Marcus Smart’s addition to the Memphis Grizzlies is one the NBA franchise hopes will take it to the top of a loaded Western Conference.
Smart’s shooting, defense, playmaking and leadership qualities have all been discussed since the Grizzlies acquired the nine-year veteran in a three-team deal last week. He’s one of the most versatile guards in the NBA, but now Memphis is tasked with figuring out how to best utilize him.
Yes Morant and Desmond Bane make up one of the league’s best backcourts. With Dillon Brooks not likely to return, there is an opening at small forward, but Smart has never been a starting small forward in his NBA career.
Maybe it’s time to get unconventional. Smart replaces Brooks’ wing defense and Tyus Jones, who was part of the trade, as another backup point guard. In a way, the Grizzlies got two of their biggest needs through one player.
CA: Marcus Smart is 6-3, but he has a 6-9 wingspan. Can Smart hold its own against bigger attackers?
BM: He can. However, it depends on his health. Smart’s defense took a hit during his All-Defense status in 2021 and 2023 as he played through injuries. He entered the postseason healthier and fared well against players as big as Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo. Strength never challenges Smart. His tough matchups come when he faces some of the faster, speedy downhillers like Jamal Murray and De’Aaron Fox.
ST: In the Eastern Conference semifinals, there were more than a few possessions where the Celtics had Marcus on Joel Embiid. It was like the game plan. Marcus is strong enough and as you said with the wing catch, he will hold up against these wings. I think the thing about Marcus is that he was a DPOY for a reason. He will bring the cohesiveness with the Grizzlies and that will be a very good fit for Jaren. As for holding up against bigger players, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. He has shown that he can hold up against these big wings.
CA: Smart missed 21 games this season. How did injuries negatively affect his defense?
ST: I wouldn’t say he’s fragile by any means, but he gets beat up all the time because he dives on the floor and does all these things. I think, as he described it in March, you hesitate a little when your shoulders or ankles are turned up. You want Marcus to be 100% healthy, but there will be times when Marcus is questionable on the injury report or sprained his ankle in the middle of the game and then he’ll make three plays where you’re like, ‘How’s that going with this man on a sprained ankle doing this?’
TEAMMATIC APPROVAL:Desmond Bane thrilled with Marcus Smart trade to Grizzlies: ‘You’re going to love him’
CA: Smart is so versatile to the point that many people have no idea where he will play in Memphis on the ball, shooting guard, small forward or whatever. What was the best version of Marcus in Boston?
BM: Marcus Smart plays best on the ball. One of the many Smart debates that made him the most divisive Celtics player in recent history among the fan base was whether he qualified as a ‘real’ point guard. I have always found his passing hugely underrated. He sees the floor well in transition after rebounds and pushes the tempo. In the half court, he ran the pick-and-roll well and found Robert Williams with lob passes more often than any of his teammates. Smart and Jayson Tatum ran a two-man game and the occasional pick-and-roll that effectively took Tatum off the ball. He also takes risks as a passer, likely the source of that anxiety, and doesn’t create the weight some of the league’s best guards do because of his streakiness as a spot-up shooter.
CA: How is Smart in the dressing room? Can he be trusted as a leader in Memphis?
BM: That’s what made the trade so easy from the Grizzlies’ perspective. Smart becomes the most experienced, winning and intense personality in the room. He speaks his mind, calls out teammates and leads by example with his hustle on the floor. On a Memphis team more centered around that style, I think he’ll slide comfortably into that leadership role. It didn’t always work in Boston. Earlier in his career, he came off the bench behind Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker in roles that made his leadership approach secondary to the stars on the team. As those players left, Smart raised his voice. Many will remember his locker room clashes with teammates from the bubble. He constantly challenged Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in ways that sometimes made them roll their eyes, and more recently they embraced. Both players spoke fondly of him when he left, though his interchangeable skills made it difficult to maintain that leadership.
CA: What should Grizzlies fans expect from Smart?
BM: Many compared this move to Memphis acquiring Tony Allen over a decade ago and instantly changing the team’s culture. Adding Smart could potentially mirror this move, with a more diverse skill set that could arguably impact the team more on the field. For those reading this who missed it, many who followed the reaction of Celtics fans to moving Smart could not believe how distraught many in Boston reacted to the surprising news. I’d say more fans than not loved, trusted and expected Smart to play in a Celtics uniform for his entire career or at least win a championship with them. It stemmed from consistent winning and playoff appearances since the day he arrived, probably more than 100 busy games that defined memorable games over nine years and a personality bright enough to light up a city.
ST: Marcus Smart is a playoff player. When the stakes are high, he appears. Like Game 6 (facing elimination) against the Sixers on the road when Jayson Tatum was awful, the only reason the Celtics were in that game was because of Marcus Smart. He’s a playoff guy, but that’s the elusive Marcus. Counting stats aren’t always great and he’ll frustrate you, but he’ll show up at the end of the day on both ends of the court.