Gary Payton knows defense. After all, you don’t get the nickname “The Glove” in the NBA because you’re warm and cozy.
Over his 17-year NBA career, which included a one-season stint with Boston in 2004-05, the 6-foot-4 point guard was selected to the All-Defensive first team nine straight times (1994 to 2002) and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1996.
Payton’s 2,445 career steals rank fourth all-time — just behind three scrubs named John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Michael Jordan — and his 48.85 defensive win shares is 52nd best. If 52nd place doesn’t sound that impressive, keep in mind that of all the players in front of Payton, only 12 are not current or presumptive Hall of Famers. (Payton was inducted in 2013.)
ALL the latest Celtics news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Celtics newsletter here!
So when Payton was asked, during a recent AMA session with Bleacher Report, what player today most resembles his style, his answer should be taken as high praise: Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart.
“That’s kind of hard. I’d say nobody,” first replied the famously self-confident Payton. “But a guy like Marcus Smart does a great job on defense [and] he’s starting to pick up his offense. My game was usually in the block. (Patrick) Beverley as well, he plays the defensive side. The only guy that can play 1-on-1 like me is Marcus Smart on being a defender.”
It’s not the first time Payton has envisioned going head-to-head with Smart. On an April 2020 episode of “All the Smoke,” the notorious trash-talker was asked who he would most like to go 1-on-1 against.
“Marcus Smart from Boston,” Payton said with a smile. “I wanna go at him, man. He has a little dog [in him]. I think me and him might have a real good battle, man.”
Marcus Smart To Return Soon
To the great relief of Boston fans everywhere, Smart and his defensive intensity (his “dog”) are expected to return to the Celtics’ lineup this week after being sidelined with a calf strain in January.
In the 18 games since Smart went down, the Celtics are 9-9, and their defensive rating, which was 108.9 at the time of his injury, has risen to 111.7. (The higher the number the worse the rating.) The Celtics were also averaging 9.1 steals before Smart’s injury, second-best in the league. But now they are 12th at 7.9.
The Celtics, though, haven’t missed Smart only on the defensive end. Before going down, the Oklahoma State product was putting up career numbers in points (13.1) and assists (6.1), and his 39.4% on field goals was second only to his 2018-19 season and two percentage points higher than his career average.
All of which is to say, despite their current four-game winning streak, Boston will greet Smart’s return with open arms. No more so than Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
“He’s a really good player on both ends of the court,” Stevens told reporters on February 17. “He moves the ball, he’s our leader in assists on our team, he’s obviously capable of scoring the ball and he’s one of the game’s really good perimeter defenders. So obviously when you are missing a guy like that you’re going to be missing something.”
‘I Got a Surprise For a Lot of People’
Payton, meanwhile, is looking to make his own sort of return to the league — this time as a coach. Last week, prior to All-Star weekend (during which Payton, in conjunction with Mountain Dew, surprised two student-athletes from historically black colleges with $100,000 in scholarships) Payton told Sean Deveney that he is now “ready to coach.”
“I got a surprise coming for a lot of people pretty soon,” Payton told Deveney. “I don’t want to announce it right now, but you’ll see it pretty soon in the next couple of weeks. I hope everybody will be excited about it.”
Payton could be joining the Atlanta Hawks to serve as a mentor to third-year superstar Trae Young. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the high-scoring Young is known to be an atrocious defender.) If Payton joins the Hawks, he’ll be reunited with his former teammate and good friend Nate McMillian, who became Atlanta’s head coach following the dismissal of Lloyd Pierce on March 1.
Payton, according to Deveney, could also end up in Detroit to work under head coach Dwane Casey, who was an assistant coach for the Seattle Supersonics in the 1990s when Payton was the team’s star point guard. In Detroit, Payton would presumably be asked to help with the growth of a talented but raw young roster.