Love and trust: As the Celtics trade Marcus Smart, they must find a new identity

Every time Marcus Smart would get a fresh haircut, something seemed a little off. There was a little less green at the end of his curls. He was always going to notice at some point, get a new color job and all would be restored in the Celtics universe.

The green hair meant a lot to him. He embodied this franchise. He made “winning plays” a thing again here. Whatever the award was for hustle, leadership, community service or just playing defense, he won it.

In a blue-collar town that now puts up a shiny new glass tower every year, Smart reminded everyone what it meant to be Boston as he scrapped in the mud.

And yet for so long, this day seemed inevitable.

When Danny Ainge was in charge, Smart was always in trade talks. Every February, he would just shake his head, smile and say the NBA is a business. Even as the team he had given his blood, sweat and tears to explored, he moved him again at the deadline.

Then Brad Stevens, his coach throughout his career up until that point, took over the front office. Smart was finally handed the keys to the offense he had lamented. He won Defensive Player of the Year and helped propel the Celtics to the Finals. Although his defense suffered last year, he had a career high in assists per game and was the core of this team’s identity.

As this organization evolved over the years through tragedy, mutiny, triumph and failure, Smart was at the center of it all.

“I love him and I trust him,” Stevens famously said in November 2019.

Now he’s gone, traded to the Memphis Grizzlies just before midnight in a deal that will bring Kristaps Porziņģis and several first-round picks to Boston. It’s fitting that he ends up with another franchise that will adore him in a city that will revere him. Smart’s numbers are below average and he lost a step on defense last year, but anyone who has been around him knows his impact runs deeper.

He creates a culture and he lives it. Now the Celtics must step into a cold new world without their leader.

This was a trying night for a Celtics franchise looking to find a new identity in the wake of Ime Udoka’s firing. That team was rock solid, a defensive force led by DPOY Smart. Then there was Smart, who spent last season pleading with his team to find that hunger and urgency after it crashed out of the Finals.

Who will lead that charge now?

All day, the Celtics had to work to ensure that Porziņģis will be willing to sign an extension when he becomes eligible on July 6, which could pay him up to $77 million over two more years. They had to contend with the Clippers getting close to the finish line to acquire Malcolm Brogdon, then backing out late at night over concerns about his myriad health issues that have plagued his promising career. Boston had to find a new home for Danilo Gallinari, who goes to Washington without ever playing for the Celtics. They had to close the salary cap gap at the last second by adding Mike Muscala, for whom they paid two second-round picks at the deadline and then barely used.

But all that pales in comparison to moving on from Smart, the man Stevens has gone to bat with countless times during their nine years together.

This was him flopping his way to back-to-back charges on an MVP James Harden to win what was surely one of the most absurd finishes we’ve seen. He invented the stretch-6 position. He mastered the cobra attack.

He even dives for loose balls when he doesn’t even need to. He just loves hustlin’ and won the NBA’s award for it again last season.

When everyone knew the Jays weren’t passing the ball, he called them out. When the team got bored doing the little things needed to win, he told everyone to get together. He turned a table or two.

He embraced his role as a community leader and showed his face at courts and events around town as much as anyone. He had a secret operation to visit children with cancer and even started a new program to make their lives in the hospital a little easier.


How Marcus Smart’s support for cancer patients transformed children’s hospitals

Whether it’s his number 36 or a silhouette of his green curls, Smart’s essence should hang from the rafters one day. They built a defense around him. He took the shots and made the passes when no one else would. He was the engine, and every time the Celtics advanced, he led the charge.

Since it was Brogdon who departed earlier Wednesday, it was an easy move to understand. He was brought in as a luxury last season and did just that by coming off the bench and firing shots. He has been straightforward and reliable. Smart was everywhere, at times the best player on the floor and sometimes a turnover machine.

But you always knew he was going to make his mark on the game and do all sorts of things that other players just don’t do. Whether it was a spinning pass, a wild defensive rotation or a random and one out of nowhere, he just did things most athletes don’t think to do.

If you saw Smart, you could just see how unique he is. As Kara Lawson once said, he’s a player with texture. With Al Horford nearing retirement and Grant Williams potentially leaving in free agency, the Celtics have a lot of cookie-cutter players and not a lot of that roughness around the edges that creates that distinct texture.

Leadership questions aside, how does this team play without him? The entire switch defense has been predicated on his ability to guard anyone, anywhere, anytime. During the playoffs last year, he often guarded the weak side and played a gigantic one-man zone while his teammates switched. Now they will likely start Porziņģis and Rob Williams together, or maybe Williams will stay on the bench and Horford will start. Who knows? There is so much unknown at this point.

It can work on offense, as Porziņģis can stretch the floor and operate from the high post. But how do they defend themselves? Could they replicate the zone Cleveland thrives on in their twin tower lineup? Can they still switch across the board and drive in transition?

The Celtics wanted to clean up their backcourt, but now they don’t have a point guard who can really run the point. Brogdon is doing decently, but the Clippers walking away from the deal raises serious concerns about his elbow, which he hoped would not require surgery, and the many other lower-body injuries he battled through earlier in his career. Derrick White has been passable at times handling the ball, but he is not a sharp passer and acts like Smart.

Boston somehow managed to acquire both the best player in this deal and two first-round picks. They have the capital to keep making moves. If there’s one thing you can definitely say about Brad Stevens, Mike Zarren and this Celtics front office, it’s that they know how to make a big move at a good price. Compared to how the Wizards have butchered this rebuild to historic proportions — getting rid of their two best players and failing to even secure a first-round pick a year after Rudy Freaking Gobert went after five picks — the Celtics front office comes strongly.

But this is a bittersweet heartache. Porziņģis was a monster last year, and White can replicate at least some of what Smart does while shooting lights out. If Brogdon is healthy, or whoever they get if they package him and more first-timers in the coming weeks, the backcourt still works. The big question is, does the culture still work and does it really matter?

It did for the last few iterations of this team, but now they have another dynamo scorer who can rule the skies on both ends. They have two elite lob threats and just need someone to feed them.

There are tons of problems to solve, but their chief solver is gone. It’s all on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s all on Joe Mazzulla and his beefed-up staff.

The OGs are fading and the new generation has to be more than just the talent. They have to be the heart and soul now that Smart is gone.

Smart dyed his hair green. He braided the Celtics shamrock into his hair. He loved this city and this city loved him. But at the end of the day, it’s a business.

Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, they all either played the game or the game played them. Smart somehow survived it all longer than anyone else. But in the end, the company gets everyone. All you can do is keep smiling and move on.

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(Photo by Marcus Smart: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

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