Is Marcus Smart to Blame for the Celtics’ Pace Problems?

It’s no secret that the Celtics have had trouble with consistency and finding any sort of real rhythm. This was a problem long before this year. Many criticized Brad Stevens last season, saying his offense looked basic. It lacked movement and favored isolation play far too much. Most of us hoped to see that change this year with new coach Ime Udoka taking over the team, the results have been more or less congruent with the 2020-21 season. 

A big critique is that the team plays slowly. Despite being a leader in possessions per game, the team is in the bottom half of the league in pace once the numbers are adjusted back to per 48 minutes. Less than 15% of plays begin with transition, only 52% of the teams steals lead to transition. This means that there is a clear mentality to keep things moving slowly. In fact, Dennis Schroder has rolled the ball through the back court to save time more than anyone I can remember this year. 

All this wouldn’t be totally awful if the offense was actually clicking. Jayson Tatum, the team’s best scorer, isn’t shooting well or scoring efficiently. (Actually league wide shooting is down this year, a subject which bares its own variety of theories.) Jaylen Brown has been inconsistent, and is dealing with injury. But overall, with how things have looked, it’s reasonable to say that the team just really doesn’t have an effective point guard. Someone who should push the pace and keep the team moving. 

Last year, even though he missed considerable time, Kemba Walker had positive on the court numbers. His presence, scoring, and pace affected things, if only a little bit everywhere. Pace specifically can be isolated given that the team’s transition play increased with Kemba on the court (+0.7%) versus this year where it decreases with Marcus Smart on the court (-0.4%). The difference seems negligible but that is good for at least one more possession a game, and for a team that keeps going into overtime, one possession could make a big difference. 

The surprising thing is that last season Marcus actually affected transition play more than Walker did (+1.3%). That makes sense, given that Marcus wasn’t asked to be the starting point guard last year. He was only even asked to start 45 games and only about 17 of those were at point guard. Ideally, Marcus Smart is not who you want as the starting point guard. This may be somewhat unsurprising but fans may be slightly caught off guard by just how poorly he’s taken to the role. Frankly, it just doesn’t suit him. Marcus is much better coming off the bench, back into the role that Dennis Schroder now fills. The Celtics need someone different starting at point.

They need someone who can inject offense on their own, but also push pace and keep the ball moving. For this, the Celtics should target De’arron Fox. Fox has had a few quality years in Sacramento but could become available soon. The Kings recently drafted another guard in Davion Mitchell and could move on from Fox given Mitchell’s early success, in addition to Tyrese Haliburton’s stellar play and Fox’s expensive price tag.

Fox is known for his speed, and could easily change this offense overnight. He’s still a very young player and would benefit from a change to a winning organization. Last year, he averaged a career high 25 points. He’s had a positive impact on pace every year of his career except last year. He is known for attacking the basket which would leave Jaylen and Jayson room to operate in the perimeter. He fits the Celtics time table and could be just the shift this team’s needs. 

Granted, Fox is expensive, but finding a way to get him to Boston could be the perfect way for the Celtics to get off some dragging salaries and have three young stars moving forward. A trade couldn’t happen until January, because of trade eligible contracts. The thing to watch in the meantime will be Sacramento and how its young talent vibes together in addition to whether Fox’s play this year continues to disappoint, allowing Boston to swoop in with an offer.

(Photo: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY-Sports)

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