Defensive Player of the Year? Celtics’ Marcus Smart Knows Where He Stands

Boston guard Marcus Smart, defending Lakers big man Anthony Davis

Getty Boston guard Marcus Smart, defending Lakers big man Anthony Davis

It has been 24 years since a guard won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, when Sonics point guard Gary Payton won the prize. Before that, the previous guard to win it was Michael Jordan in 1988. Retired Heat star Dwyane Wade thinks that should change. And the Celtics’  Marcus Smart should change it.

“Listen, I know that this award is normally a big man’s award … but this year, we need to get back to the Gary Paytons of the world, the Michael Jordans of the world, where guards get the Defensive Player of the Year award,” Wade said on TNT this week, according to reporter Taylor Snow.

Certainly, it would be a fitting reward for a guy whose defensive edge has helped define the Celtics over the last half-decade or so. Smart is a Celtics captain and that has nothing to do with his ability to score or his potential to be an All-Star—it’s for his defensive effort and the tone he set on that end of the floor.

His teammates agree with Wade.

Asked in January if Smart deserved DPOY consideration, Kemba Walker said, “No question. He’s been special. He’s been special this year. I don’t know if there’s many other guys better than him this year.”

Smart’s consistent play on the ball and harassing opponents’ leading scorers, no matter their position, is where he makes his mark. But the highlight defensive plays he has come up with—especially when he blocks the shot of much bigger players—help bring attention to his cause.

Wade cited this one from Tuesday night, when Smart (who is listed at 6-3) went up and rejected 6-11 Nets center Jarrett Allen at the rim. Smart added the Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag to punctuate the play.

“What Marcus Smart has done,” Wade said, “I mean you saw him tonight when he met [Allen] at the rim, I mean he’s fearless. And it’s not just the blocks, it’s the hustle. It’s the diving on the floor for the ball, it’s the switching one through five that the guy does. So I think he deserves more credit.”

Smart has Rejected Big Guys This Season

Earlier this year, Jaylen Brown cited a similar block on Miami’s Bam Adebayo (who is 6-9).

“Bam Adebayo, goes up to try to dunk one on top of Smart, and Smart meets him up there,” Brown said, “and gets likes the cleanest block I’ve ever seen. It was just like a great example of elite athleticism. I wasn’t expecting Marcus to come out victorious in that situation and he did. Most people wouldn’t jump. Like the dude’s name is Bam. Who’s going to jump with a dude named Bam, right? Marcus went up top with him, and came out on top.”

Marcus Smart is a Longshot for Defensive Player of the Year

But make no mistake, Smart’s candidacy for Defensive Player of the year faces a steep uphill climb. Smart is not among the list of favorites to win the award, which is headlined by Anthony Davis of the Lakers, followed by Giannis Antetokounmpo. Utah center Rudy Gobert is the other primary favorite to win it. Those players are all 6-10 or bigger and past votes show, one of them will be the winner.

Smart is a +5,000 underdog for DPOY.

It’s not just history that is the enemy here, though. It’s the lack of defensive numbers that truly explain Smart’s value. Smart averages 1.7 steals and 0.5 blocks, which are decent enough numbers, but voters for DPOY have long given up on blocks and steals as indicators of defensive effectiveness.

Defensive efficiency—the number of points the team allows per 100 possessions when the player is on the floor—is a somewhat better indicator, but it reflects the ability of the other four defenders on the floor, too. Smart ranks eighth on the Celtics in individual defensive efficiency, at 104.3 points. Obviously, he ranks higher than eighth on the Celtics defensively.

There is also a measure called Defensive Real Plus/Minus, which measures a player’s average impact on the score on the defensive end. Again, that is still dependent on teammates. For Smart, that number is 1.16, which is 32nd in the league. The top guard in the league is the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley, who is second at 2.36. Beverley has also complained that DPOY is too often a big man’s award.

Smart feels his pain. And despite Wade’s entreaties, Smart’s chances at winning Defensive Player of the Year are very slender.

“Bigs, they do a lot,” Smart said earlier this year. “I’m not taking anything away from the bigs but when you’ve got a guard who is guarding 1 through 5, and the way I play bigger than a guard. I think they just see the blocks or things like that, they don’t see all the other little things. You don’t see a big running and diving on the floor like you see me as a guard. You don’t see a big getting out there guarding a 1 like I’m guarding a 5. You don’t see bigs doing all the little things that I’m doing.”

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