a true difference-making move. But Boston leaning into and bolstering this part of their identity is interesting to say the least.

Setting up for an even bigger trade

It feels like this component of the deal is flying way under the radar because the Celtics traded a long-tenured, high-visibility player. Boston's roster is a bit funky at the moment, but they have a lot of available picks to trade and sort of a glaring need for an actual playmaker. I'm not sitting here today saying, "They're trading for Damian Lillard," but doesn't that feel like someone who helps fill in the blanks here?

The Celtics have a decent amount of first-round picks at their disposal — they owe this year's first (No. 29) to Indiana and a potential swap to the Spurs in 2028, but they are otherwise in control of their destiny when it comes to first-round picks. They have a big and obvious trade centerpiece if they were to decide Jaylen Brown on a supermax deal is no longer a building block. They also have productive role players on decent contracts to use as sweeteners, albeit with one less of those now that Smart is a member of the Grizzlies.

I am not convinced the dust has settled here, and I would be more fearful of the next move than this specific move if I were the Sixers. The Celtics have a young, genuine star in Jayson Tatum to build around and attract players who want to win now, and they have the ammo to get a guy who feels the urgency to win if they need to pry him loose with a trade. 

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