A conversation with Boston Celtics culture-setter Marcus Smart, the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year

·16-min read

No NBA team shifted its energy more than the Boston Celtics last season, and nobody shifts their energy better than Marcus Smart, which makes the eight-year veteran a uniquely impactful player in the league.

Yet, he never gets his due. Critics clamored all of last season for a traditional starting point guard to corral Boston's offense, even though, as Smart has said, he managed to steer the Celtics further than his All-Star predecessors — Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker — ever did. Even Smart's Defensive Player of the Year award drew criticism. People say he shoots too much or gambles too much or flops too much.

For as fiery as Smart is on the court, he is as thoughtful off of it, which is why, when the opportunity arose to sit down with him for an uninterrupted discussion, I thought it was worth letting him tell his own story.

We talked about everything from Boston's loss in the NBA Finals to the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, the latest trade rumors concerning Kevin Durant, the growth of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, his relationship with late Celtics legend Bill Russell, his recent charity work with Be The Match and ... yes, his passion for robes.

Marcus Smart is the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics and the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Marcus Smart is the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics and the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

I asked around about what I should ask you, and one of your former coaches said you have a better handle on the opponent's key actions and tendencies even before the staff presents the pregame scout. How do you have such a great understanding of the other teams and players in the NBA?

"Simple. Before we come together as a team and watch film, I'm watching film and tendencies. I'm looking at my matchup of who I could possibly guard. For me, unfortunately, I'm guarding every position, so that's a lot more work for me. Some guys I'm matched up on as I'm their primary defender. I'm going to see his favorite move, his favorite go-to move and his favorite counter for that go-to move, so I'm reading the tendency of guys before we even get together as a group. By the time we even come up with a scheme, I've already got in my head, when they do put the scheme together, how things are going to work."

There are a few way teams can respond to getting so close to a championship. Most teams over the past 20 years that didn’t have LeBron James failed to get back to the Finals after a loss, with one notable exception: the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs. Your coach, Ime Udoka, was an assistant on that team. What are your conversations like around coming back with a vengeance, and how do you avoid the trappings of the emotional letdown from everything you went experienced last year?

"You just kind of focus on the things that you can control. That's one of the things that helps us with not falling into that trap of the expectations. Let the outside noise be outside noise, and let them talk. We're inside the house, in our home, which is the Garden and every basketball arena. Everything else is outside. It's not getting in to hurt you. Focus on what you can control, and that's playing hard for your teammates and leaving it all on the court. That allows you to stay away from those traps of the expectations.

"Because you're human. It's tough, especially nowadays. You've got social media. You've got every outlet popping up at you and showing you everything and constantly throwing it in your face, so definitely being able to just focus on what you can control and allowing that to motivate you to continue to keep going."

Your 2018-19 team was coming off a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals. Expectations were super high, but there was a bit of a chemistry imbalance, if only because you had so much talent on that roster. You had Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and yourself all battling for minutes. This year, you’ve added Malcolm Brogdon to a backcourt that already includes you, Derrick White and Payton Pritchard. What have you taken from your past experiences that you can apply to this year in order to avoid the negativity that can naturally find its way into those crowded roster situations?

"Kyrie, Terry, you named some good guys. Payton, Brogdon, all those guys, man. For us, it's more making sure we build that chemistry early on. When you've got a new group of guys, it's hard to build chemistry without spending time together and just being thrown into the fire. You have to build chemistry on the go.

"We've got great guys, we've got great players — and we had great guys, we had great players — but the difference now is we have more experience with each other. Me and Jayson and Jaylen, we've played four or five years together now, whereas at that time it was two, along with trying to develop yourself, as well as trying to do something for the team, alongside learning from guys who have already developed. There was a lot going into it, so we have to build that chemistry before we get on the court. That's what we have to do this year. We know who we have coming. We know who we have here. We know who left. We can build that chemistry now, instead of waiting until Game 3 or Game 4, trying to build the chemistry during the season."

Your name comes up every year in trade rumors. Same with Jaylen. Obviously, that’s part of the business, and I don't want to ask the cliche about how that makes you feel, so let me ask it this way: How difficult do you think it would be for the Celtics to reset the chemistry you guys have built if the front office were to fundamentally change the core group of guys you’ve built this foundation with?

"We experienced it this year. Everybody's seen how tough it really is to bring a new set of people in, who's also trying to prove themselves, to a certain extent, and produce for the team. We witnessed this past season how we handled that, where we're losing to teams we shouldn't be losing to. Nothing against those teams. It's just that we shouldn't have been losing. We're losing leads to the point where everybody's freaking out. We're under .500, and I think that right there tells you how difficult it is to get chemistry going when you have a new anything. We had a new coach and a new group of players and a new system to put in on both offense and defense, so of course nothing was going to go right for us right away.

"If we didn't have everybody, then we'd have to start this whole process over again from square one. What does this person like? OK, he doesn't like this. We'd be in the same situation, where we're using games to get our experience with each other, because there's nothing you can simulate better than a game itself."

I’m curious what you make of Draymond Green. He had a lot to say after the Finals, and I think you two have different personalities, but I mean this as a compliment when I say that you remind me of each other in the sense that you are the culture-setters for your teams. How does that sit with you?

"Guys like Draymond and myself, we're the guys who are going to do the dirty work, so that other players don't have to. I think that shows our character, where we're willing to sacrifice our health, our bodies, mentally, physically, however you want to do it, to make sure that our team and teammates succeed.

"I take it as a compliment. Draymond is very well-respected, rightfully so. His accolades and his play speaks for itself. He's a champion among champions, and he's that leader on their team. Vocally, emotionally, physically, he's the one who gets guys going. He's the one who guys follow when the energy needs to be shifted. It's rare. There's not a lot of people who have it, but the guys who do, you see the similarities in it, and when you see it, you can tell: That's that, I've seen that before. I don't see it a lot, but I've seen it, and that's who we are. We don't have to score 50 points to change the game and be effective.

Are there other guys across the league who you would put in that category?

"I haven't had the chance to talk to him yet, but Mikal Bridges. He was in the running, as well, for DPOY. If I didn't get it, I definitely would have voted for him to get it. He's another guy. Offensively, we know what he can do, but the things he's able to do for that Phoenix Suns team on the defensive end just speaks volumes. He doesn't have to say much, but he goes out there and proves it with the way he plays. Although he might not be as vocal as me and Draymond, he still has those attributes and similarities where we're going to go out there and do the dirty work and fight to help our team win, no matter what that is."

Much was made about the discrepancy in Finals experience between you guys and the Warriors, even though you guys have a ton of playoff experience for a relatively young team. From an outsider’s perspective, I felt like one thing that took on a greater meaning in the Finals was the importance of valuing every single possession, because that’s how razor thin the line is between winning and losing at that level. Do you think that’s something that failed you guys a little bit, and how do you go about getting to that level of focus on the little things as a team going forward?

"I would have to say that assessment, to a certain extent, is true and holds value. They were the more experienced team. Golden State was a lot more experienced. We have a lot of combined experience as well. Al [Horford]'s been in the playoffs for how long? I've been in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Jayson, Jaylen, we have experience playing in the playoffs. Now, Finals experience is different. We were trying so hard to prove to others and ourselves that we belonged there, we just let it slip away from us mentally.

"Having tasted that experience, now coming back to the situation, things are slowing down for us, because it's like, We've gone through that before. I know how we handled it, and this is what the outcome was, so maybe I shouldn't handle it that way. In terms of their experience, that aspect is definitely true, because every situation we threw at them, they've been in, so they knew how to react to it, whereas it might've taken us a game, a half, a few quarters to try to figure it out, and by that time they're running off with it.

"Coming into this season, it's definitely going to help us tremendously, because now we know what to expect, how to expect it, and we know how to look at it. Although we lost — and we don't want to look at it that way — they definitely taught us something, and we'll take it and run with it."

You’ve seen so much growth from Jayson and Jaylen. What do you envision from them individually over the next couple years, and how do you see them growing together as a tandem, based on what you know about their goals, their relationship and all that goes into trying to reach that next level?

"I guess I'm more biased, and I have known them a little bit more, but each and every year they have grown and they have showed us something new that they've added and continued to add to their game. For their future, I only think it's going to increase. They're only going to get wiser and understand the game even more, and I think once they do that, they become even more dangerous than they already are. They're only 24, 25 — these are relatively very young guys who are already here, but can go even higher, so I'm ecstatic and intrigued to see how much they have learned, how much growth they've made and to continue to see them get better individually. And I know as they continue to grow individually, the team will as well."

You are among the few players who can probably say they have legitimately spent time guarding everyone across the NBA. So, let me ask you this: As someone who can switch across all five positions, would you rather spend a possession guarding a Joel Embiid or a Stephen Curry?

Oh, man. That's a tough one. I don't know. I guess it depends on the time of the game and how long I have to guard them. They're unique in different ways, but they can both hurt you in multiple ways. That's a tough one. There's no easy answer with that one. Whoever you get, you're going to wish you didn't have him."

On a more serious note, what was your relationship with Bill Russell, and what did he mean to you?

I didn't know him too well personally. I was able to talk to him a couple times when he was here. I got to watch some old film that we had. But what he went through and sacrificed for us in the time that he was playing, and especially in this city around that time, to be able to say, 'You know what, I'm going to take the pain and the burden to open the doors for our younger generations to have an opportunity more equally than what I had,' he means so much to us in this game and to the African American community and people of color. At the time, it was very, very ugly. It still is ugly to this day, but back then it was a different type of ugly, and he decided he was going to take a stand by continuing to fight and paving that way for us."

You're here because you've joined with Aflac and Be The Match to encourage everyone to consider swabbing their cheek and joining the national blood stem cell registry. Obviously, this is something that hits home for you. Can you tell me a little bit more about this program and what it means to you?

"I got started with this, because what they do, what they've been doing for years, is providing care and helping patients from lower income who don't have the financial means to help with what they're going through. A lot of the work they do is some of the greatest I can think of, because they're giving back to people who they have no idea who they are, and that says everything you need to know about them.

"Be The Match is doing everything they can — keeping people educated, explaining why we should be a donor, join the registry and really help kids, adults or whoever is going through these blood diseases, such as sickle cell, to say, 'You know what? Here's an option for you that we might have to save your life.'

"The only way for people who are going through some of these cancers and blood diseases to survive is with this transplant, so to have donors in the registry and give people options to save their lives is why I decided to work with Aflac and Be The Match. It hits home with me. I lost my mother [Camellia] to bone marrow cancer four years ago and my brother [Todd Westbrook] about 15 years ago to lung cancer, so when I did more research and continued to educate myself, this was the perfect match, and now I'm here trying to raise awareness for cancer, for sickle cell, for blood diseases, and begging people to get out there, register and become a donor. It's easy. It's simple. Swab your cheek and possibly save somebody else."

What kind of emotions were running through you during last year’s run to the Finals and these last several years of your career. At the very least, I think you can feel some sense of positivity knowing that they would be so proud of you, but not being able to share that with them must be difficult.

"It's tough. It is tough without having my mom and brother here to share it with, but growing up to where I am now, they made so many sacrifices in the time that they were here with us to give me an opportunity to live my dream. It hurt after we won the Eastern Conference finals. I cried at one point to my team for maybe about 10 minutes, and then cried on my own, talking to my mom and my brother, wishing they were here and understanding that they're looking down on me, and they're smiling. I know they're just as proud now than ever. There were a lot of emotions going through my head, my heart, but the one that I focused on was how happy my mom and my brother would be to see me on the biggest stage of my life right now."

Let's end on a lighter note. What's up with the robes this year? You already broke out the DPOY one. Is there anything you can do to top that?

I've got some new robes I might have to get to. I'm going to sporadically throw them into the season."

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach